Recently, I was listening to a voice message from my friend Allison about the challenging and mysterious nature of actual, genuine communication. As often happens with the two of us, when I am listening to her try to express something that is in her heart, often in her languid and meandering way, using simple words to express a sublime thought or feeling, I connect with a piece of my heart/mind that maybe I have never expressed before, but that I very much know is there.
As I contemplated my response, I realized that something new would likely emerge if I sat down to really write about this. Thank you, Allison, for being my contemplative “muse” here… one of the many reasons I love you.
Let’s take a moment, together, to marvel at all of the conditions, both external and internal, that need to align in order for moments of genuine communication to take place. Genuine communication is, more accurately, communion. I believe that these moments are sacred. They inspire a deep gratitude in me, because they make my life so much richer. Experiences of communion deserve to be recognized and treated as moments infused with divine love.
I define communion as a felt sense of really understanding where another person is coming from, or what is happening for them inwardly. This often is accompanied with a sense of surprise or discovery. And inversely, communion may also include having another person really understand something I am expressing. The word “communication” also describes basic exchanges, like “Do you know which way to main street?” While I feel grateful for these exchanges, and acquiring new information such as the location of main street, my gratitude for moments of communion is incommensurably deeper than how I feel about communication in general.
Communion is a precise, multi-dimensional and sometimes conceptual form of empathy. It is also a form of intimacy. These are moments when I am able to actually share with someone else an element from my vast, mysterious and ever-changing inner subjective world. This can be a fleeting thought or impression that I had, or it can be a thought form or belief that I have been incubating in my inner world for a week, or a decade. In these moments, I am also able to receive, and somehow demonstrate that I have truly understood, such a thought form from the other person’s inner subjective world.
In order for these moments to happen, so many factors need to be in place! When I make a list of the factors and conditions that need to align, I become astounded that communion even happens at all.
- Availability. Both people need to be available - emotionally and spiritually. This means a willingness to show up and truly be present - to have the capacity to focus on the other person, while maintaining a sense of agency and awareness of one’s own system. This means not being tired, triggered, distracted or holding on to an agenda of what is going to happen next, either covertly or explicitly.
I’d like to invite you into an experiment. Close your eyes for a moment and reflect back on the conversations you have had in the past few days. During those encounters, how often were you actually available for communion? Or, today, begin tracking this for yourself - when are you actually available?
When I’m distracted with an agenda or a goal, like trying to solve a problem, I’m not available. When I’m anxious about something (like an upsetting text that just came through before I got on the phone with someone else), I’m not available. When I am tired or hungry or cranky, I’m not available. When the other person shares more information or stories than I am interested in hearing, I’m not available. When I’m triggered and my nervous system is activated in a trauma response, I’m not available. When my bladder or my bowels are needing relief, I’m not available.
When I show up for coaching with a client, or for a tender conversation with a beloved, I make myself available. But the rest of the time, my true and actual availability is spotty at best. This is natural! This is normal! It’s not realistic to expect ourselves to be available for communion all of the time.
2. Safety. Both people need to feel sufficiently safe to express themselves authentically and without fear of judgment or negative repercussions of sharing. The experience of safety is very different for each person. The felt sense of safety can be quite elusive, given the prevalence of trauma responses in our nervous systems. For me, I feel more safe once I feel reassured that the other person has an embodied understanding of consent, when it comes to sharing, witnessing and relating to one another.
3. Time. There needs to be sufficient time for the dialogue to unfold. Moments of communion can happen quickly, and other times it may require an open-ended chunk of time in which to meander and explore together. So many times have I felt the tantalizing signs of an emerging moment of communion, and then been interrupted.
4. Shared Language. It’s helpful if both people speak the same language, although I do think that communion can happen even without words. Touch and movement can be a language for communion. If the experience is happening in the conversational realm, there does need to be sufficient shared vocabulary and understanding.
5. Medium of exchange. It can be text, voice messages, phone, video chat, or in person. If the medium that is being used involves technology, the technology needs to be functioning optimally. How many moments of communion have been thwarted due to “my battery died” or “I lost service”? Furthermore, both people have to be willing to be available on this particular medium. I have had moments of communion via text. And I have other friends and beloved who would never be available for communion via the medium of text. Before the internet, communion took place in slower motion, via long intimate letters.
6. Spontaneity. You can’t plan communion. You can show up for it, you can hope for it, you can create the conditions for it, but the actual experience of communion is always a gift, a delight, a discovery. I like to believe that Providence is involved.
What are the things that get in the way? Fear! Distractions! Technological difficulties! Distance! Chaos! Busy-ness! Goals! Ambitions! Ego! Pre-conceived notions of what the other person has to say! Limiting beliefs about ourselves and the other person! Pain! Trauma! There are so many things that prevent these sacred moments from emerging that it is truly amazing that they happen at all.
How do we know that communion has happened? Communion may be demonstrated or experienced when the other person reflects back what they just heard, sometimes using the same words or sometimes using slightly different framing. Or they make a guess about a related experience or ask a question that not only affirms what has just been shared, but also goes a little further.
I had a moment of communion with my Mom as I explained to her the ideas in this piece. She got quiet and listened to my summary of the ideas. Then she said “Some people never really get to experience these moments. I experience these moments with you, and I cherish them.” Then I knew that she got what I was trying to express. She shared some ideas and thoughts that she had about this topic - including #6 above about spontaneity (thank you, Mom). We both noticed our bodies relax and our nervous systems respond to the sense of expansiveness and connection.
In those moments when we are truly able to understand another person’s experience or reality, or they are able to understand ours, we feel seen, we feel heard, we learn something, we see something in a new way, we are healed, we are changed, we are touched. We feel a new level of connection with the other person. A blossoming, an attraction, a softening, an ease, a new depth.
In the afterglow of these moments, we often get confused and think the other person is special because they understand our uniqueness, our quirks, our worldview, our experiences. Or we feel special because we can understand them or be understood by them. We give “credit” to ourselves or to the other person. But they are not special. I am not special. You are not special. Rather, we are divine - and these moments are sacred. Communion is an experience of divine love. The feeling of expansiveness and connection is universal, and it comes from being available to something that is bigger than ourselves. This is a sacred process of allowing love to land more deeply in our hearts.
“So how do you make your life sacred? You say ‘This is sacred.’ and you treat it that way.” -Stuart Wilde
How do we treat the sacred moments in our lives? The answer to this question is incredibly personal and individualized. However, I think we can all start by taking a pause to notice. Then we can invoke gratitude and take a deep breath. We can start by recognizing these moments for their sacredness, and through gratitude, become available for more.
I’ve been studying and practicing the art of authentic, genuine communication for over a decade now. Writing this piece, I’m honoring my yearning for the depths of connection, and I’m inviting you to join me in cultivating this wild garden of communion together - in our lives, our relationships, our communities and our hearts. Let’s be so enamored with ourselves and each other that we become even more available for communion, and in so doing, create more of the world that we want to live in.