Kitty Community

Our family includes two dogs (a sweet, behemoth of an Airedale and a Fox Terrier with an Othello-sized jealousy streak) and two cats (a sleek, black Siamese and her curvaceous, calico daughter). The dogs, Flash and Cowboy, stay indoors except for their walks and daily romps in the backyard. They lie next to their humans, follow them around the house, and wait impatiently for the next treat or playtime with their addiction of choice: The Kong! Neither will go outside to play without the other by his side.

The cats, Jezebel and Bebe, are much more independent. While Jezebel snuggles next to us every night, most of her day is spent outside. She and Bebe go their separate ways and roam the neighborhood, making friends and mostly taking naps in the sunniest spots they can find. Yet even these independent cats seek community: someone to lay next to, someone to groom and be groomed by, and someone with whom to dine.

We Americans emphasize the individual. Other societies emphasize community. Neither is right or wrong, good or bad, but a balance is needed.

When I visited Japan, I learned to greet people by their family name because that family identity is the most precious and accurate way of introducing one's self, more so than one's individual name. You simply won't find an empty bottle or scrap of paper lying on the sidewalk, even in major cities like Tokyo. Why? Because each person sees the sidewalk as her or his responsibility to keep clean on behalf of the whole community. In America our streets our littered with the debris of our self-preoccupation.

The downside of Japanese identification with the community is that the needs of the individual are often compromised for the sake of community, family, and corporate loyalty. Commuter trains are full of dapper business people just leaving work at 10pm on a Friday night.

Jezebel and Bebe embody a middle path that balances independence and belonging to one another. Most of us have lost the sense of being part of a village, much less the greater whole of humanity. Living alone, or in our nuclear families or with small families of choice, we feel starved for deeper human connection. Our self-centered stories fail to give us the context for who we are.

So how do we experience that balance of community and individuality? I asked the cats. They told me it's all about listening to the purr deep within you. Sometimes that purr compels you to be alone and explore the limits of your freedom. However, that purr always leads you back home, back to where your heart beats to the rhythm of another's heart. Back to where you are always welcomed with nourishment. Back home with the collective where you start to understand deep in your fur what all your individual wanderings meant. Curled up together, you can deeply least until the dogs arrive.

For reflection: Where do you sense an opportunity for deeper community? What is your next step in that direction?

P.S. If you live in the Bay Area, come join us for our weekly experiment with community: Tuesday Night Live.

Seeing Ear to Ear

Are you a good listener? Sometimes we give the appearance of listening through our silence, but we are actually busy generating potential responses to the speaker. The result is that we are not really present with the other person but rather with our own internal commentary.  Understanding and authentic connection evaporate. The next time someone shares something of importance with you, try this simple practice:

  • Allow the other person at least 5 minutes of uninterrupted time to speak.
  • Hold silence and withhold commentary, questions and any effort to fix, advise, top, sympathize with or augment what is said. Simply be silent and listen.
  • When the mind starts to generate the perfect response, let it go and return attention to what the person is saying in the present moment.
  • Listen to what is going on beneath the actual words. Often there is a more honest communication going on just beneath the surface of the content that is spoken.
  • When the person is complete (or when you've held your peace, truly silent peace, for at least 5 minutes), take a deep breath before responding. Give yourself a moment to integrate what has been said.
  • Respond from a deeper place than the typical surface banalities. Speak with openness, clear honesty, appreciation, and an an intention for mutual understanding.

Since we are not used to holding silence while another person speaks, some find it more comfortable to practice this kind of deep listening during a walk. When you have honed your ability to hold silence, internally and externally, take the next step and ask a companion to join you in the experiment. Each person gets 5-10 minutes of uninterrupted time to speak followed by an open discussion. Holding silence for each other prepares the soil for a fertile conversation.

The experience of being deeply listened is unusual and can be a profound gift for the listener as well as the speaker. Poet John Fox wrote:

When someone deeply listens to you it is like holding out a dented cup you have had since childhood and watching it fill up with cold fresh water.

When it balances on the top of the rim When it overflows and touches your skin you are loved.

When someone deeply listens to you the room where you stay starts a new life and the place where you wrote your first poem begins to glow in your mind’s eye. It’s as if gold has been discovered.

When someone deeply listens to you your bare feet are on the earth and the beloved land that seemed distant is now at home within you.