Breathing into Relationship:
The Dance Between Diversity and Unity
The highest form of intimacy is love that does not annihilate difference. Evelyn Keller
I recently had dinner with some new friends from Nepal, a husband and wife and two younger children. My husband and I and our two children showed up to the apartment where chicken wings were frying, dal was bubbling in a silver pot and fried pakora was placed neatly on a plate.
As we sipped warm spicy chai tea, we talked in short sentences, learning to understand each other. I heard stories of loneliness and isolation in a new land, adventures to the mountains and the sand dunes of southern Colorado, and stories of the gods Sita and Ram from the Hindu tradition.We took pictures together and laughed and ran around the small apartment, playing hide and seek with a pink Nepali scarf tied around our heads.
Ajita, the Nepali woman, spent most of her time in the kitchen cooking, remaining very quiet and eating by herself in the living room. I felt discomfort arise at what seemed to be a cultural tradition, the woman preparing and serving the food but not participating in eating the meal.
When we sat down to eat, we were served with solid copper plates that are used only for “special guests.” We were asked if we wanted forks or if we wanted to eat with our hands and we all opted for the latter. Giri taught us how to eat properly with our hands as we tried to master this surprisingly difficult task.
He said to us, “I have tried to eat with a fork here, but I just do not feel nourished when I do.” After a delicious meal and nourishing fellowship, we left bowing saying namaste to one another. Giri said, “You are like family to us.”
On the way home, my family and I had a conversation about difference. My children shared how great it was to eat with their hands and asked if they could do that all of the time. We talked about the children’s names and how they were different from any names they had ever heard. We then talked about cultural differences that felt uncomfortable, like Ajita not eating with us or speaking very much.
I explained that though those differences were uncomfortable, it was important to respect that difference. I shared that some of our ancestors, and even people today, try to change the way other cultures live in the world. They travel to other parts of the world and begin changing the ways that people speak, dress, pray and eat, sometimes they even do this in the name of God.
My son was flabbergasted and asked with a stunned expression on his face, “Why would they do that Mom?”
I responded, “Maybe because they are afraid of difference. Rather than breathe into the fear, they ask others to be like them so that they can feel safe in the world.” With a sad face he said, “But it is so fun to try new things.”
A Breathing Foundation
Breathing grounds us in our own experience. Difference becomes stark when we forget the interrelationship that the breath offers. Paying attention to the breath give us a chance to respond to this complex and diverse world rather than reacting to it out of fear. As I sat at Giri and Ajita’s table, I felt uncomfortable that Ajita was preparing and serving the food but not partaking in the feast with us.
When I jumped up into my head, thinking about all of the ways I could address this “issue”, I was self absorbed. But when I chose to breathe into the discomfort I was feeling it slowly shifted into gratitude for the gifts that Ajita and her family were offering to us.
To my surprise, rather than trying to change Ajita, I spent the last half hour of our time together talking with her about her new job, how she misses her family and what she loves to eat. Breathing into my experience helped build relationship. This inner attentiveness grounded me in my own experience, which included discomfort and even judgment, and allowed me to relate to the world from a rooted internal place. By breathing into my own reaction to difference, I found a deeper place of unity with myself and with Ajita.
The concept of unity can be feared by those who have experienced colonization, or domination. People have lost their lives, their families, their culture and language all in the name of “unity.” Unity is not about incorporating difference to alleviate individual or collective discomfort with difference or complexity. This is an easy way out of the discomfort we feel when confronted with a different way of speaking, eating, worshiping, governing etc.
Unity comes from taking personal responsibility for our own unique experiences; our feelings and reactions to this world. Beginning with the breath as a fundamental grounding source, we have the opportunity to experience our emotions and be responsible for our own reactions to those emotions.
Without attention, we tend to react to the world in harmful and oppressive ways. We project emotion onto others, manipulate others to be what we want, and we can even resort to using physical or emotional violence to alter what we don’t like or fear in the world. Paying attention to our breathing grounds us in the moment and allows us to pay attention to the other more deeply and honorably.
Unity is not found by transcending or manipulating difference. Unity is found in the deep work of fully embodying and experiencing our own lives. From this grounded and present place, we are better equipped to attend to the world around us.
Have you ever gotten yourself to look at a situation differently for better understanding? Have you heard of breathing into a relationship before?
This is an original guest post to the World Moms Blog Social Good column by Jenny Finn of Colorado, USA. Jenny can be found offering opportunities for healing through creative expression and embodied practice on her blogs, Moving Mama and Soma Movement.
Photo credit to Shawn Z. Rossi. This photo has a creative commons attribution license.