One part of leading an authentic life is about being conscientious with our body, and trying not to repetitively deceive our own physiology (see last month's post about artificial sweeteners, as well as a little update at the bottom*). But that is not the only place where we are being numbed into disconnection. A lot of our human authenticity is threatened by the way we connect to the outside world around us, especially the people we know and love. How do you communicate with them? How often do you feel that you have made a real connection? It's easy these days to do a lot of communicating, but not very much connecting. There is an important distinction between them–we can speak, write, or text a lot, but that doesn't mean that a real connection is being built. Other times–miraculously–we may not need to say very much, but feel that there is really good understanding and that a deeper connection develops. Those latter experiences are more rare, but also more valuable. So how do we create a space where we can really connect?
How well we connect depends a lot on how well we sense other people, and as human beings we sense each other on many different levels. There are twelve different ways that we sense–some of them directed inward toward our own body, and some directed outward (the six senses directed inward will be explored next month). The most familiar way that we look outward is, of course, with our vision. We depend on our eyesight for most of our waking hours, and many of our means of communication depend primarily on our vision (like emails, videos, texts, tweets, etc). Of course it is good if we can hear people too, and some, but not all of the technologies we use combine sound with vision. But even when we can see and hear a person through technology, we are negating other important pathways of connection. Let's lay these senses of connection out, as Rudolf Steiner described them in a series of lectures on social health. If we look for a relatively neutral sensing place we can start with the sense of vision. Vision does serve a somewhat middle, mediating role, because we see so many things every day, but we do not necessarily deeply engage with all of them, nor even really devote more attention towards them than a transient glance. But it is the starting place for almost all of our interactions.
Moving outward, beyond vision, we need to invoke the sense of warmth. Sounds strange, a sense of warmth? It's true. When we first come into contact with something (a more direct encounter than just seeing it) we sense the warmth of it. That warmth can take a lot of different forms, like temperature, friendliness, and moral intention. In fact, in order for us to really become interested in something, we have to engender a little bit of our own warmth–we sense warmth through stimulating our own warmth. And anything that communicates to us by a screen does not meet us with warmth. Interacting with a computer takes away our warmth. This is a fundamental challenge because warmth is part of how we maintain and strengthen our humanity.
Next, comes the sense of hearing. We might tap on something to learn more about its qualities–does it sound soft, metallic, hollow, dull? The quality of sound tells us more about an individual object or person.
Then, after the sense of hearing, comes the sense of word. Hearing and word might seem like the same thing, and it's true that they are often lumped together, but hearing a word is different than just hearing a sound. Consider when you pick out pieces of a conversation in a noisy restaurant, or when you are visiting a place where the language is foreign and suddenly you realize what a particular word means (which up until that moment had really just been a sound). It is a distinct sensing capacity.
After the sense of vision, of warmth, of hearing, of word, comes the sense of thought. It is very easy to hear someone speak a whole bunch of words and not understand the thought that stands behind them, or for two people to use the same words but be thinking different things. Understanding words is different than understanding thoughts. Sensing thought is its own capacity. It is much more difficult to invoke our sense of thought if the person communicating their thoughts is not sitting next to you.
Then there is one final outwardly directed sense, and that is the sense of I, which really refers to coming to know the person behind the words, behind the thoughts, as a true individuality. When they say “I”–what are they really speaking of? Their own being, their true core, their spiritual spark. Sensing this I is an even higher sense activity than sensing thoughts. It comes in the moments when we know that someone really hears us, really knows us for who we are. So truly, to fully connect means we need to invoke our six outwardly directed senses (vision, warmth, hearing, word, thought, and I).
Now when you read this, you are seeing it on a screen. How much of you, as a sensing human being, is involved? Well, vision–yes. Warmth? No, because a computer doesn't have warmth, it is not alive. Hearing? You do create the sounds inwardly when you read, but you are really seeing words that you then enliven into hearing. Thoughts? Hopefully, if you have read this far, you are able to connect with some of the thoughts. If you like the thoughts, the ideas, then maybe it creates some warmth, but it’s in a very strange and artificial order. And what about the sense of I? If you know someone well, then maybe reading their words, or seeing their face on Skype helps you evoke a memory of what they were like when you spent time together, but you can't really sense someone's ‘I’ over email or internet. It simply is not possible. The sense of warmth and the sense of I cannot be experienced unless you are meeting face-to-face. You can infer a lot, but you can't get all the way to a place of full connection. There are times when I have misinterpreted a close friend's emails, or written one thing but had it been understood in a very different way–and these were not even regarding controversial issues! Technological communication only meets part of our humanity. It compartmentalizes our interactions. It isn't whole. It's an abstraction that we somehow think should be just as good as the whole thing, but we need to sense so much more than it routinely conveys.
Work to sense the whole person by invoking of all six of these specific senses. Face to face communication works so much better. Remembering this helps us stay authentic in our relationships.