What do you see when you come face to face with another person?
In a contemplation and meditation group that I lead, we sometimes do a particular practice where everyone pairs off, sits opposite one another and simply looks at the other person. Of course that ‘simply’ is the pertinent word. The problem for most of us is that we don’t know how to look simply. When we look at anything, what we actually register is distorted by filters and veils – expectations, preconceptions, judgements, conditioning and so on. Neither do we know how simply to be looked at. The point of the practice is to bring ourselves just as we are. We allow ourselves to be seen, as far as we can, without putting on masks or having our defences in place. At the same time we try, as best as we can, to see the other person as they really are – to look beyond all their masks and defences to their heart.
fear of the dark places
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the thing most people say when they first do this is how vulnerable it makes them feel. There is a lot of fidgeting and giggling and general displacement activity, as the false-self or the ego squirms under the unaccustomed scrutiny of another. There is great anxiety about what the other person will see. The ego – the false-self has it’s dark places; the ones that if people knew about might cause us to be rejected, the places that cause us to feel shame. When we add into the mix, the dark recesses of our unconscious mind – the things not even we are consciously aware of – the ego has a great deal it feel it must defend and hide. The urge to cover ourselves with layer upon layer of ‘fig-leaves’ is almost overwhelming.
Sometimes we feel almost as uncomfortable looking at the other, as being looked at ourselves. We are brought up to believe that it’s rude to stare, so we are uncomfortable with the defencelessness of the other. We don’t want to see their secret shame either If we are empathetic it can cause us to feel their embarrassment as our own. Even if we are not especially empathetic, the fear arises that if we can see their dark places, then perhaps they can see ours.
the unobstructed gaze
All contemplation and meditation requires vulnerability. In contemplation both our aim and our method is the unobstructed gaze; the beholding of absolute, unvarnished reality. It’s a two way process – in order to behold we must allow ourselves to be beheld. We engage with God, with the universe, with each other, with ourselves, without the filters on. The habitual masks that we wear, and the roles that we play day by day are no longer relevant in that moment. Contemplation brings us, little by little, to the same point Moses came to on the mountain when God told him that no one could see his face and live. If we are to come face to face with that which is absolute, infinite and eternal, something has to die, and the ego fears death above all else. When we sit down and allow ourselves to engage in the simplicity of mutual beholding, we have no trappings, no liturgy, no doctrine, no interpretations to hide behind. There is nothing to save us, or fix us or make us anything other than we truly are. All pretense is done with – there is only Presence. The ego – the false self cannot live in the pure light of Presence. Either the ego begins to die, or it runs away and hides.
naked and empty
We come with nothing but who we are, hoping to find something or someone we cannot be certain is actually there. Stripped of everything – our defences, roles, masks, the trappings of religion and even of ‘spirituality.’ We find ourselves naked and empty of belief, let alone certainty. This is the state of true humility and faith, without which we cannot fully engage with God.
The people in my meditation group discovered something powerful as they allowed themselves to journey, naked and empty, through their feelings of vulnerability. As they remained present to the other person, they began to see them as if for the first time. They reported seeing them at all ages – past and future. They saw the masks and roles, and then as they continued to look, saw those begin to dissolve. They began to glimpse in the heart of the other their true identity – the one made in the image and likeness of God – the Christ in them that is the hope of glory. In a very real and immediate way, they entered into the Presence of God – seeing the other and being seen with the eyes of God.
Perhaps I can finish by asking you the same questions I asked the group members:
- What would it be like if we could engage with everything in the same way?
- What if we were able to be present with every person, every living being, every natural and manufactured thing?
- How would it be if, even for a few moments, we were utterly open and defenceless to the whole universe?