Early in our lives, my sister and I developed the ability to call a sort of psychological ‘time out.’ Whatever the turbulence of our family life, we could create a hiatus in which to converse cordially about all manner of things. Even during times when we were sworn enemies, we were capable of discussing the nature of our opposition as politely as civil war generals over a pre-battle breakfast.
Sometimes these sessions took place as formal tea parties. One or another of us would extend an invitation. This capacity to set aside the ordinary parameters of our relationship allowed a kind of meta friendship to develop. A dialogue would unfold between us like a dialogue between passengers on a bus: completely frank, impersonal and deeply intimate simultaneously. These conversations were made possible only by abandoning our usual orients. Both my sister and I understood this intuitively. Ours was a precarious meta friendship- it could be violated by either of us with an involuntary return to ego-consciousness. An unduly harsh adjective, or a proffered remark about a too-fresh wound, could interrupt our truce. Yet, balancing on a razor’s edge, with self-concern set off to the side somewhere, we could engage in the most remarkable and edifying conversations. Painful honesty, like mountain air, only heightened my love of the glorious transcendence possible on these occasions.
“Will you have tea?” I would ask my sister in my most formal pseudo-British tone.
“Why yes. Yes I will,” she would respond in a pince-nez voice.
So began our philosophical dialogues. Our themes were the nature of life, the various positions of our family members in an ever changing mobile of conflict, and the divvying up of the talents we had each been granted with our birth. She, it was agreed between us, had the musical talent as well as a mind for math, and a softness that gained her favor with adults. Were she to act outside the wishes of our parents, she could do so with skillful secrecy. I, on the other hand, was the artistic one, with an unfortunate propensity to be abrasive with too-direct interactions with the world around me. While I lost points for my tact-free behavior, I gained for my ability to be honest under all conditions and for my courage not to faint in the face of danger.
After such revelations, when we left the sanctity of our tea party, we would each tiptoe carefully around the edges of our divided up world. I never touched a musical instrument, nor did she take an art class. While in our current lives the joys of any artistic pursuit is free game, during childhood this subtle mutual respect helped us avoid an unhealthy competition. In other ways, too, the wisdom we wrought together with our explorations would inform our lives. Now, many years later, I think on these moments fondly and, startlingly, recognize them as my first experience of what Martin Buber calls the I-Thou conversation.
In adulthood, our world and ourselves seem less fluid. Gone is make-believe and easy transitions between play and responsibility. Some keep the spirit of play more alive than others, and probably most want to, but as we go on in our lives the intractability of our struggles is trenchant. Perhaps my invitation to tea even seems flippant. How can one carry the spirit of play through divorce, or illness, or the impossibly contradictory requirements that we find ourselves subject to from both within and without? Honesty is one ballast. The I-Thou relation is another.
People differ. They differ in their tolerance for conflict and in their aspiration. Some are self-disciplined. They are able to see their goal in a tiny point trembling in the distance. Others fade quickly, unable to stand the desert that lies between them and their desire. Your fate is who you are.
My invitation is an invitation to sit down and frankly explore previously un self-known agendas, and to do so without hedging. People taking a risk in life often have a plan B. The exploratory effort I am suggesting undercuts plan A as well plan B. Ordinarily, since you have a stake in sustaining your make-shift solution, you will hesitate to discuss them. Honesty might blow them apart. In fact, the only reason to do it at all is because you value self-discovery over comfort and persona, or you are so desperate that you are driven to make a leap of faith. Self-discovery may make it impossible for you to continue your resolution. Having discovered the tenuous foundation of your structure, you scramble to reinforce or abandon it. Now would you like some tea?
It is a rare breed of person who develops a taste for the kind of dialogue I am advocating. This dialogue is as tricky as the tasks any hero in an adventure show faces. (In fact, the adventure stories are all based on these psychic truths.) On the other hand, this dialogue is the easiest form of talk. To undertake it, all you have to do is let go of everything. You don’t have to come up with anything. You only stand in the light of truth.
I cultivate the spirit of these careful dialogues in my work as a teacher. My work is an invitation. Join me. Let us prioritize the crisp, dangerous honesty of self-inquiry over emotional responses, self-protectiveness and conflict based agendas. Let’s open ourselves to mountain air, delicious truths with life-changing import, and honor one another as seers and helpmates-we are together in the marvelous mystery of life as a human being. Living the word, Namaste, let’s gentle our wills so that our hearts can soar.