Togetherness requires presence

With nearly eight billion people in our world, and previously unimaginable forms of communication at our fingertips, why is it that togetherness is becoming a lost art?

Almost all that defines our humanity is deeply tied up with our desire and predisposition for togetherness. Everything we have achieved, from the perspective-changing technological achievements like putting a man on the moon to the death-defying feats of modern medicine, we have done thanks to our hyper-social nature. 

It is no wonder that so much of what infuses our lives with meaning is rooted in some form of connection to one another. Whether our desire for connection and togetherness are direct like when we choose to spend our free time with friends and family, or more indirect like when we create art that forms a bridge between our internal experiences and those of others, almost everything we love to do loses a part of its meaning and pleasure when done in isolation. 

Modern-day living has made us more connected and more aware of one another than ever before. But at the same time, there is a kind of deep loneliness that is taking hold of many communities. The kind of loneliness that sees many people spending time in close proximity to one another but feeling deeply disconnected and unseen.

In his book titled ‘Loneliness Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection’ Social Neuroscientist John Cacioppo, a leading voice in our understanding of the importance of human connection for every aspect of our wellbeing, points out that “when people are asked what pleasures contribute most to happiness, the overwhelming majority rate love, intimacy and social affiliation above wealth or fame, [and] even above physical health.” Given the importance of social connection for our wellbeing, the observation that the quality of our connections is dwindling is as worthy of our attention as almost all the other crises that face our species.  

Togetherness offers the kind of redemptive experience that acts as a balm for most common human woes. This kind of powerful, transformative connection requires more than proximity. It requires presence. A deep, mutual presence that demands our willingness to let go of all distraction, both internal and external.

From our multitude of media options and the ubiquity of screens to the many and varied external demands placed on our attention in our everyday lives, it can be hard to summon the energy to leave all else behind when we are in each other’s company. Togetherness requires the presence of both, or all, involved in a choreographed exchange that has a rhythm of give and take; a synchronised dance of mutual reciprocity. Many of us have a sense for the fact that if we allow external distraction to intrude into this dance, we can never truly delight in each other’s company.  

But togetherness requires more than our ability to fend off the distractions from the external world. Distraction, more than anything, comes from within. Distracted by our own thoughts, preoccupations, worries and apprehensions, it is first and foremost an inability to stop focusing on the self and personal concerns that keeps us from truly connecting to one another.

Cacioppo’s many years of research led him to the conclusion that “the secret to gaining access to social connection and social contentment is being less distracted by one’s own psychological business – especially the distortions based on feelings of threat. When any of us feel connected, the absence of social pain and the absence of a sense of threat allows us to be truly there: in sync with others.” 

It is only in the act of letting go of our own ego in the presence of others that we can form the kind of connections we yearn for. By focusing our attention away from the self and taking a true interest in the other we can begin to dissolve the boundaries that exist between us to meet in that revitalising space that exists only in the dissolution of the self and connection to something greater. 

In a world constantly broadcasting we can take the revolutionary stance of allowing ourselves to be fully open to receiving? Listening by gifting all of our attention to the other, we should cultivate the ability to make the person opposite us feel like they are the only person in the world. 

In his book titled The Lost Art of Listening, Professor Michael Nichols, reminds us that the “sustained attention of careful listening – that takes strenuous and unselfish restraint. To listen well we must forget ourselves and submit to the other person’s need for attention”.

Only when we begin to understand the crucial importance of togetherness for our thriving and begin to take it as seriously as we take our productivity and achievement, will we begin to move away from the loneliness that keeps us at a distance from one another. Only the dissolution of our ego-bound sense of self offers the kind of healing, redemptive experience necessary for coping with this complex, paradoxical world we find ourselves in. 

In a heart-warming and uplifting interview for On Being, Father Greg Boyle (the founder of Homeboy Industries), discloses that he often repeats the words “Now. Here. This”, prior to one of the youth’s he works with coming to see him. These words serve as a gentle reminder “to be present and right here to the person in front of me”. This beautiful interview brings to light just how much there is to be gained from letting go of the self in order to be fully present with the other.

As a reminder of the timeless universality of our desire to connect with one another, Krista Tippet, who hosts the On Being podcast, ties up her conversation with Fr Boyle through the 14th Century poem written by the Persian poet, Hafez which Fr Boyle included in his book Tattoos on the Heart:

With that moon language

“Admit something: Everyone you see, you say to them, ‘Love me.’ / Of course you do not do this out loud, otherwise someone would call the cops. / Still, though, think about this, this great pull in us to connect. / Why not become the one who lives with a full moon in each eye that is always saying, / with that sweet moon language, what every other eye in this world is dying to hear?”

Although written in an entirely different time, these words deliver a potent reminder that our ability to truly delight in each other’s company is directly tied up with the amount of ego we are willing let go of in each moment. What we seek for our individual wellbeing, ironically, is found in our willingness to let go of our self-focus and our ability to rest, fully present, in this moment with the other. Only by fully embracing the mutuality of relationships can we begin to rediscover where delight resides. 

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