Updated: May 24, 2021
Two ideas, I think, have often made my conversations unsatisfying: thinking I have something important to say, and thinking I need to demonstrate that I am worthy of admiration or love.
These two ideas are hard to disentangle and are probably just one fundamental idea—what Eckhart Tolle would call the agenda of the Ego. Whatever we call them, they transform conversations into missions.
Missions induce tunnel vision: What the other person says, the nuances of the particular situation—these are lost on me. I am focused on my mission.
Missions are also something to plan carefully: I know what I need to say, so I stockpile my sentences. Then I wait behind my frightened stockade for the first opportunity to unleash them like so much musket fire.
Such encounters leave me exhausted and with a vague sense of guilt.
But as my recent, wonderful visit with my sister, niece, and nephew reminded me, the way to have a satisfying conversation is not to know what I'm going to say. To empty myself.
Then I may learn something. Then I may be delighted. The delight will come, I have found, from an interplay, a back and forth. Maybe a dance, maybe a tennis game. My partner delights me, and I delight me too. For I surprise myself.
For this to happen, I must have no agenda other than the joy of the encounter. That requires a kind of discipline. It requires a conscious letting go. Even a small death (which I think is why we tend to fear public speaking as much or more than death itself).
This capacity to meet the moment is the way of animals in the wild.
It is also the way of Zen. “In the beginner’s mind,” writes Sunryu Suzuki, “there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.” Many possibilities are needed to meet the nuances of every fresh moment—what Ralph Waldo Emerson called “the thousand-eyed present.”
But this is not the Western way. We think serious, morally righteous, impressive things must be formulated beforehand in the mind. And thus we drag what Emerson called “the corpse of our memory,” into every new encounter. This is the ammunition we stockpile—my memory of what I need to prove.
I think it's critical to point out that such agendas are often full of good intentions. The agenda can even be what we take to be a spiritual one. But it is still an agenda. Still a corpse. This is why spirituality tends to have a reputation for being boring and oppressive. Bullets can be spiritual.
Any agenda, I've found, misses the opportunity for a miracle. For what I think is the central miracle of existence and the central message of Christ: All is taken care of, even the serious things, when we adopt the playful, beginner’s approach.
As Christ put it, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things will be added unto you." The kingdom of God, as Eckhart Tolle has said, is being present in each new now.
When I do this, I come away from conversations feeling more love, more belonging.
And somehow my subsequent actions are more... right. Not conventionally “right,” as in part of a rigid mission or program. But subtly, organically right. The "right" that meets the new moment. It is as though these conversations give me invisible sustenance that fuels me forward.
This reminds me of something I recently learned about that "daily bread" of the Lord's Prayer. The original Greek asks that we be given our epiousion bread. The meaning of epiousion is unclear, for it appears nowhere else in ancient Greek texts. But it definitely doesn’t mean "daily."
In fact, it could mean almost the opposite of our regular old physical bread. It seems to be a combination of epi-, meaning “super,” and ousia, meaning “substance.” Around 380, St. Jerome translated it as “supersubstantial.” Today, the Catholic church says the most literal translation is “super-essential,” and that our epiousion bread “refers directly to the Bread of Life, the Body of Christ, the ‘medicine of immortality,’ without which we have no life within us.”
Good conversations, then, are like good meals. They are each metaphors for one another. And I think they are both metaphors for some mysterious third, epiousion thing—the ongoing divine communion that is our daily lives.
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