Intimacy is an indispensable partner to mindfulness, says author and Zen teacher Ben Connelly whose book, ‘Mindfulness and Intimacy’, argues that mindfulness practice requires the parallel cultivation of intimacy in order to enrich our empathetic engagement with the world around us and with ourselves. In this extract, Connelly addresses the need for deeper relationships within our communities, for facing up to uncomfortable truths as well as the importance of listening to the various perspectives of our neighbors rather than always fighting to make only ourselves heard.
We are part of many kinds of communities: families, groups of friends, neighborhoods, religious groups, cities, states, nations, ethnicities, political groups. They overlap here and there, and here and there they don’t. Our sense that we are part of these communities can help us feel supported and connected, but if we really want to know and live from the deepest sense of intimacy we need to cultivate our sense of being part of the infinite community of life.
The web that connects us all is endless, but we can’t see it. When you put on your pants in the morning you (probably) can’t see the person’s hands who sewed the seams. When you throw a piece of plastic in a trash can, you can’t see the person who will dump it in the landfill next week. It is good to cultivate awareness of just how many people’s efforts go into providing you the things you use throughout your day. We are supported by so many people at every moment. This community is truly amazing. If you watch the TV news you may think that the world is full of horrible problems—and this is sort of true—but the human race is constantly involved in an astonishingly harmonious effort to support each other, which we rarely acknowledge.
Intimacy, however, is not just about realizing how good it is to be close. It includes all the difficult parts of our relationship. If we want to have an authentically intimate relationship with our loved ones, we need to acknowledge the problems in our relationships. If we want to really deepen our intimacy with the community of humans on this planet, we need to deepen our knowledge of the harms that are part of this intimacy. In the US many of us wanted to think that racism was over, but the vastly disproportionate number of black people in prison, the segregation of our cities, the enormous economic and educational disparities, and the shooting of unarmed black men have shown us that hiding from the truth of the persistence of racism in our country has only allowed it to fester. Some of us may be privileged enough to be able to think that racism is someone else’s problem, but we are all part of the community—black, white, privileged, disadvantaged—and we all have our own unconscious biases around race.
Racism is only one of many painful and harmful aspects of our community that we are already intimate with but may want to hide from, or blame on someone else. Climate change, economic exploitation, homophobia, human-caused species extinction, rape culture, Islamophobia—the list is long. I’m sorry if this seems harsh, but this book is not about finding an intimacy that’s magic and takes you away. This book is about mindfulness, awareness of what’s here now, and real intimacy—intimacy that is brave and strong and can face all the truths of relationship. If we build up our capacity through mindfulness and intimacy with our bodies, minds, and hearts, we can be strong enough to truly face our intimacy with all the pain and harm in our communities. We can realize that it feels good to be real and to begin to orient our lives to taking care of everyone in our community, to taking care of everything. The activist and professor Cornel West said, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” The love he is talking about is based on realizing the totality of our connection:, what Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s called an “inescapable network of mutuality.”
If we want to live this way, we need to listen. Listen to the voices in your communities. Here I’m focusing on listening to voices in the big human-world community. Listen to people who are different from you, who have different views, different races, different lives. Use your mindfulness practice to help you hear. Reading is good too. Read with an open mind and awareness of your reactivity. Practice honoring and respecting voices that challenge your own view. These voices are part of your community; they are a part of you. You may want to believe the person you deem racist to be totally other than you, but realize they are still part of your community. If you want to promote everyone’s welfare, they are going to be part of the process. If someone is challenging you, pointing out your prejudiced or privileged view, your complicity in our climate’s destruction, can you employ mindfulness to truly hear them? They are still part of your community, and nothing you can do can wrest you from your intimacy with them. Whether we make each other enemies or not, we are all still in this together.
And here we are, standing at the door of the grocery store, thinking, “Yes, I am intimate with this vast, complex web that includes infinite love and support and vast, complex systems of oppression and destruction. What do I do now?” There is no easy answer. Intimacy is not about easy answers, but we can be mindful of what we’re doing right now and do it with some care. We can learn about ways large and small that we can live compassionately within our growing awareness of the completeness of our connection to both the most beautiful and the cruelest aspect or our community. Don’t try to save the world. Open your heart, listen, and make one small beneficial step. Then do it again.