Retreat, day five: Socialization and dialogue

Dimensions of dialogue

“Man is a social animal” writes Aristotle.  Yet the meeting of two people in dialogue can take grotesque forms.

Image enhanced from original by Jan Svankmeyer

– by B. T. Newberg

The world begins to hum.

That is how I felt today as I cruised along the Midtown Greenway on my bicycle in the midst of an afternoon drizzle.  In such rain I could have been huddled with teeth gritted; instead, I felt relaxed and open.  It wasn’t that I was ecstatic, nor oblivious of the world.  I just felt at one with experience.  Colors were a bit more vivid and sounds a tad more full.  I’d felt it before, on Buddhist retreats and at times when I felt “in the zone.”  D. T. Suzuki was once asked what it was like to experience satori, or enlightenment.  He responded, “Just like everyday ordinary experience, but two inches off the ground.”  Now, I’m not about to compare my experience to enlightenment – whatever that might mean.  But it’s true that there is a different quality of experience that manifests at times of high spiritual functioning.  The world begins to hum.

Today I’m going to talk about socialization.  It’s a topic of some controversy in retreats, and one I’ve been looking forward to all week.


The typical meditation retreat cuts off socialization, save for others going through the same experience.  All the social crutches are taken away, so that nothing remains to keep you from facing yourself.  A total break is made from the world of daily routine.  There is value in this, to be sure.  Yet, it’s a double-edged sword.  Although great insight can be gained, one does not learn how to maintain that insight in a social environment.  At the end of the retreat, one goes back into the social world and quickly slips back into old habits.  If, on the other hand, insight is achieved in a socially integrated context, it may be easier to hold onto it once the retreat ends.  That is one reason why socialization is a primary feature of this Humanistic Pagan retreat.

Another reason is that Humanism is concerned with human fulfillment, and social contact is a basic human need.  “Man is a social animal” writes Aristotle.  Thus, a primary goal of any Humanistic path ought to be orienting the individual toward others.  The development of key social skills, such as empathy and perspective-taking, should rank high on the list of objectives.  For this reason too, socialization features in this retreat.

This is not entirely without precedent.  Although many spiritual teachers have emphasized the essential aloneness of the individual, others have disagreed.  Gurdjieff, for example, taught his pupils to seek enlightenment within everyday life.  In the Classical world, Epicurus prized conversation at meals; he was famed for saying he would rather not eat than eat alone.  Socrates made a life of engaging his contemporaries with questions.  Confucius, too, created a way whose basic orientation was toward society.  And the Vimalakirti Sutra of Mahayana Buddhism likewise affirmed the possibility of enlightenment for the householder.  So, there is a long tradition of socialization within a spiritual context.

I take time in the retreat each evening to be with friends.  On Day One, I met with my good friend Drew Jacob, author of  He and I share different beliefs but similar orientations to life and living.  Drew has unwavering clarity of vision, tempered by a jovial sense of humor (and a booming laugh).  But what stands out most is his sincerity.  How often do you meet someone who makes you feel like you’re really being seen?  Being heard?  It’s a rare trait.

Other evenings I’ve spent with my fiancé.  She doesn’t share my beliefs either, and it is awkward sometimes trying to explain what I’m doing and why.  Yet she is ever willing to listen, and even when she doesn’t agree she always keeps a sense of humor about it.  It’s a wonderful personality trait, and one of the reasons I love her.

I mention these traits of Drew and my fiancé because the company you keep is relevant to personal growth.  The more you surround yourself with positive people, the more positive you become.  The converse is also true – negative friends can drag you down.  So, discernment in friends is a key aspect of spiritual socialization.

Over the course of the retreat, I’ve noticed a change in the way I relate to people.  As I sat with my fiancé over breakfast on the morning of Day One, I felt turned toward her, not just in body but also in mind.  The mention of “turning” is felicitous, for in another context it constitutes a primary spiritual practice.

Agamemnon Watches as Achilles Presents the Prize of Wisdom to Nestor during the Funeral Games, by Michel Martin Drolling

The Iliad is in many ways a story of mismeeting between Achilles and Agamemnon, but in the end they enter dialogue and make amends.

Image enhanced from original by Michel Martin Drolling

Dialogue and the Practice of Turning

After good experiences with socialization the first few days of the retreat, I decided to take it a step further.  For deeper insight, I turned to Martin Buber, whose existential spirituality made a religion of conversation.  Dialogue, Buber felt, is where we meet God in the eyes of the other.

At one time in his life, he practiced Hasidic mysticism, but an experience changed his mind.  After a morning of ecstatic elevation, an unknown young man came to him with a question.  Buber, still with half a mind on his morning’s reverie, failed to listen with his full being.  He writes in his book Meetings:

I conversed attentively and openly with him – only I omitted to guess the questions which he did not put.  Later, not long after, I learned from one of his friends – he himself was no longer alive – the essential content of his questions; I learned that he had come to me not casually, but borne by destiny, not for a chat but for a decision.

After that, Buber gave up mysticism and devoted himself wholly to the art of dialogue.  His most famous book, I and Thou, is a poetic exposition of spiritual socialization.  The crucial discipline in this path is the act of “turning.”  By this, Buber means turning away from self-centered preoccupations and toward the other, in body and soul.  This, I felt, was the instruction needed to take my socialization to a higher level.  For the remainder of the retreat, I resolved to practice the act of turning.

I can think of a time when I definitely did not achieve this kind of turning.  It was years ago, when I was with a previous girlfriend.  During our intimate moments, I would describe her body in poetic phrases.  How surprising it was when she asked me to stop.  “I feel like a piece of clay,” she said.  “A piece of the clay that you’re molding into something I’m not.”  That was a revelatory experience for me.  People don’t want to be extolled; they want to be seen.  Seen for who they really are.  To truly be with her, I had to give up all semblances and turn to her completely.

