Last night (Nov 4, 2018), I had the most enjoyable and engaged time within a group of people that I had felt in a long time. I was in a space with about 40 people. They were all strangers. I left having learnt more about who some of these strangers really were than I know about some of the people in my regular social group. I left having shared more about who I am than I have with many of my social group as well. I left without knowing much factual about many of the people: what many of the people did for a living, what their cultural background was, what their hobbies and interests were, what their families were like, who the important people in their life were or they for me. But I left having heard about some of what makes them feel passionate, sad, excited, insecure, loving, scared, what they value, what they’re learning about themselves and what they’re wanting to develop, and they for me. I left having been warmed by the ever-changing flickers of feeling in their faces and body language that happen more freely when people express who they are with less contrivance and inhibition. I left feeling elated, a feeling I hadn’t experienced for quite a while. I walked home smiling and with a mild skip to my step that probably made me look like a slightly discombobulated, grinning daydreamer to amused onlookers.
The event I was at was very simple. The only real agenda was a broad intention to ‘connect’ with others. It had no ideological or spiritual basis (which is preferential for me personally). There were no rules or guidelines for ‘connecting’- only a ‘menu’ of meaningful conversation starters if people felt like using them. The premise was to gather a group of people who were interested in connecting with others over an indoor picnic of food that everyone had contributed to. There was no ‘program’ for the night except a brief, 10 minute mindfulness meditation before mingling freely. There was no-one facilitating topics of discussion to get people reflecting on themselves and sharing about who they were beyond the factual and anecdotal. Just from superficial impressions, I would expect there’d be very little consensus in the group in terms of interests, hobbies, lifestyles, political or religious beliefs, background, upbringing, nationality, sexuality, professions, etc. Sounds like a pretty normal gathering of random people, doesn’t it? The type of group environment most of us would recoil from for risk of enduring boring conversation, having to pretend to enjoy the effortful socialising, for the low likelihood of meeting anyone we’d actually want to spend time with, feeling more lonely in the company of others (I know I often avoid these situations). So what was different with this event and this group of people? Oh, and P.S. it was a drug and alcohol free gathering so there was no ‘social lubrication’.
Afterwards, in sharing my experience of the event with two friends who also have an awareness that connection is important and often lacking, I speculated that the only factor that separated this event from any other grouping of people for social interaction was each individual’s intention to connect. Every person who had come, had come for the purpose of sharing about themselves with others beyond the superficial and wanting to hear what others wanted to share as well. Many of the people I spoke with or observed came with the pre-established knowledge and most likely some practice that connecting with people requires self-disclosure of personal feelings, thoughts, values and experiences and that in turn requires a willingness to be vulnerable. There were many who didn’t seem to have developed this understanding of the mechanisms of connection yet, too. There were people present who seemed to be at all different stages of self-development and skill at connecting, but everyone there was at least courageous and self-aware enough to claim that connection with others was desired and important, and they were able to bear any fear they had in order to be there.
One interaction that struck me was observing a person reflect on and disclose with a lot of understanding and self-awareness, a very personal, sensitive and conventionally ‘shameful’ struggle that they were processing with their sexuality and sexual experiences and the way they responded to well-intentioned, but less astute advice from another. It wasn’t the person’s candid disclosure that struck me, although I thought it was beautiful and courageous- an important topic which needs more exposure- and told them I admired them for it, but I’ve been exposed to many such disclosures and am comfortable with and perceptive to these nuances in myself. It was the automatic kindness, consideration and understanding with which they responded to their misguided advice-giver.
To an attentive observer, the person disclosing clearly felt a contradictory mix of self-consciousness, acceptance, vulnerability and conflict about the experiences they were describing. In their subtle body language and facial expressions it seemed clear to me that in response to the advice-giver they were probably also experiencing some discomfort, feelings of being misunderstood and (projecting my own reactions) understandably could have felt a degree of frustration with the advice that clearly wasn’t being asked for and was given without recognition of the self-competence this person seemed to be displaying. It’s very normal for these feelings to arouse defensiveness which can translate into speech and actions which communicate the frustration with another person, sometimes even coming out as criticisms of another’s intellect or conversely complete withdrawal from the conversation which becomes disconnecting. The person feeling misunderstood loses an opportunity to express and work towards understanding and the well-intentioned, but misguided advice-giver receives rejection without comprehending the cause.
The discloser engaged in none of this. They listened patiently, with a gentle, but knowing smile (at least I interpreted it as a knowing smile) gave credit where the ideas were valued and gently asserted again where they were within themselves and what their focus was. I felt so much admiration and respect for this person. Without actually knowing their process or perceptions, I interpreted these responses (quite likely self-referentially) as the actions of someone who had gained comfort and acceptance of their sensitive human experiences which helped them to need less automatic understanding from this other person, but perhaps provide this person with the actions of kind and gentle acceptance that they were at an earlier, less aware stage in their self-development and skilfulness in connecting and that was okay. Given all of this information, it’s unlikely the discloser would seek to develop trust or a close relationship with the advice-giver, but that wasn’t the important consideration in that moment- the point was sharing of themselves as they were and accepting another as they were in that moment. I thought it was a truly skilful and kind response.
