Spirituality: How Do We See? II

When I entered university, I became friends with a group of Asian women, who had banded together to form a closely-knit and welcoming circle of friends.  From among this group, one Japanese woman, a future teacher of English as a second language, became my closest friend.

In terms of age, my Japanese friend was about three years my senior.  In our relationship, I helped her navigate the dicey waters of English idioms and grammar.  She invited me to help her with the selection of her very first pair of eyeglasses, which was no small feat because her facial structure (lack of a significant bridge to her nose) made it difficult for her to find appropriate frames–States’ side.  I  also acted as an ad hoc “cultural consultant.”

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For her part, my friend was always gracious, patient and generous with me which, given the age difference at the time, was a significant kindness.  She invited me to dinners with her local host family, who were Italian-Americans, capable of putting on a formal, five-course-meal extravaganza worthy of rave reviews, with specialty items “imported” from Chicago. She granted me large, caligraphied characters of inspiration and almost scraped the tip of her nose on the floor several times the first time she met my mother.  (My mother quietly protested, “But, I am not that old.”)

Our bond grew deep enough that communications often seemed to transcend culture.  Then, one day, my Japanese friend was trying to describe a situation involving a female student who was unfamiliar to me.  I was not following the account very well and, in an effort to understand who the other woman was, I broke into her narrative to ask about the appearance of the other female student, so that I could attempt to place the stranger visually.

That is when my friend blurted out in frustration, “How am I supposed to describe her.  You all look the same.”

I bent over with laughter, asking, “How can you say that?  Although most of us are of European descent, we have different colored hair and eyes.”

Then, some form of internal clarity came to me.  If my Japanese friend comes from a culture where virtually everyone shares similar hair and eye color, then, the Japanese people must cue off of different facial features to describe one another verbally. This would impact how a Japanese person sees other people.

I tried to consider the students I was watching from my friend’s perspective.  And, I realized that “we”–the European American students surrounding us–do all look alike because we have fairly uniform, pronounced noses, long narrow faces and light complexions.  Thus, I had just exposed my own cultural bias by naming hair and eye color as the most distinguishing facial features.

In the end, I had to ask, “How do we see?”

Spirituality: How Do We See? I

While attending a course in advanced-studio, life drawing, with a particularly gifted and innovative instructor, art students were given the assignment of drawing a life-size portrait of a seated, female model.

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To accommodate the scope of the drawing project, sheets of three-foot-wide, brown wrapping paper were hung around the room in strips five-feet in length.  (As a point of reference, the average, large-format drawing tablet is eighteen by thirty-two inches.)  There were approximately eighteen students in the class, and several three-hour sessions were devoted to this one drawing project.

At the close of the last session, as students circulated around the room to offer comments on each other’s drawings, a most amazing theme came to light.  With the model still present, it became apparent that virtually every student–with the exception of two or three highly skilled draftsmen–had embued the model with some aspect of their own likeness, some aspect from among their own personal, physical traits.

Thus, the male student with the cleft chin had given the female model a cleft chin, though she did not have one.  A raven-haired female student had drawn a line of hair from the mound of Venus up to the model’s navel, though the model did not possess this trait.  A male student with a particularly thick set of eyebrows, which were barely distinguishable, gave the model a single eyebrow.  She clearly had two.  A female student with wide-set eyes rendered the model’s face with wide-set eyes, contrary to the manner in which the model’s eyes were actually set into her skull.

How do we see?  The world?  One another?  Are we always looking for something of ourselves in someone or something else?

I have observed people searching for the Self–their highest Light–as they move into relationships with other people, thinking they will find their Perfection in another person.  In one interpretation of the life-drawing-class experience, the visual rendering of a drawing student’s physical traits onto that of another person, the model, stands as a confirmation of how hopefully we look for something of ourselves in someone else–even if it is only something superficial, something having to do with mere appearance.

Spirituality, Expansion & Inclusion

“He couldn’t grow up,” my father said, trying to answer my sixth-grade confusion.  “He could not share his wife’s attention with the new child.”

“But, the child was his,” I countered in still greater disbelief.

“It doesn’t matter.  He was used to having all of his wife’s attention, so that, when the baby came, he couldn’t handle it.”

One of my middle-school teachers was welcoming her first child into the world.  At the same time, she was going through a divorce with her husband of twelve years.  When my father attempted to explain “why” there might be a divorce after the birth of a long-awaited and planned child, I could not find any reason behind the situation.  Here were two decent people, who had done everything in the “right” order—dating, marriage, military service, travel, steady jobs and then the baby—who were suddenly divorcing over a carefully thought-out and anticipated event.

At the time of the conversation with my father, I remember remaining somewhat unsatisfied with his explanation, that the man “couldn’t grow up.”  Yet, as I stepped out into the world, I began observing something akin to this situation within a variety of social contexts and among various groups’ reactions to newcomers.

