I had a sudden experience when I was 26 years old, invoked by an incisive question from a close friend, that stopped me in my tracks and blew my personal reality wide open. It is no exaggeration to say that this incident, and the simple but profound realization that came with it, changed my life.
It was the summer of 1973, the height of the anti-war sentiment of the Vietnam era, the blossoming of the New Age spiritual movement, and perhaps the peak of mind-expanding substance use, primarily cannabis, by American youth.
My 27-year-old friend and former college roommate was dating my 23-year-old sister at the time. On this momentous evening, the three of us were sitting on the floor by the blazing fireplace in my shared-rental home in a Southern California beach town. We were deeply engaged in a conversation about something we all deemed important. I cannot remember just what the topic was, but it likely related to our mutual interest in consciousness expansion and personal growth – the New Age zeitgeist of the times. We were smoking grass, as we called it then, at least my friend and I. Not sure about my sister.
Among the six siblings in our family, Beth and I have always been the most intently interested in matters of the human mind and spirit. To this day we have long, meaningful, intense conversations about these Big Subjects, which I cherish.
My sister and I have both matured since that night in 1973 (one would hope!) but in the zeal of those early days of exciting self-discovery and rapidly expanding world views, we could sometimes get a little competitive about who was more spiritually advanced. No doubt this mostly unconscious rivalry was playing out that night in me.
As I said, I don’t remember the details of the argument we were having, but I was insisting that whatever my sister was trying to convince me of, I already knew all about but had a different view on. “I get what you’re saying, Beth, but I have already thought that through, and you’re wrong!” This was the tone of my repeated responses to whatever point she was trying to impress upon me, ultimately through tears of frustration at not being heard. But I was cocksure of my view and would have nothing to do with her pleadings. I mean, I had already figured it all out, right?
And then it happened. My friend Dave, Beth’s boyfriend, intervened:
“OK, Ron, you say already understand, I hear that. But do you also understand that your sister is sitting right in front of you crying her eyes out?”
Just writing this now brings back the hurricane of emotion my friend’s surgical strike unleashed in me. My bubble of certitude exploded and my world mushroomed, leaving my insular reality in the dust. I now saw in front of me, not my younger sister who I was feeling superior to in that moment, but a fellow human being who was suffering, not to mention stating her own valid perspective. It was like all the energy I was tightly holding in my self-righteous brain broke through and flooded my entire body.
I hugged my sister and joined her in tears, mine born of sorrow and guilt, love and empathy, and perhaps most of all, tears of joy at the life-changing realization that I had just been given.
Sparked by my friend’s simple, penetrating question, I instantly recognized that I had been inhabiting a world entirely of my own making, in which my sister was but a highly animated component. I was completely oblivious to the existential fact that she was a co-equal human being, her own font of awareness and emotions and thoughts and experience and life. That night, until that explosive moment, my sister was just a fixture in a world I had mentally constructed in that argument, and I had deluded myself into thinking the world in my head was the real world.
As I felt a deep, authentic, visceral connection to my sister, I stopped unconsciously perceiving her as solely a dynamic element in my own personal reality. Quite a revelation. I have never viewed other people quite the same since.
I am not claiming a wholesale transformation that night. I still fall into this ever-seductive trap, repeatedly. But I do so less often and I become aware of having done so more quickly. It’s a continual process of remembering to not get stuck in my thinking head, to sense my whole body, and to pay attention to other people and the world around me as directly perceived.
Thank you, Dave. Thank you, Beth. What an invaluable gift you gave me that night long ago.