I felt a sense of relief to not be the only one with this insight and acceptance of the natural, hidden stages of personal development that underly some of the reactions of others we reflexively condemn. And it seemed there were many others like that present as well.
I felt a sense of relief that the automatic thoughts of others’ inferiority were only brief flashes when I noticed others had less skill or understanding of connection than I did, and were quickly replaced by recognition of myself in them and processes I’d already been through and am still learning about. It was a relief that I didn’t even need to ‘talk’ myself around or artificially impose a rationalised, but non-genuine ‘kinder’ perspective. The feeling of recognition came on its own. It was a relief to have another reminder, among continual reminders in my life of the transition I’ve been undergoing since childhood in which my sense of self-worth increasingly comes more from my own feelings of valuing myself as I am and recognising myself in others, than from needing to focus on the perceived inferiority of others and therefore a tenuous, brittle sense of superiority in myself.
I felt a sense of relief that this was just one of innumerable opportunities I’ve had to witness within myself the initial self-consciousness that now tells me I need to stop focusing on how I appear and allow myself to be however I’m feeling inclined, within my values (important distinction: sometimes I might feel, e.g. murderous, but hurting others is against my values, so I might choose to e.g. exercise instead). Another chance to notice the change from a child and teenager who let self-consciousness drive her to inhibit, hide and avoid in situations to escape the feeling, to credit the odd wisdom and risk-taking of the 19 year old who told herself , “fuck this shit. I don’t want to be like this forever”, without much evidence or experience that it was possible, to an adult who has learnt deliberately and avidly over that time and now knows I can use that feeling as a helpful guide for what I need to give myself.
I felt a sense of relief that this experience is just one of many I’ve exposed myself to in recent years that gives me the opportunity to reflect upon how much I’ve developed my ability to connect with people and that I can actively keep developing this and I’m unlikely to submit myself passively to the tides of society which I hadn’t always had so much faith in myself about.
I felt a sense of relief to be reminded that I feel grateful to have always had close connections with a small number of people in my life, and I’ve gotten myself to a stage where I can now, often, genuinely enjoy the company of people beyond that without relying on the safety and security of closeness, because I’m now more accepting of myself.
I felt a sense of relief to be just one of many, as opposed to the rare few, who were already gobbling up the joys and growth of engaging in self-reflection and conscious dedication to developing their self-awareness for their own fulfilment and increasing their ability to give to others.
I felt a sense of relief being amongst a group of strangers who were also clued-in to their fatigue of being automatons in social settings and actively doing their bit to eschew convention, rather than engaging in a fatalistic ‘acceptance’ (read despair) of the status quo.
I felt a sense of relief that I could engage with others like this in an environment without a spiritual overtone as spirituality isn’t something I feel and it’s difficult to find groupings of people with these values of personal development outside of spiritual settings*.
I felt a sense of relief that the person who had organised this was courageous enough to accept their own need for connection and took the risk to make that happen for a bigger community based upon their suspicion that everyone’s the same, it’s just a bit scary. I also felt admiration for this courage.
I felt a sense of relief that this is also just one of innumerable experiences I’ve had throughout my life which provides more evidence for reinforcing my conviction that individuals don’t need to condemn themselves to being a static collection of perceived pre-determined, unchangeable ‘inabilities’ and ‘flawed’ character traits. In this room was a collection of individuals who had volitionally undertaken in that evening to challenge the status quo of a disconnected society, and it seemed to me in their wider lives many of them were volitionally undertaking to challenge limiting pre-conceptions of how they and other people ‘should’ be. And the collective result of these volitional individuals seemed to be a general social environment of acceptance and openness and feeling more connected to others.
I’ll go again, I obviously really enjoyed myself, but I’m not going with the goal of making new friends- if that happens, it’s welcome- it was just a very enjoyable contrast and reinforcement of possibility.
*Luckily I’ve learnt to prioritise exposing myself to people with these values over my lack of relation to spirituality, so I will engage in the more spiritual environments, but it’s nice to not feel that mismatch. I do suspect that I might experience the same feelings as those who feel a sense of spirituality, but perhaps my personal perception of those feelings and the words I would use to describe them is more earth-bound, behavioural and brain-based emotional, so the difference in language and concepts might disguise the similarities. Anyway, this means I don’t have as much of an aversion to being in settings with spiritual values because I’m looking for points of relation, and I also no longer care to distinguish a ‘truth’ between my perceptions and others. What’s important is that an experience gives us meaning and helps us make sense of the world we’re experiencing.