I once knew a young man who was devoted to the path of Buddhism. He felt that the monastic life was the best life, and the best one for him because he was passionate about freeing himself from the suffering of samsara and through prayer and meditation moving the world closer to that liberation as well as he could. He and I got on famously: we had amazing conversations and connected really deeply. He was not yet a monk when we were friends.
He did, however, come to have a crush on me.
He was a regular at the very quirky café where I worked in my mid-twenties: it was the kind of café where all the regulars knew each other and when people came for their coffee they were there to settle in and hang out. When I saw them coming down the hill I could frequently have their drink done and ready by the time they walked through the door. Laptops weren’t a thing then, but shooting the shit with the locals still was (I miss those days), and he came to be one of the locals hanging around shooting the shit. The shit that got shot there was high caliber, feeding as it did a host of brilliant weirdos, academic intellectuals, counter-cultural visionaries, and my friend the aspiring monk, among others. It was a good scene.
The crush though; he tried to hide it for a while but it got to be so blatant that it was awkward. Sweet, but awkward, and lovely in many ways, like the times he brought me poems torn from books, or when he carried my bag up the very steep hill on my way home after I had twisted my ankle at the cafe. He was deep, earnest, and fully present in all of our interactions. But our interactions were often very odd. As time progressed and he liked me more and more, it became ever more odd and strained to talk with him. He had lots of projections about what people (me) should and should not be doing or saying or feeling, what was “righteous” and what was not, what was spiritual and what was not. And there was obviously deep conflict between the reality of his human emotions and the world of his buddhist ideals.
I don’t remember the content, but one time we had an argument. He had been getting on me about something and I was like “Yo, you need to back off with this Buddhist shit, N: I haven’t taken any vows and neither have you so chill the fuck out already.” He lost his temper, then started yelling. I walked away from him and didn’t see him again for a few days. When I did, he came back to the café after it had closed and we talked for a little while.
I’ll never forget this particular moment: standing there in the gathering dusk, visibly squirming in discomfort and in a very pained voice he said, as if a confession, “I…. I…. I’m….. I’m just… I’m not very good at human relationship.”
I felt as if the whole of his soul were laid there at my feet all of a sudden, like he had let me into the deepest secret he carried and was terrified to speak it aloud, and wanted reassurance.
I quietly responded “That’s pretty normal. Most people aren’t.”
What touched me about this moment, which is forever clear in my mind, was the palpable pain in his admission. Something about that has always stayed with me: his sense of failure was like a heavy scent in the air between us. That, and the shame. We didn’t talk much after that: he slowly withdrew from the world of the café and disappeared from my life.
I always wonder if he was inclined to the monastic life because a part of him believed that it would be easier than trying to figure out how to relate to people in the chaos of the modern world. It’s definitely a thought I can relate to.
I wonder this because of the unfolding of my own life. I grew up as an only child of a single parent who had an explosive temper and was emotionally dissociative. There was (is) tremendous love between us, but it was an emotionally dangerous and traumatic reality for me, so I developed the skill of solitude. I lived in books and my art, with my cats and my imagination and the world beyond my walls. I’m naturally hermetic, so that was in alignment with my nature, but I developed that skill so well that I am still learning about how to be with people for more than a few hours at a time forty years later. Most of my life has been spent not just “single” but actually alone from human company, and my nervous system is most at rest in that state. I have a romantic companion now and we just spent a week snowed in together. It was a lovely and nourishing time of realizing that I can, actually, fully enjoy the sustained company of another person. Revelation. But then, there are also my house-and-land-mates, whose company I frequently resent and bristle about for no other reason than that they’re there and I wish I were alone so my nervous system could unwind and I could just rest into whatever I’m doing without having to talk with anyone if I leave my room.
I think that being “good” at relating is a skill some of us come to naturally and others of us have to really cultivate. And I know that communication is the key, no matter how that learning happens. I learned that again this morning when I got into it with one of my landmates. I got heated with her over something she was doing that wouldn’t have bothered me if I had dealt with something else I was annoyed by with her a few months ago, when it first happened. I never dealt with that thing, though, so everything after it was weighed by that thing as well as itself. She also hadn’t spoken to some things that were alive for her in a timely fashion for her own reasons. So then when we talked, it was more charged than it needed to be on both of our parts because of it, and though we came through it and came to a good place, it was a turbulent ride.
All this to say, really, we can give ourselves a break: this human-ing thing is a big deal, and it’s hard as fuck for most of us right now. We’re all sorting it out as we go.
There’s so much fucking trauma in everyone’s lineage, now compounding with fresh trauma being activated in so many people’s systems in our current conditions, and we’re so bombarded with all of this conflicting programming about how to be, how to feel, what to do, and how to do it, that it’s a miracle that we do as well as we do. Honestly, I think we’re doing really well given all the weight we’re carrying epigenetically and personally. We’re not out of the woods of any of our predicaments yet - not by a long shot - but I see so many showing up to this initiation with heart and soul, care and love, curiosity and honesty. Enough people that it gives me hope, and I am a skeptical woman.
I believe that, for the most part, we’re learning because we want to. We’re growing because we want to. We’re showing up as well as we can because we want to. It may not be enough, in the long run, to change the course of the trajectory we’re on as a collective, but I believe that if we stay rooted in heart, if we keep leaning in to the work of relating with ourselves, each other, and the great wild world around us, if we keep leaning in to the deep practice of learning to communicate well even when we’re stumbling and awkward and it sucks, if we keep at it all with diligence and love, that matters and carries a magic into the equation that will introduce unforeseen blessings into the process.
They say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but I know that when we actually do our best with full heart, even if we are messy as fuck and it doesn’t “go well” in any perceivable way on the surface, something deep and important moves in the heart and soul and makes subtle shifts that, over time, amount to big changes. This embodied life is for experiencing, and one of experiences deepest gifts is the transformational power of learning through participation.
I believe that if we participate to the best of our ability at all times, always letting Life and experience lead us into more and more revelation, growth, and evolution, we will be doing something profoundly important for the life of the world and the journey of our own Souls.
Take heart, my friends: it is a deep time and there is so much demanded of us right now. Breathe deeply and keep walking as well as you can. It is a good journey.
Blessings to you, wild Soul…. May you be well nourished.