Image enhanced from original by Jan Svankmeyer
– by B. T. Newberg
The world begins to hum.
That is how I felt today as I cruised along the Midtown Greenway on my bicycle in the midst of an afternoon drizzle. In such rain I could have been huddled with teeth gritted; instead, I felt relaxed and open. It wasn’t that I was ecstatic, nor oblivious of the world. I just felt at one with experience. Colors were a bit more vivid and sounds a tad more full. I’d felt it before, on Buddhist retreats and at times when I felt “in the zone.” D. T. Suzuki was once asked what it was like to experience satori, or enlightenment. He responded, “Just like everyday ordinary experience, but two inches off the ground.” Now, I’m not about to compare my experience to enlightenment – whatever that might mean. But it’s true that there is a different quality of experience that manifests at times of high spiritual functioning. The world begins to hum.
Today I’m going to talk about socialization. It’s a topic of some controversy in retreats, and one I’ve been looking forward to all week.
The typical meditation retreat cuts off socialization, save for others going through the same experience. All the social crutches are taken away, so that nothing remains to keep you from facing yourself. A total break is made from the world of daily routine. There is value in this, to be sure. Yet, it’s a double-edged sword. Although great insight can be gained, one does not learn how to maintain that insight in a social environment. At the end of the retreat, one goes back into the social world and quickly slips back into old habits. If, on the other hand, insight is achieved in a socially integrated context, it may be easier to hold onto it once the retreat ends. That is one reason why socialization is a primary feature of this Humanistic Pagan retreat.
Another reason is that Humanism is concerned with human fulfillment, and social contact is a basic human need. “Man is a social animal” writes Aristotle. Thus, a primary goal of any Humanistic path ought to be orienting the individual toward others. The development of key social skills, such as empathy and perspective-taking, should rank high on the list of objectives. For this reason too, socialization features in this retreat.
This is not entirely without precedent. Although many spiritual teachers have emphasized the essential aloneness of the individual, others have disagreed. Gurdjieff, for example, taught his pupils to seek enlightenment within everyday life. In the Classical world, Epicurus prized conversation at meals; he was famed for saying he would rather not eat than eat alone. Socrates made a life of engaging his contemporaries with questions. Confucius, too, created a way whose basic orientation was toward society. And the Vimalakirti Sutra of Mahayana Buddhism likewise affirmed the possibility of enlightenment for the householder. So, there is a long tradition of socialization within a spiritual context.
I take time in the retreat each evening to be with friends. On Day One, I met with my good friend Drew Jacob, author of RoguePriest.net. He and I share different beliefs but similar orientations to life and living. Drew has unwavering clarity of vision, tempered by a jovial sense of humor (and a booming laugh). But what stands out most is his sincerity. How often do you meet someone who makes you feel like you’re really being seen? Being heard? It’s a rare trait.
Other evenings I’ve spent with my fiancé. She doesn’t share my beliefs either, and it is awkward sometimes trying to explain what I’m doing and why. Yet she is ever willing to listen, and even when she doesn’t agree she always keeps a sense of humor about it. It’s a wonderful personality trait, and one of the reasons I love her.
I mention these traits of Drew and my fiancé because the company you keep is relevant to personal growth. The more you surround yourself with positive people, the more positive you become. The converse is also true – negative friends can drag you down. So, discernment in friends is a key aspect of spiritual socialization.
Over the course of the retreat, I’ve noticed a change in the way I relate to people. As I sat with my fiancé over breakfast on the morning of Day One, I felt turned toward her, not just in body but also in mind. The mention of “turning” is felicitous, for in another context it constitutes a primary spiritual practice.
Image enhanced from original by Michel Martin Drolling
Dialogue and the Practice of Turning
After good experiences with socialization the first few days of the retreat, I decided to take it a step further. For deeper insight, I turned to Martin Buber, whose existential spirituality made a religion of conversation. Dialogue, Buber felt, is where we meet God in the eyes of the other.
At one time in his life, he practiced Hasidic mysticism, but an experience changed his mind. After a morning of ecstatic elevation, an unknown young man came to him with a question. Buber, still with half a mind on his morning’s reverie, failed to listen with his full being. He writes in his book Meetings:
I conversed attentively and openly with him – only I omitted to guess the questions which he did not put. Later, not long after, I learned from one of his friends – he himself was no longer alive – the essential content of his questions; I learned that he had come to me not casually, but borne by destiny, not for a chat but for a decision.
After that, Buber gave up mysticism and devoted himself wholly to the art of dialogue. His most famous book, I and Thou, is a poetic exposition of spiritual socialization. The crucial discipline in this path is the act of “turning.” By this, Buber means turning away from self-centered preoccupations and toward the other, in body and soul. This, I felt, was the instruction needed to take my socialization to a higher level. For the remainder of the retreat, I resolved to practice the act of turning.
I can think of a time when I definitely did not achieve this kind of turning. It was years ago, when I was with a previous girlfriend. During our intimate moments, I would describe her body in poetic phrases. How surprising it was when she asked me to stop. “I feel like a piece of clay,” she said. “A piece of the clay that you’re molding into something I’m not.” That was a revelatory experience for me. People don’t want to be extolled; they want to be seen. Seen for who they really are. To truly be with her, I had to give up all semblances and turn to her completely.
There were plenty of opportunities to do better with my fiancé during the retreat. As she arrived home from work, vented frustrations about her day, or just moved in for a hug, I found myself half-involved. At these moments I deliberately stopped what I was doing or thinking about, and turned to her. Within me I could feel a qualitative change. It actually felt different to relate in this way.
I noticed a response in her, too. As I went through the retreat in the apartment we share, she seemed infected by the positive energy – unusually bright, cheerful, and open. I felt her turn to me like few times before. Whether this was a result of the spiritual socialization or just the positive ambiance of the retreat, I cannot say. When I told her how I felt more open and turned toward her, she said she couldn’t tell. She can never tell with me; I guess my expression of emotions is subtle (which is an interesting insight in itself, but that’s a matter for another time). Nevertheless, there was a new openness swirling between us. During the retreat came one of the most intimate nights of our relationship.
I do not wish to make a guru of Buber – there are certainly aspects of his work to criticize (go here for a critique from a polytheist viewpoint). Yet, with a little creativity, it can be applied fruitfully to a broad range of spiritual paths ( for example, go here for an application to ADF Druidry). Humanistic Paganism in particular stands to gain, not the least because Buber himself has been called a humanist. In any case, dialogue, Buberian or otherwise, can be a powerful agent of personal growth.
When this retreat began, I wasn’t sure how socialization was going to play out. Would it hinder introspection, by cluttering the mind with chit-chat and social posturing? Would it cause conflict as I engaged with people who did not share my retreat experience? Neither of these have turned out to be a problem. On the contrary, socialization has led me even deeper. And since I have arrived at insight within a social context, perhaps it will not be as difficult to integrate that insight as I return to everyday social activity. Time will tell, but prospects appear hopeful.