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Getting high on humans
reflections on Authentic Relating
I'm sitting with 10 strangers in a circle. We're shut in a tall hall but I can still hear people walking past outside. This is my first time doing this. Out of all the activities I've explored, I am most apprehensive about this one.
There is an air of nervousness. This is most people's first time. I'm scanning my fellow attendees, trying to get a whiff of who's worth investing in and who looks ready to gush forth a waterfall of nonsense. No clear signs; everyone seems pleasant.
We each say our name and describe something that we're feeling right now. Next, we hear some rules: stay silent whilst listening; when you feedback, avoid offering advice.
We're about to do some Authentic Relating. AR defines itself as a "relational practice that creates profoundly enriching, enlivening, and nourishing relationships in all social domains of life, from the bedroom to the boardroom, with intimate partners and perfect strangers and everyone in between".
I would define it as a set of games that help you turn down social noise and feel more alive and compassionate with others. A form of meditation where other people matter and with a lot more giggling. Fortunately, I found a group in Bristol.
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After settling, we start walking around the creaky wooden floor. The facilitator offers some frame-breaking prompts: imagine everyone here hates you and see how that affects your body (eyes down, shuffling). Now, imagine being the boss of the building and everyone reporting to you (straight back, swagger).
We then pair up with someone at random. We have 1 minute to small talk. After that, we go back and forth with "I notice" statements, focusing on what we're feeling. It is awkward at first but this prefix keeps us focused on each other and this space. The disjointed statements quickly turn into something more reciprocal and flowing.
Next, we talk for 3 minutes about "anything you would not casually tell a stranger". We're reminded that awkward silences are encouraged and that if we're going fast, we're probably doing it wrong.
I offload some of my caffeine-induced anxiety, following a mistakenly caffeinated second coffee earlier in the day. I explain how it feels in my body and how I might have responded a few years ago--panic attack. I nervously adjust my position, trying to figure out how I want to sit with my partner.
My partner has 30 seconds to feedback; not summarising or offering advice, but picking out themes or particular details where I seemed to come alive. To my surprise, he picks up on the paradox of still loving coffee when it so easily wrecks my mental balance.
I listen to my partner for 3 minutes, as he bares himself. Listening is its own practice: presence is active and requires work. We're told to notice what obstructs it: the desire to give advice, to interject your own story, to get carried away by discomfort or impatience.
Afterwards, we have a few minutes to talk "normally". We're both exhilarated by the rush of sharing.
The circle reconvenes and anyone is free to share before we partner up with someone new. Now we have 3 minutes to answer the next question: what do you want more of in life?
This time I'm more settled. I realise how liberating it is to talk to a stranger about something deeply personal as they offer unconditional attention. To be able to share anything and nothing without expectation.
I remember to slow down when I feel myself filling the space. I handbrake turn when I see myself sliding down a well-worn narrative. Time to go off-piste.
What do I want more of? I talk about a craving for connection, for more groups and community. In the past, I had lots of solo practices (writing, meditation, running) but little that involved other people. This had kept me in good stead for some time, but during burnout and the pandemic that absence had turned into an existential ache. I talk myself to the verge of tears whilst emphatically reflecting that "what I needed was *people*".
After some reflecting back, I have another 3 minutes to talk about what's stopping me from getting what I want more of. Fear of being labelled *weird*, of being finally revealed for the weirdo I am. Losing my seat at the table of the acceptable. (Evidently, not a big enough fear to prevent me from broadcasting these adventures to the entire Internet).
As they feed back, my partner describes an internal conflict she noticed as I was talking. It's surreal to hear someone else confidently sing what was, until now, only a muffled, motif in my own head.
As we regather at the end, the feel of the circle is different. Everyone looks high. A palpable intimacy is filling up the room and I feel more relaxed around these people than I do around some of my friends. A remarkable fact considering that we were all strangers 2 hours ago.
Resonance arises so easily between humans. It's sad we don't feel it more often in conversation.
At one point, someone had shared a situation that was alien to anything I knew. But watching this person tussle with the inner conflict of it lit me up. An immediate wave of compassion crashed forth for the compromised human being sitting in front of me. I knew that conflict. I stayed silent. It was like doing a hit from a compassion bong.
This is the magic of this practice: someone is there, someone is listening without imposing themselves. Talking in front of someone, even when they are silent, alters and reflects your speech in ways that stretch far beyond the limits of private pondering.
I was surprised that this kind of intimacy on tap could be turned on so quickly. Authentic Relating seems to say that humans only need a few gentle pointers for it to flourish. No guru, no beliefs to adopt, no pressure to perform.
For me, the effects also lasted into the days afterwards. I resisted asking my fellow Tesco shopper what they wanted more of in life, but there was a heightened sense of curiosity about each person and a slowed-down pace in my own speech.
This feels like a practice for our times, an antidote to the modern paradox of being more connected yet more isolated than ever. How rare is it to hold someone's rapt, undivided attention, with no distraction or agenda?