There were plenty of opportunities to do better with my fiancé during the retreat.  As she arrived home from work, vented frustrations about her day, or just moved in for a hug, I found myself half-involved.  At these moments I deliberately stopped what I was doing or thinking about, and turned to her.  Within me I could feel a qualitative change.  It actually felt different to relate in this way.

I noticed a response in her, too.  As I went through the retreat in the apartment we share, she seemed infected by the positive energy – unusually bright, cheerful, and open.  I felt her turn to me like few times before.  Whether this was a result of the spiritual socialization or just the positive ambiance of the retreat, I cannot say.  When I told her how I felt more open and turned toward her, she said she couldn’t tell.  She can never tell with me; I guess my expression of emotions is subtle (which is an interesting insight in itself, but that’s a matter for another time).  Nevertheless, there was a new openness swirling between us.  During the retreat came one of the most intimate nights of our relationship.

I do not wish to make a guru of Buber – there are certainly aspects of his work to criticize (go here for a critique from a polytheist viewpoint).  Yet, with a little creativity, it can be applied fruitfully to a broad range of spiritual paths ( for example, go here for an application to ADF Druidry).  Humanistic Paganism in particular stands to gain, not the least because Buber himself has been called a humanist.  In any case, dialogue, Buberian or otherwise, can be a powerful agent of personal growth.

When this retreat began, I wasn’t sure how socialization was going to play out.  Would it hinder introspection, by cluttering the mind with chit-chat and social posturing?  Would it cause conflict as I engaged with people who did not share my retreat experience?  Neither of these have turned out to be a problem.  On the contrary, socialization has led me even deeper.  And since I have arrived at insight within a social context, perhaps it will not be as difficult to integrate that insight as I return to everyday social activity.  Time will tell, but prospects appear hopeful.

Green Dialogue

When two people turn two each other with body and mind, genuine dialogue can take place.

Image enhanced from original

6 Comments on “Retreat, day five: Socialization and dialogue

  1. “The world begins to hum” – I love that feeling.

    And wow, thank you for the incredibly kind words Brandon!

    Something I was going to mention – I think retreat in a cut-off-from-the-world way doesn’t need to be as useless as you paint it to be. You mention that “one does not learn how to maintain that insight in a social environment,” but that makes me wonder what sorts of retreats you’ve been on. Every retreat I’ve attended included some sort of preparation for going back to the everyday world and guidance on keeping the benefits of retreat.

    I do agree that practice “in the world” also has tremendous benefits. But it’s also ridiculously harder than practice in focused solitude. There are distractions, temptations and, hardest of call, cues/triggers for your usual habits and behaviours. It is possible to work through those, but very hard unless one already has a solid understanding of their practice.

    In general, I would say sequestered retreat is the “first grade” of retreats and retreat-in-the-world is more like Middle School. Most kids need to go through the grades in order 🙂

    • I didn’t mean to paint sequestered retreats as useless, just challenging in terms of returning to the daily world. But you make a good point that a socially-integrated retreat offers plenty of other challenges. And a sequestered retreat may be easier for the novice in some way, especially if the structure and discipline of the retreat has already been laid out by others, and your only responsibility is to go through it and give it your all.

      I would argue, though, that the one is not necessarily more advanced than the other. It depends on your goal. If you want to really get quiet and concentrated, a sequestered retreat is definitely the way to go. If you want to “transcend” the world (whatever that may mean), again sequestering is the right move. If you want to “get away from it all” enough that you can return to the social world with renewed energy, sequester away. But if you want to learn how to live a socially-integrated life well, then why start with anything but integration?

      • Because starting with an in-the-world retreat as your very first retreat is likely to fail.

        I don’t mean this to be a sweeping generalization. I’m sure there are people who have done it.

        But going on a sequestered retreat gives you the grounding in how to do retreat. It helps you understand the structure of retreat, the moments of temptation to abandon it, and the value of completing it nonetheless.

        Those temptations are easy to recognize when quitting means a 4 hour drive home. Not so easy to recognize when quitting might mean checking facebook or sleeping in.

        In general, on any arc of education, it’s more effective to start with easier, more structured practices and then work up to harder, more relies-on-the-individual-deciding-what-to-do practices. It really has nothing to do with the goal of the retreat; you can pursue transcendence in your livingroom or self-knowledge in mountain cave.

        To me, it’s just a matter of lesson plan.

  2. Okay, I agree with that. You do need to learn how to “do retreat” before you can expect wonders from a retreat on your own. That’s true.

    This has caused me to reflect on what I meant in the first place by “one does not learn to maintain that insight in a social environment.” The retreats that I’ve been on, which included Chan, Zen, Vipassana, and Thai Buddhist retreats, did include some instruction on setting up a daily meditation practice to continue building insight to some degree.

    What I realize now is that perhaps it would be more productive to say that insight that emerges in a sequestered context may be qualitatively different from insight that emerges in a socially-integrated context, and is embedded within a different set of stimuli that recall that insight.

    Identity, beliefs, and perceptions are incredibly social in nature. My experience observing myself and others is that people will come to different conclusions on the same problem depending on the people they are around (or not around). Thus, insights arrived at in solitude may be qualitatively different from those arrived at in a social situation, and insights arrived at in different social circles may likewise be different. Including socialization with close friends in a retreat experience allows the insight to grow organically from the same social setting that will support you after the retreat. Thus, there is a smooth transition, because the stimuli of the setting in which you learned the new habits will continue to be present in your life after the retreat, continuing to call up those new habits.

    Does that make any more sense?

  3. Pingback: An experiment in spiritual socialization | Humanistic Paganism

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