I was at a wedding several years ago. I couldn’t stay long. Demands of work and home weighed on my mind as I perfunctorily wished the bride Mazal Tov, all the while thinking of how I was going to juggle all the things I had to squeeze into that night. As I waited for the wedding ceremony (Chuppa) to begin, I saw a neighbor go over to the bride, hold her hand, look her in the eye and give her a heartfelt blessing. As I watched, I saw her radiate a sense of presence — of being totally connected with the other — and felt the weight and sanctity of their encounter. In contrast, I realized how shallow my own brief encounter with the bride had been. We both spoke to her for a moment; yet my mind was only partially there; the person I observed spent only a couple of minutes yet truly blessed the bride with all her heart.
We’ve all experienced shallow encounters in our daily lives. The person who you say hi to as you’re walking; guarded conversations where nobody says anything; perfunctory exchanges that can leave one feeling unseen. Sometimes that’s all one has time or energy for. We are all burdened with thoughts and worries that sometimes overshadow our interest in another person; sometimes we are in a rush and the best we can do is offer a smile as we say hi in passing. My aliyah experience has exposed me to a different style of interaction. Sometimes people are very guarded and conversations don’t even get off the ground. I personally feel that encounters like these leave me feeling wanting and drained. I long for real encounters with people.
Martin Buber philosophized about man’s encounter with the world in his seminal book “I and Thou.” He observed that everyday life is often composed of experiences in which we engage with the world superficially, engaged in life on a level where we are often unaware of ourselves or others; where the outer world is composed of objects to be manipulated or engaged with on a superficial level. He referred to these interactions as “I-it.” There is a different, more elevated way of engaging with the world, where one looks beyond the surface, to the deeper essence of the other; whereby one enters into a relationship with another and experiences the other more wholly with one’s being. This kind of relationship, which he calls “I-Thou” is a way of experiencing that leads to a sense of love; of an awareness of the other and eventually to an appreciation of God’s presence in others and in the world.
How can we cultivate that feeling of awareness in our everyday lives? By slowing down and practicing being in the moment. Accustoming ourselves to living with increased self-awareness and compassion will lead to seeing others in a deeper manner. It takes no longer to relate to another person in this manner; but it requires that one be grounded in the moment and see beyond the surface to the core of the other’s existence. To look into their soul, so to speak, and to acknowledge their spark of humanity; the spark of godliness that is inherent in every living being. I intuitively believe that the more we’re in touch with our own higher sense of being; our own humanity; the more we can see others and the goodness, the godliness in others.
I experienced this at a wedding last week. After congratulating the bride, more mindfully than the previous example, I sat down at my place. As I watched the dancing, a small child pushed the adjacent chair closer to mine and climbed up to sit next to me at the otherwise empty table. I looked at her, sweetly looking up at me, and asked her if she was hungry. I didn’t know which language to use, so I asked in Hebrew as well as in English. Children often seem to understand beyond language, and she nodded her head. So I broke a roll and gave her half. She solemnly ate it, gazing trustingly at me, as I took some potatoes and began feeding her. I experienced the world standing still — there was only this sweet little girl and I. We smiled at each other as I offered her little bites of potato mindfully, placing a small amount on a fork, looking at her, smiling and waiting until she said ok with either her eyes or a nod of her head before feeding her little bites. It was a beautiful experience. We were attuned with one another, and I felt that I was feeding her a dollop of love with every bite of potato. It was a deeply rewarding experience, an “I-Thou” connection with a little person. (After a while her older cousin stood by, watching, and her mother eventually came to claim her.)
Why did this child single me out? How were we able to connect, wordlessly, in such a deep and meaningful manner? Children have a deep intuitive sense, and can relate to others in a spontaneous, real manner. I believe that at the time, I radiated a sense of joy and calm and she wanted to sit near me. Although I thought that this girl’s mother was sorely remiss in not keeping closer tabs on her child, our shared experience left me with a sweet feeling and wonderful memory.
How can we increase our sense of presence in relationships? Try practicing these simple tips on family members, acquaintances and store clerks. I’m sure you’ll feel the difference!
- Practice mindful, deep breathing, for a few minutes each day.
- Look for the good in others.
- When encountering another human being, remember that they are just that – another human being, with good qualities and foibles, just like you.
- Try to accept others as they are; as you accept yourself as you are.
What helps you see the good in others? Relate to others with a sense of presence? I’d love to hear about your experiences relating to others in a more mindful, present way has affected your life!