A Softening-of-the-Heart Task

 The Request

Recently, I asked someone I knew if I could talk to him for a few minutes. I will call him Eric.

We walked for a short while. I explained the issue. Then we stopped. I was facing Eric directly as he turned to give what I will call his “verbal position paper” on the topic. He was wearing sunglasses, his face angled upward, his jaw, firm, his body arched backwards at a comfortable level. And then he spoke.

It was clear to me, at that moment, that Eric had total control of the space he was in. I was convinced that his body actually began to stretch upwards, his voice sounding like hot taffy, consonants tapping softly on top of long rubber-band vowels.

I felt I was in a re-run of a 1930s Cary-Grant black-and-white film. Blue-blood, Boston-Brahmin, old-money territory.

The Battle For Control, the Conquest, the Defeat

Two people in a conversation. They are standing in front of each other, each occupying their own space but, at the same time, sharing a circle of space. The physical space between them offers no clue of any tension. And no one is holding up any fists. Not infrequently, there is an invisible battle for control as, eventually, the entire circle becomes dominated by the assertive power of one of them.

Imagine, for example, if your personal-space color is red. You meet a person and their personal-space color is blue (Like Eric, the blue-blood guy). You are standing facing each other. The blue-color-space guy starts to speak.

Suddenly, your red-color space starts to fade. You can feel the tectonic shift in power. Your confident red begins to feel like spaghetti sauce being attacked by a gallon of heavy cream. You feel yourself shrinking. Your eyes start squinting, beads of sweat careening down your eyelids. You begin to hear a soft hissing sound in both ears. And then your heart begins thumping against your chest like some wild drunk slamming his fist against your apartment door at three in the morning.

Everything begins to slow down. You’re in slow motion.  You look across at the abductor-of-your-space guy. You see his lips moving. You hear sounds in the background. Vague sounds. A car hisses by. The front wheel of a baby carriage catches your pant leg, a baby’s blood-curdling scream moving off slowly into the distant hum of city traffic. And then the angry rumble of a 12 wheeler quietly streams by in back of your blue-space guy, words tumbling out of his mouth like projectile vomit in slow motion.

The feel of defeat. That sense that nothing you have ever felt about yourself really matters. That the person in front of you knows the game and has won it. That you would rather be somewhere else.

We’ve All Been There

My friends, I think we’ve all been there.

Power. Dominance. Conquest. Weakness. Submission. Defeat.

How do we become entangled in these conquest/defeat games? How do we suddenly find ourselves diminished by someone else’s presence? Why do we start shrinking into irrelevancy when listening to an Alpha male expound upon the meaning of the universe, the best deal in town for an oil change, or why climate change is a hoax.

Feeling diminished in the presence of a patronizing blue-blood and Alpha male is the flip side, for me, of feeling tightly self-righteous listening to a condescending conservative politician or a smug finance-industry CEO.

A Simple Video Task

I’m not quite ready to practice any skills that would center me in the presence of an enraged, gun-slinging red-neck, or even a go-for-your-throat, four-testicle Alpha male. But I’ve recently discovered that it is possible to practice some kind of detached objectivity as I take notes in front of a utube video of a politician whose political style is somewhere between corporate-speak and your worse nightmare of an oily, overly earnest motivational speaker.

Yeah, ok, I know I’m doing a meditation-lite task here Maybe even a little graduate-school nerd approach.

But watching lengthy videos of a public figure who drives me nuts has really slowed me down. Have to admit, though, that my growth doing this task is definitely not linear. I often find myself screaming inside:

“You’re a nut case.

“You’re really, really stupid.”

“You were hatched from an already cracked egg”

“Your father must have…..”

Well you get the picture.

A Quiet Metamorphosis, Connection, the Softening of the Heart

And then. And then, my friends, this wily little politician says something gentle, something reasonable, something good-hearted.

I sit back in my chair. I hold my breath. I exhale. I soften. I start gliding gently down into a cushion of plush, soft-needle pine trees. I am back in my mother’s womb. All is forgiven.

I start to tear up; to make plans to clean out all my closets for a trip to the Salvation Army; to make a phone call to my closest friend to take her out to dinner; to write a check to the nearest half-way house.

“What’s going on in there?” as a caring mother gently taps the head of her rebellious teenager.

Well, my friends, It’s called “connecting.” Some would call it a “bridge.” Others might call it a “common-interest.” And others might even call it “compassion.” Pema Chödrön might call it “the softening of the heart.”

I hope to continue to learn by this simple task of watching videos of public personages I thought I could never like. It’s been a very rewarding and therapeutic task. It is, however, not without its stomach-growling moments.

But the task does show me, even on an anecdotal level, that the capacity for connection and compassion is in all of us. We just have to honestly, and with an open mind, give it a shot.


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