When I was recovering from one of my many surgeries, I remember waking up in a hospital room all alone. The next day the nurse pulled the privacy curtain closed before she wheeled in another patient.
I could not see him, but I could hear him. In the first few hours I lay there staring at the ceiling, unsure of what to do.
It got to be too much for me. I waited to hear the sound of him stirring and took a deep breath. “My name’s Jeff,” I said. I waited, I waited, I waited, until a voice came through the curtain.
“Hello Jeff,” it said, “I am Haru.” The man on the next bed, just a few feet from me, was Japanese. He spoke broken English. I then said the only word I knew in Japanese “arigato,” or thank you.
I could hear a cough and a laugh. “For what?” He asked.
“For not closing down.”
I could hear the kind of sound that would accompany a nod, and in turn I sounded my nod back. We could not see each other, but we were communicating.
Over the next few weeks the two of us truly learned that 93 percent of communication is non-verbal. Body language and facial expressions make up about 55 percent of communication. Tone makes up just under 40 percent. Even though we could not see each other, we both made an effort to attach a sound to whatever body motion we could.
It is crazy to think that today’s media junkies cannot do the same. Those who rely on emails, texts and social media to communicate believe they are communicating, but even the best emoji is not match for the sight of a human smiling or frowning.
It is no wonder that someone can completely misread your intention, literally and figuratively, from an email you sent.
On the day Haru was discharged he came around the curtain with his wife. They both bowed deeply to me. His wife paused as he left. She took my hand and smiled. She said one word – “Arigato”.
As a human, we are deeply tribal and in constant search for a community to be a part of. Our need for kinship and connection has always been one of the evolutionary advantages we have had over other species.
It set us apart from other creatures far better equipped for survival than us. We did not have sharp claws or powerful jaws, what we did have was the ability to work with others so that we could overcome our natural weaknesses by creating the weapons we needed to compete.
The main problem is that we never stopped.
Over the millennia that we have roamed the earth it has always been our ability to communicate with others that has brought us to where we are today – for better and for worse.
If we are to stay alive, it will be our ability to communicate that will us to do so.
Even the Buddha returned to civilization after finding that a solitary life in the wild was not the path to enlightenment. Yes, you may start meditating alone, but only until you grow comfortable with your abilities. Then you seek out the company of others. You seek out a master to guide you. You join a sangha, or community, of like minded people. You talk and connect and find your path – the right path for you.
There is such a wonderful evolution from solitary to community, within your journey. It is always personal, which is the beauty of the human experience.
It is why I am so surprised that at a time of such technical advances, we are turning our backs on the very ability that bought us here – that is our ability to communicate with each other on a deeper level than we once thought imaginable.
Yes, we can reach around the world to meet new people and connect with different cultures, but how much of the personal nuances do we lose in doing so?
Information-overload has grown to disastrous proportions. The fact that most people have a better connection with the screen in front of them is scary. Scarier still is that most of these connections live on their mobile devices than with a person just inches away. A recent study found that one of the greatest fears of the coming generation is not climate change or world war, but the idea of having to say hello to a stranger.
You must, we all must, make a conscious decision to address the growing disconnect between humans. We must learn to commit to an authentic and intimate relationship with those around us and around the world. And no, intimacy is not the same thing as sex. It is simply the ability to communicate on a more personal level.
If we cannot do that, then the human experiment is doomed to fail. Not from some cataclysmic disaster, but from within, from ourselves.
When you communicate through electronic devices you push the nuances and innuendos aside. You open the door for misunderstanding, miscommunication and manipulation. According to a recent CNN story, Americans check into their social media accounts at least 17 times a day. That is once every hour if not more. On average you probably also spend a staggering 4.7 hours a day on our mobile devices.
When was the last time you made eye contact with someone else?
What can you do?
Turn your devices off.
It is no wonder that you have such a problem developing a committed relationship with someone, let alone yourself. It is really not that hard. All you have to do is unplug from time to time. Try it for an hour every day. Dedicate just one day on the weekend to disconnect. Be aware of your responses to the boredom and the need for distraction that comes.
If you automatically say, “But what if someone from my office needs me,” or “what if my partner or children are in trouble,” that is okay. It is expected. Simply make some rules around your disconnection. You may even try to talk to your family, friends and workmates to discuss the difference between call times and no-call times. You may even be surprised at how they will respect them.
Make it a rule to turn off electronic devices at meal time, or to not eat in front of the television. You may be surprised at the change it will make within your family.
Yes I know, you amaze yourself with your ability to multi-task. You can walk down the street while talking and texting while dodging other pedestrians. Have you ever looked up and seen the glare in their eyes because of the way you weave while walking, taking up the entire sidewalk as others leap out of your way?
Aside from the fact that it is impossible to multi-task, and yes you can Google that, but is that text so important that you cannot simply be present in your walk? Can it not wait until you arrive at your destination? Do you not see that your lack of attention and presence is exactly what your body and mind are calling for to reset yourself?
And no, I am not even going to begin to discuss texting and driving…
Instead of trying to fit one more task into your already busy day, try and observe the people you pass by. You do not need to invite anyone into your personal space, just feel the desperation in their faces and their energy at the thought of someone reaching out to them. Feel the air and the sun as you connect with others through the world you are in. It is palpable.
Hearing is the first sense babies are aware of. It is how they connect with their parents. Hearing is also the last sense to leave you when you pass away.
In between those two moments allow your ears to grow aware of the world around you. Listen for the subtle tones in the way people speak. Be aware to the tones within the phrases and words people use when they want to connect or disconnect. Listen to your own voice and your own tones. You may be surprised how the tones supersede the language, and the language barriers, that may or may not exist.
Be truly awake and present when with another person and take the time to explore how you communicate with them and those around you. Do not steal the conversation and kill the chance for a relationship to develop. Those are the first steps in building a real relationship with another human being.
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