Facing the Unknown

November 2014

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When the goal of communication is no longer upholding a particular point of view, right or wrong, but of dropping masks and peeling back the veils of appearances, then the process of communication itself begins to change. As those in genuine communication move into Rumi’s field, where the world is “too full to talk about,” there are no rules or formulas by which to navigate. One has to simply to listen with clear intent for the next step in the process, and allow the instincts of good will and increasing skill at honesty, authenticity and emotional risk-taking to guide one into a deeper or simpler or clearer expression of truth.

This can be disconcerting to one who needs a plan, or a set of rules, or a protocol dictating the correct procedure, and in many ways, our social institutions are built on these rules and formulaic protocols. We are not taught in this culture to trust our instincts, or to follow our intuition, or even to allow things to unfold. We are taught instead to control and be controlled; to follow the norm in order to normalize what would otherwise be in flux and unpredictable; to stay within certain prescribed bounds in order not to have to face the terror of the unbound Mystery.

What this means in practice is that we are ill prepared for life, which in its essence is ultimately uncontrollable, unpredictable, and unbound. We are also ill-prepared to communicate with each other about life – about what truly matters, what astounds and bewilders us, what moves us, what shakes us, what cracks through the shell of our self-containment to let more light, more truth, more beauty in. Unless we are ready to be cracked open by life, then living becomes an awkward and muted exercise – a bit like refusing to take the training wheels off our bike and just ride. In order to live, and in order to communicate with each other and with the amazing menagerie of other more-than-human diverse intelligences that are out there – we have to, at some point, take the training wheels off our bikes, and trust ourselves enough to just ride.

When I was 18, my friends from Connecticut – where the drinking age was 21 – took me across the border to New York City for a night on the town, where the drinking age was 18. We wandered from bar to bar, and after a few drinks entered one where trouble was waiting. As I walked through the door, a huge hulk of a man, wheeled around on his bar stool, and bellowed, “I want to fight some one,” his stubby finger pointing dizzily at me.

I instinctively kept my hands in my pockets and said, “Why do you want to fight me? You don’t even know me. Why don’t I buy you a drink instead?” Something about the proposal appealed to him, and I wound up listening for a good hour or so to his tale of woe. I could understand why he wanted to fight. He was, in fact, teetering on the raw cutting edge of life, where there are no rules about how to play the game, and no one had ever taught him what to do when this moment came – as it invariably does for all of us.

At that tender age, I didn’t have an answer for him. But in trusting my own instincts about how to approach him, and in my willingness to listen, I somehow stumbled into an unexpected moment of connection with a total stranger. And not just any stranger, but one intent on doing me bodily harm. There were no rules in that barroom. But I harbored no ill will toward this man. I was more curious about what would drive someone to this kind of desperation that I was fearful of being soundly thrashed. I was willing to listen, to be honest, to be authentic, to be vulnerable. And in my youthful innocence, I disarmed him. To be honest, I’m not sure my older and wiser self would have been quite so cluelessly skilled in responding the way I did then, but I learned something valuable that day that I have carried with me ever since.

It is impossible to know who someone is, or what they have to teach you until you can find the strength or the curiosity or the purity of heart to the walk into the lion’s den of their pain with no agenda other than being present. It sounds simple, but it is probably one of the hardest things that any human being can ever do – which is probably why instead of reaching for a deeper, more vulnerable experience of genuine communication we each other, we rely on rules, formulas, protocols, and whatever tenets of social etiquette might currently be acceptable. But like riding a bike with training wheels, this will only get us so far.

The next post in this series is The Limitation of Communication Techniques.

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