After a very peopled few days it is quiet in the temple today. It is lunchtime, and the only other person I have seen waved at me from a top floor window, whilst I was in the garden, before disappearing again.
Satya got up at 5:30am this morning and went to a half-day yoga retreat at a converted flour-mill out in the countryside. I slept in until 9am, had breakfast and a cup of tea in the garden, and started the very good Ali Smith novel. The Accidental.
In a recent blog post, floatsam and jetsom, my teacher, Dharmavidya, writes about the difficulty of practising in the modern age: the pressures of work have increased with technology, rather than decreased, we are increasingly connected to each other and the world through social media, and the connections we do have are less personal.
I grew up in a world where this was already true, although it may have become more so, and I found it easier to take refuge in impersonal connections than to make meaningful relationships with people. That’s why my first experience of living in community was such a challenge. I was plunged into a world of real connection and intimacy. Part of my reaction to that environment was to draw in and protect myself, but at the same time I did begin to learn to trust people and to understand that it was possible to be vulnerable with another person, that not everyone would let you down, and that even when that did happen there was something that would hold me, and meant I would be okay.
On Thursday evening, after a day of seeing clients, Satya and I went out with some friends to support our new housemate who was playing at an open-mic night. On Friday morning we held our usual morning service, supported a friend who thought they had just received some bad news (it turned out to be crossed wires), supported another friend by going with them to their mother’s funeral, had our lively community meal, and hosted a quiz night. On Saturday we met friends for coffee, made new friends, my family came over for tea in the afternoon, and then we had a Eurovision Song Contest party in the evening. Yesterday (Sunday) we had morning service, I had a one-to-one with a Sangha member, and then spent the day in the garden with our volunteers.
A few years ago that amount of time spent with people would have exhausted me and in the midst of it all I would have been desperately looking forward to today, a clear day without much social activity. But I notice that not only have I survived the last few days, I enjoyed them, and I am looking forward to catching up with another friend at the Malvern Food Festival this afternoon.
Whilst I’m not clinging on to the quiet space of this morning like my life depends on it, it still feels important to have space to myself.
When I spend time with people (probably when anyone spends time with other people) inevitably some part of my ego is provoked. In the past, when I really struggled sometimes to be around others, there was a great deal of ego noise, worrying what other people thought, trying to protect my self-image, trying not to provoke other people because I didn’t trust their reactions, and so on.
There’s not just my own stuff at play. Whenever we spend with others they often unconsciously ask us to take on roles in their own ego-dramas, either to prove something they believe about the world (other people can’t be trusted, say, or other people will save me) or to try and disprove it by testing it to extinction. For me, those unconscious invitations take some energy to decline, especially if they happen to provoke some of my own ego-noise. It takes energy to treat people even-handedly, and not buy into the games they are playing (and that I play too, of course).
Over the years my own ego-noise has quietened down and it has become increasingly easier to become social.
What allowed that process to happen? Learning to have faith in others, and being around others who reward my faith in them by accepting me, mostly, just as I am; being interested in the specifics of my ego-noise, what exactly am I afraid of, and where does that fear come from; and learning to accept myself as I am and not worrying too much when I do find it more difficult to be around others. It can also help to be interested in other people’s process too, not so that I can judge them, but so that I can find a deep empathy for their position. When I have true understanding it is much easier to have compassion for others, and to gently decline their unconscious invitations to play ego-games.
I’m not sure I’ll ever get to the position of having completely clean relationships with people though, and that’s why spaces like this morning are important. When it’s quiet around me, my own stirred up ego has time to settle down and become quiet, ready for the next social engagement.
Dharmavidya has some good advice too, in that blog post I mentioned:
If we treasure simplicity and do not unnecessarily complicate our existence, the burden will be lighter. If we treasure both friendship and solitude, we will find opportunities for spiritual refreshment. If we have faith, then we can let go of many worries and take things as they come, trusting that there are always deeper purposes at work. However complex the system within which we live our lives, there is always some space, some emptiness, pauses in which a simple prayer may return us to peace and bliss.