If you are interested in the door to the heavens opening, start with the door to your own secret self. See what happens when you offer to another a glimpse of who you really are. Start slowly.
when I first got accepted to volunteer at Zen Hospice Project thirty years ago, what would you guess?
but too naïve or too eager to be of service to admit that. What I was knowingly afraid of was… wait for it… small talk! Those casual, light conversations typically used to establish rapport (or fill awkward silences) in social interactions. I couldn’t deal with small talk in high school – I mean, can anybody??? – and it only got worse from there.
I imagined high levels of small talk aptitude would be required for being around hospice patients. I knew we gotta start someplace but to me, small talk is so tedious and useless I get super antsy just thinking about it. It often follows predictable scripts, leaving little room for genuine exploration of what has heart and meaning.
Aside from the fact that I had little skill at it, small talk by definition lacks depth or substance and offers little genuine connection, all of which – heart, meaning, depth, real connection – I have always held as, well, the most important things in life.
Thankfully, people living and dying at the Guest House, the five-bed Zen Hospice residence in Hayes Valley right across from the San Francisco Zen Center, had very little interest in social pretense and zero patience for bullshit.
Most residents were regular civilians, young men from the Castro (this was the early 90’s in the city) and older cancer patients who for whatever reasons could not be cared for at home. You can’t imagine how relieved I was to discover that small talk was not required! The residents were done with looking good, trying hard, positioning and posturing. Also, apparently done wasting time on social blah blah blah. I could be real with these people, living and dying and being together without the usual blather.
How often has superficial chit-chat left you unsatisfied, hungry, feeling like you just missed an opportunity for a deeper engagement or a soulful exchange?
Plus, if you are introverted, socially anxious, shy or neurodivergent, you may struggle with the pressure to engage in small talk, and if you fail, end up with feelings of discomfort or exclusion, lack of confidence or inadequacy.
What’s even worse, in the words of Elizabeth Lesser, “we feel vaguely diminished from this ordinary interaction, and from hundreds of similar interactions we have from month to month and year to year. When we don’t share the secret ache in our hearts–the normal bewilderment of being human–it turns into something else. Our pain, and fear, and longing, in the absence of company, become alienation, and envy, and competition.”
Why waste it on trivial banter? Why not go to the heart of the matter, at least with the people in your life who can take a healthy dose of real?
This is the essence of “partner practice” I invite you into if you’re part of longer term groups with us and something I do regularly with my peers. We skip the chit chat and cut to the chase, sharing and exploring together what’s meaningful, important, aggravating, delightful, inspiring in our lives.
And you, lovely one? How are you today–really?
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