Four Ways to Pay Attention to the Relational Part of Spirituality

Rabbi Hanokh loved to tell this story:Winking

“For a whole year I felt a longing to go to my master Rabbi Bunam and talk with him.  But every time I entered the house, I felt I wasn’t man enough.  Once though, when I was walking across a field and weeping, I knew that I must run to the rabbi without delay.  He asked, ‘Why are you weeping?’

“I answered:  ‘I am after all alive in this world, a being created with all the senses and all the limbs, but I do not know what it is I was created for and what I am good for in this world.’

“‘Little fool,’ he replied, ‘that’s the same question I have carried around with me all my life.  You will come and eat the evening meal with me today.'”

What a beautiful depiction of the deeply relational aspect of the spiritual journey.  Here are several observations.

One, spirituality (the process of discovering your unique place in the world) is nurtured in community

The master rabbi knew this—the other rabbi’s existential angst was an echo of his own search.  So he invited him into his home to share that hunger.

Spirituality in community blossoms from a oneness with others that blooms from “shared vision and shared goal, shared memory and shared hope.”

As one author puts it,

“While spirituality can be discovered in solitude, it can be fulfilled only in community.”

Two, spirituality is experienced and developed in mutuality.  A recognition and embrace of mutual hungers.

The master rabbi recognized his colleague’s personal angst in himself, and responded to it from his own desire to pay attention to that search.  So he invited him into his home to share that mutual hunger.

Personal growth by nature must take place in an environment of mutuality—where we can relate to others who in turn can also relate to us; where we share with each other; where we are vulnerable with each other; where we encourage and support each other.  And in this context, we can grow together and allow each other to help expand our own hearts, minds, and spirits.

Three, spirituality is grown by listening to people’s stories.

The master rabbi listened to his colleague’s story of personal angst.  And then, after he invited him into his home for a meal (that symbol of intimate mutuality and relationship), they both could listen to each other express their mutual hunger and longing.

Noticing others who are echoing your own desires and longings, listening to them tell their own stories, and then choosing to connect with them more deeply, is a necessary part of spiritual growth.  Others’ individual life experiences are powerful tools of hope and growth and wisdom for our own journeys.

Four, spirituality is shaped in healthy ways by being a nonanxious presence in each other’s lives.

Though the master rabbi’s name calling (“little fool”) might seem perjorative toward his colleague, it wasn’t a judgment against him.  It was simply an observation about his worldview and lack of understanding—“Don’t you realize that we all have this hunger for finding our unique place in the world?  Why would you think I wouldn’t understand this?  I, too, am searching for ultimate meaning and purpose in the world, just like you.  We’re in this together!”

We’re in this together!  Powerful words to hear from each other.  “I hold no judgment over you.  I too am in this same boat.  So let’s row together.  Let’s search for our unique places in the world together.  We’ll hold the space for each other as each of us questions, doubts, wonders, explores, discovers, identifies, and walks (and even stumbles along) the road one step at a time.  Together.”

Blinking or Winking Spirituality

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who studies manifestations of spirituality, uses the helpful distinction between a wink and a blink.  The wink and the blink have in common certain physiological characteristics—they look alike.  But a blink is unintended, automatic, its purpose self-contained:  to lubricate the eye.

A wink, on the other hand, has a different kind of purpose:  it conveys an intention—it is necessarily directed at another.  Why?  because the wink can succeed only as a wink if it is perceived by the other person as a wink and not a blink.  Right?

Dr. Geertz summarizes:

“Our most human behavior is fundamentally intentional, and intentionality becomes actualized only as effective co-intentionality:  which means simply that it takes two to make a wink; we cannot be humanly in isolation from others.”

Healthy spirituality can be developed with “blinking.”  It is a recognition of that sometimes automatic response we have to life–a sense of awe, gratitude, appreciation.  It’s a “lubricating” of the eye of our hearts and minds and souls.

But a deeper kind of spirituality is developed and grown with “winking.”  It’s intentional, mutual, done in community, and signifies a sense of being in relationship with others in a pleasing, nonanxious way, being able to both see and embrace the wisdom of others.

We can’t ignore the “blinking” spirituality.  But we need to especially pay attention to the “winking” aspect.

Matina Horner reminds us,

“To ‘feel less alone’ is without doubt an ultimate quest of all of life, yet perhaps never before has loneliness been so widespread as it is today.”

We need more winking.  Don’t you think?

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