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In my observational experience, wherever a long-established group exists—whether it is a group of two or two-hundred-and-fifty people, there is an existing and carefully negotiated spiritual flow for the receipt, extension and exchange of life’s Graces—compassionate understanding, listening, social attention, being heard.  If and/or when a new person joins a group, or attempts to join a group, these existing relationships, and the flow of Grace in and around them, are carefully restructured to welcome and accommodate the new person, if that person is accepted.

Thus, every time a person enters into relationship with a group, the individuals in the group are being asked to expand—the ability to listen, extend compassion and step forward with a sense of welcome in their hearts toward another human being.

In communities, such as larger urban areas where comings and goings are more commonplace in the general population, moving into and out of groups may be done with relative ease.  In contrast, in communities that are smaller, geographically more isolated or where an urban population is more static, it may be difficult for a new person to find a welcoming group environment—especially in circumstances where a group or culture does not value change, celebrate uniqueness or when the group thinks in terms of scarcity.

When we maintain a worldview that includes scarcity as a tenet, it becomes difficult for our hearts to expand to experience the generosity of welcome toward anything or anyone new or different, because that person represents a threat to “our resources,” whether our resources are physical things, power, position or social roles.  With scarcity thinking, we lose the ability to celebrate the fullness of life.  Ultimately, this is how I chose to frame the dissolution of my middle-school teacher’s marriage—in terms of the concept of scarcity.

One member of my teacher’s family, which began as a relationship between two people, an intimate “group” founded on, by and for the exchange of compassionate understanding—or Love, could not fathom the inclusion of a new member because the heart of my teacher’s husband was not able to expand.  He could not accept the change in arrangements around life’s Graces that were required by the birth of his own child.

Whether his heart was averse to change, the sharing of his wife’s attention or some other factor(s), which remain unknown, I will never know.  All of my own and my father’s reasoning around the cause-effect relationship leading from marriage to divorce is conjecture.  What is known to me from this experience and other experiences around group dynamics is that we must begin to conceive of and embrace Love’s infinite, expansive and inclusive qualities, eschewing our tendencies toward scarcity thinking to be able to grow spiritually.

And, in this, my father was right.  We need to grow up—spiritually, because it is through embracing our potential for spiritual maturation that our world family will become more welcoming, expansive and inclusive.

Spirituality: The Search for the Self

At some level, each of us is looking for something of ourselves in someone else.  Socially, this is the way in which we build bridges.

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There are spaces created in conversations where we check-in with one another to determine how we might be alike or what we might have in common–whether it be an experiential commonality, gender/race/life-stage similarity or a shared interest.

The curious thing about this phenomenon is that what we think we desire on a micro-level is actually a stand-in for what we most desire on the macro-level, which is a genuine or authentic communion with the Spirit.

Spirituality & Holding Space III

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What happens, over the course of time, when a relationship’s solidity in the exploration of life’s questions begins to fall apart?

The “togetherness”–we once agreed to–gives way to one or the other of us choosing to strike out on a solo expedition to continue the process of life exploration. This exploratory process is not really being done alone, but in relationship with the Self.

Departing a relationship to contnue exploring on one’s own  does not mean that the person remaining at base-camp has necessarily ceased growing, changing or venturing out. Sometimes the base-camp holder has actually already worked through and found his “answers,” as well as having developed a sense of contentment within his life circumstances as they stand.

If we go back to the original example of the life-partner, who comes home to announce that she will be taking a six-month leave of absence from work to tour the country on a new motorcycle with an old friend, all anyone can do is ask that person whether or not it would be helpful to pack up a batch of sandwiches for the road.

In other words, we must let go, trusting in the fact that our road-warrior partner is answering some deeper, haunting call from within her own Spirit and knowing.

Spirituality & Holding Space II

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Holding space–in the context of a relationship–is something close friends do naturally for one another, when one person is working through a moral dilemma, trying to make a major decision, arranging life priorities or otherwise attempting to move toward internal resolution between every-day concerns and the desires of  your highest Light or Spirit.

There are so many components to an intimate relationship, whether that relationship is internal–between the every-day part of personality and true Spirit–or external, between two partners.

In almost every relationship there are issues of emotion, aesthetics, creativity, intellect, physicality, fiscal concern, as well as the honoring of pure Spirit.

On the most basic level, for example, there is the issue of touch. How do we want to be touched?  How often?  Where do we want to be touched–both in terms of a person’s body and in terms of appropriate social locations?  What types of touch do we desire?  How do we balance and honor our desires with the desires of another person?

In consideration of all of these things, it is nothing short of a miracle that any committed relationship lasts more than a short time.

And, I would argue, one of the reasons committed relationships span years is that two people have agreed to step onto the path of self-discovery–together.

People enter into intimate relationships and close friendships specifically to entertain these basic life questions, learn how to set boundaries, refine their desires and explore their limits and limitlessness, while discovering their personal “answers”–together.