The other evening a friend, having been a little effusive in a discussion we were having after dinner and a glass of wine, asked me
to remind him in the future if he talked too much. I hemmed and hawed a bit before I could respond.
First, I was aware that his enthusiasm for the subject we were discussing had been pretty clear, but I hadn’t felt overwhelmed.
Second, I tend to allow others to dominate conversations. It relieves my feeling that I’m not holding up my end. Third, our
budding relationship seems hearty enough to stand a little one-sidedness now and then. So I admitted that I’d not be apt to call
him on his talking too much if, that is, he seemed to be talking too much. Still, he insisted that he wanted to know, so that he could
improve his conversational skills.
He was anxious to please, to be valued for his company. I was anxious to please, to not cause anyone embarrassment by calling
attention to their shortcomings. A typical, civilized exchange between friends. I considered our relationship strong enough to
encompass a bit of stress. Our relationship is more important to me than a measure of annoyance. Anyone who has been married,
or who has had children, knows that situation.
Later, after having let the matter percolate in my mind, I had more ideas: If one analyzes such an event, there are several layers to
it. On the surface is the conversation. We are talking together about some subject. Just under the surface are the feelings: his
enthusiasm about the subject and his feeling of urgency to be heard, to be understood, to share his insight; my interest in the
subject coinciding with mild impatience, perhaps, that he is repeating himself, coinciding with affection and a disinclination to
stress, even a little, our relationship. These are two separate realities: the interchange and the feelings.
Containing them both is the reality of the ongoing relationship. It sees and encompasses the situations that arise between us. Our
individual reactions to everything that happens between us are affected, even shaped, by the larger reality. Pressed to describe
our relationship, I’d probably be able to say only that we are “friends.” That doesn’t begin to cover all the facts and feelings
(granted, feelings are facts, too) that make up the bond between us. Sometimes “respect” is nothing more than allowing someone
to express something in their own way, even if we could “say it better.” That reluctance to judge is an acknowledgment of equality
overall, an attitude valuable to the relationship. Naturally, to avoid commenting on a friend’s behavior when such behavior might
be destructive, simply to preserve the good feelings, could also be counterproductive to the life of the relationship. Or, to stifle a
complaint when one is feeling abused can also allow destructive feelings to build up, spoiling the openness that is a hallmark of
I realize that all this is rather common sense. Most people provide some latitude to friends in ordinary conversation; otherwise,
we’re not apt to stay friends for very long. What intrigues me is how it fits within a conceptual system of levels of reality, or levels
Ken Wilber, in his many books on the subject, describes consciousness as a kind of continuum, from the faintest stirrings of
awareness of the environment (even plants do this) to the unfathomable wisdom of saints. For each of us ordinary folks, reality
lives on a number of levels. The sensual level is that which we know when we touch or taste or smell. The emotional level knows
about the sensual, and incorporates sensation into a bigger reality—affection for a dog, for example. It feels good to hug a furry
animal that we trust and care for. Above the emotional level is a more-or-less rational level of reality. We put two and two
together to understand the quantity four. We see someone who looks like someone else, and we realize that our impulse to rush
up to them and greet them warmly might be inappropriate, so we control our emotional responses.
My situation with my friend holds all these levels. What I call my “relationship” with him is at least on a rational level, perhaps
more. If I want to retain the easy way we have together, I won’t challenge him every time he goes on too long on a subject. At
some point, however, if I am not feeling as though he is listening as well as talking, my emotional need for personal
acknowledgment is not being met, and the relationship will suffer in proportion.
Most importantly, I need to be clear inside my own head about what is going on in the interaction between us. I might feel simply
irritated and frustrated. If I don’t examine my feelings closely enough, I could speak sharply or critically to him, causing him
embarrassment, in which case he could, if his own rational faculty were not engaged, withdraw from the situation. In more
pop-psychology terms, simply venting my frustration could trigger his emotional insecurity, and neither of us would feel good. If
we could not resolve those feelings by talking them through, the relationship would suffer. We’d end up avoiding each other, and
deny ourselves the real benefits of friendship.
People more fortunate than I often know all this intuitively. They don’t have to stop themselves to consider the ramifications of
what they are about to say. They puzzle at my compulsion to analyze. They go gaily on with their lives, comfortable with a little
uncertainty, challenged by the adventure of interacting with others.
A long time ago I read someone being described as “two martinis shy of the proper state of mind to face life.” I immediately
identified myself as fitting that description. Alcohol used to muddle my rational mind without putting me to sleep (as it does now.)
I could let myself go in a social situation without thinking too much about it. I’m sure I was a better conversationalist, up to a
So, perhaps there’s another level of consciousness above the rational, one that encompasses all of the lower states and has the
ability to integrate them into effective living. I suspect we all have access to this intuitive level, and use it routinely. When it fails us,
we step down to rational analysis, or even perhaps down to an emotional level. That is not to say that emotions and rationality are
less valuable to us. We could say that emotions cannot see anything above them. The rational level of awareness knows about
emotions, and can mitigate inappropriate emotional responses. But it knows nothing of the intuitive level, and can get stuck in
analyzing a situation without having the ability to transcend it. Intuition, when it’s grounded in sensual, emotional and rational
knowledge, sees further and deeper. It doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel of reason each time it is called upon to deal with a
situation. It just “knows” what to do.
The danger, of course, is that it (intuition) doesn’t always have all the facts. It cannot bypass rational knowledge; it must
incorporate it. Sometimes those who depend upon intuition don’t want to be bothered with logic. It’s the same with the rational
mind: if it has not experienced a range of emotional responses, it cannot fully be trusted. Each level must integrate the levels below
it in order to function well. What we call a “mentally healthy” or a “mature” person doesn’t have great gaps in their personality. A
merely sophisticated person, on the other hand, might be like a fish out of water if they are put into a strange environment.
So when I agonize over whether to interrupt my friend when he drones on, I haven’t done all my homework yet. I may have to
simply go through the stress of challenging him and negotiating with him to some solution comfortable to both of us. For those
who have learned how to do that, it’s more adventure than crisis. As in physical sports, learning that one can get hurt and still
survive and function is a big part of the training.
The rewards of personal growth are worth a little pain. The next level up, the bigger reality, only seems insurmountable from this
Donald Skiff, Junr 29, 2002
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