Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The uses of withdrawing

Sorry, not that kind of withdrawing. I wish I did have something persuasive to say to those who have invaded but that is very unlikely as invasions begin in ignorance, procede in delusion and end as self fulfilled prophecies even when they fail. The good moment for cooling the fever to invade is the time when the leaders are building up the cause and laying up sandbags of willful ignorance about who exactly the enemy is. Afterwards, persuasion is like swimming up a waterfall.

Fortifications protect you from seeing the whole story better than they protect you from the weapons of your supposed enemy.

No, today's breath of hot air is about personal withdrawing, sometimes called "retreat" in a religious context. Being a perpetual outsider in the world of beliefs, I constantly garble the activities of the religious since I see nothing but the externaly evident part of a largely internal procedure. Religious hermits, monks who abjure comforts and company in an attempt to draw nearer some kind of truth or perception by subtracting what is distracting or even "sinful"...with all these, I imagine I share a primal need for peace and quiet. People who wish they could just live in complete isolation may only resent the interruptions that others pose to a rich inner life. I imagine that in quiet, I could think my thoughts clear through to their conclusions. We would-be or part time hermits might not be crazy and if we got our wish, could manage not to go crazy. But how would we spend our hours of isolation when not chopping our own wood and carrying our own water? I find it very hard to keep my mind from returning again and again to making sense of things I learned , heard and experienced in the company of others. We are born and raised in company, we evolved with community. We do not need language to worship or to understand, but only to talk to each other.

For most of us, withdrawal from the din of living is refreshing but best taken in small doses. I suspect we take vacations as much to get away from who we are at work as to rest from the work itself. I have fellow workers whose vacations I enjoy very much.

But there is another kind of withdrawing, a scary prospect but more liberating than the typical shuning of din and interruptions of others and their business and agendas. Recognize, for instance, that our resentment of the talkative not only congests our understanding of the talker but replaces our own thoughts with annoyance. If it is not to be a conversation, why waste the chance to at least listen? Analysis, judgement and assessment are subtle forms of resistance but they are going to take place whether or not you struggle to gainsay or one-up your chatty companions. And if they never pause to ask you what you think, would they take in the wit of the rejoinder you distracted yourself to produce? The withdrawal I want to suggest is, in even the worst and sloppiest company, to pull away from yourself and just be there as a listener. I ask you to try it as a kind of meditation, a kind available in elevators, on street corners, in the midst of office holiday parties.

I have heard it said by a psychotherapist, whom I know to be a great listener, that The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson had, and the Dalai Lama has, a gift of making the person who has been granted an audience feel that they, who have come with their question, are actually the most important person in the room. I don't think Mother Teresa's vocation ever prompted a vacation either. Did any of those leaders plan an invasion?

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