Above: Bare & silent. You have no idea how many photos I took before settling for this one.
Last month I went to the School for the Work, Byron Katie’s nine-day meditation retreat in Ojai, California.
I have loved the Work since the first time I ever answered the question “Is it true?” five years ago in Martha Beck’s Life Coach Training. I’ve written about it a lot, too. (See “My Facebook Feud: A Surprising Path to Enlightenment,” “I Haven’t Gotten Anything Done,” and “From Lack to Love,” or see Katie do the Work at thework.com.)
At the School for the Work I got to learn from Katie herself and do the Work – which is to say I traded facilitating and being facilitated – with 200 of my new best friends, including some other Martha Beck coaches. It was an amazing experience, one I am still integrating.
One of the more profound experiences of the school showed me how much I invest in social presentation, and how it can get in the way of real connection.
It began with the Surrender exercise. We were invited – truly; some attendees did not participate – to surrender: make up and hair styling; last names (we were known by first names only); phones and laptops; marketing and flirting. Additionally, meals were taken in silence, and we were expected to be silent during sessions, except when we were doing facilitation with a partner. In other words, we surrendered small talk.
Not doing my hair or putting on make up made me feel vulnerable. I try to look low-maintenance, but I am self-conscious about looking old. I think I look faded without make up, so I use it to color myself in: foundation to even my skin tone, blush and highlighter to brighten it, mascara to define my eyes, and a lipstick two shades darker than my natural lip color to define my mouth. I could not un-dye my hair, which is gray now under the blond. But I do straighten it, which makes it look shinier and healthier. Without that it looks dull and frazzled.
Still, with most of the women also forgoing make up and hair styling, I felt safer. It showed me how much I am unconsciously in competition with other women – for what, exactly? I want to be the prettiest one in the room, or if I can’t do that, the most polished or classy looking.
Good to notice, and so liberating to have that prop taken away. Interestingly, that week several of my School for the Work family (as Katie called us) told me I was beautiful or had a beautiful smile. I noticed that I was able to receive it in a way I don’t normally. If I’m dolled up and someone compliments me, I don’t quite believe them. I credit my beauty routine or think, “Fooled another one!” But at School, with no armor, it sunk in and did not leave me hungry for more. I felt free from a pressure that I had become inured to.
But surrendering make up and hair was nothing compared to surrendering talk. Until it was removed, I had not been aware how much I relied on it – though not to communicate for some higher purpose, as I had believed. Rather I discovered that talk was primarily a mode of self-presentation. When I couldn’t whisper a comment to my neighbor during session, I saw that my desire had been to be seen as clever. When I couldn’t make a joke during the meal, I became aware of how often I see it as my job to make everyone relaxed and comfortable. That may not sound like a bad thing, but it does put me in other people’s business. In order for me to feel good, I need them to be happy.
Time felt more expansive when it wasn’t crowded with conversation. Without the mental exertion of reading a group of people and figuring out how I could fit in, space opened up for me to be simply present.
I couldn’t help but notice how fine the world was without my comments.
Without talking, cliques didn’t form. We remained an undifferentiated mass of humanity – all equally lovable, I discovered. When no one is singled out, everyone is special.
Without talking, particularly marketing talk, we couldn’t “compare and despair,” as Martha Beck calls it. I couldn’t feel inferior or superior to anyone. Without my phone or laptop, and without last names, I also couldn’t go around the talking prohibition and find out who people were by Googling them! This allowed me to experience them “without a story,” as Katie says.
Furthermore, we were prohibited from “cross talk” when we facilitated the Work for a partner. That means I had to stay quiet, just listen, and hold the space for my partner. I couldn’t coach them through it, so I could not show my partner how great I am at doing the Work, or what a good coach I am, and how enlightened.
My silence allowed me to really listen to my partner, and my partner’s silence made space for me to be heard, too. Without social selves getting in between us, we were able to experience the pure, raw person in front of us. No matter whom I partnered with, I fell in love every time.
Although I have resumed some of the old habits of every day life since completing the School, the generosity of listening has stayed with me. But don’t take my word for it. Experiment with it for yourself. Hold a space for another without any agenda – not even to be helpful! – and just notice what happens.
Please let us know how your experiment went in the comments below!