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We’ve Been Missing Each Other for a Long Time

The ability to tune in to each other is perhaps the most needed human capacity.

Pete Garceau / PublicAffairs
Missing Each Other
Source: Pete Garceau / PublicAffairs

Many stories have been told about extraordinary feats accomplished by advanced practitioners of meditation or yoga, including the seemingly magical control they have of their own bodies and physiology. If anyone should have such powers, it would be His Holiness the Dalai Lama, one of the great meditation masters of our time.

Once, at a public talk, a close friend of the Dalai Lama’s, Professor Robert Thurman of Columbia University, was asked very directly about this. Had Professor Thurman ever seen the Dalai Lama perform a miracle or do something magical?

He didn’t know how to answer. He’d seen some remarkable things happen around the Dalai Lama, but perhaps His Holiness wouldn’t approve if Professor Thurman seemed to exaggerate his abilities or proselytize. As he was mulling over how to reply, Thurman’s wife, Nena, also a close friend of His Holiness, spoke up and said that she’d seen him perform plenty of miracles. What she meant, she explained, was his ability to give his full attention and focus to each and every person he met. The gentleman, who was hoping to hear a story of some dramatic, unexplained miracle, seemed disappointed with the answer. But Nena insisted that the way His Holiness connects with people is miraculous.

The Dalai Lama, a Buddhist monk and spiritual leader to millions, is understandably a very busy person who meets with countless people at various events virtually every day. Nevertheless, many observers have described that, in every single social interaction, he engages with people by giving them his complete and total attention. No exceptions. Entering into conversation with him is a unique experience in which you feel completely seen and heard, without distraction.

Professor Thurman described this by saying, “Normally, when we talk to each other, we reach out to the person over there and communicate with them. With the Dalai Lama, there isn’t space between us. He is over here, with us.”

At first, it might seem inconceivable that someone’s style of communication could be considered almost supernatural, a miracle, even if that person is the Dalai Lama. How could the ability to connect with another person ever seem outside the realm of ordinary human potential? His abilities seem virtually miraculous because so few people, despite their potential, are able to connect and communicate with people in quite that way.

This kind of connection may seem light years away from the real interactions we observe in our own lives, where we often don’t pay more than cursory attention to each other. Most people move through their days chronically stressed and preoccupied with their own thoughts and worries, making them unable to really listen to others for long.

With “busy” being the increasingly popular answer to questions about how someone is doing, we often seem to miss each other, like two ships passing in the night—almost touching, but not quite making contact. Even when we do meet, we somehow misunderstand each other, or we talk past one another. Genuine, lasting connections feel elusive.

In an era in which technology progressively takes up time and space that had previously been devoted to live, in‑person interactions, attunement—the ability to be aware of our own state of mind and body while also tuning in and connecting to another person—is perhaps the most needed, and most neglected, human capacity.

Take a moment to consider your own life and your daily interactions with others. How many work meetings have you attended that seemed to be a waste of time because people were distracted by their devices? Everyone seemed to talk over each other or past each other and responded not to what the other person said, but to what was in their own head. It was as if each participant occupied their own world and remained stuck in their own perspective.

How often have you noticed yourself getting lost in those situations, unable to identify how you were feeling or how you were coming across to others? At home, how many times has your child or partner felt lectured at instead of listened to? Other times, maybe it was you who was left feeling disappointed, hurt, or alone, because even those closest to you—friends, family members, partners, children—will not, or cannot, seem to fully tune in to you, listen and understand you, respond to you. How much have you wished for someone who could?

Then there are the constant pings of our smartphones and tablets that have conditioned us to attend to texts, emails, social media alerts, and other notifications that seamlessly draw our attention away from each other. Often, it’s not until we offend our partners or friends by excessively looking at our phones when talking with them that we realize our connection was even broken.

Have you ever realized that you missed everything your friend just said to you because you were lost in your own thoughts and were unable to maintain focus on even a brief conversation? You leave the interaction feeling disheartened and guilty, and you promise yourself that you’ll do better next time. But when the next time comes, phones get pulled out, our attention fails, and we become distracted yet again.

Maybe that’s why encountering someone like the Dalai Lama can be such an emotionally powerful experience. To be seen with consistent interest and attentiveness by another person is an incredibly stimulating and empowering experience that energizes you and inspires you to invest back into the interaction, and to attend to that other person. That positive feedback loop then provides the same feeling back to the person you’re interacting with.

Even in brief interactions, consistent attunement to one another can leave lasting effects on any relationship. While achieving the power to connect with people like the Dalai Lama may seem beyond reach, there are concrete, progressive strategies that any one of us can implement to attain more of this ability to tune in and engage people with confidence and ease.

In this new blog, we’re excited to share with you some of the science of human connection, as well as practical strategies and exercises that can help you to develop deeper connections and more effective communication with the people in your life.

Note from the Authors: Ashley Pallathra and Edward Brodkin share their views here for educational and informational purposes only. The views expressed in this blog are not a substitute for individualized psychological, psychiatric, or medical care from a clinician familiar with your specific circumstances.

This post has been adapted from Missing Each Other: How to Cultivate Meaningful Connections by Edward S. Brodkin and Ashley A. Pallathra © 2021. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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