The Soul of Relationship

The Soul of Relationship

Where Self and Other Meet

By Molly Layton

January/February 2008

Even with two people sitting quietly, an interpersonal space isn't an empty space—it's alive with a peculiar quality. I got a measure of this quality one long day in a mindfulness-meditation retreat, when our instructor had us each pair off with someone we didn't know. He asked us to sit on the floor opposite each other and focus on the other person's face. Gently, he said, focus gently, for 10 minutes.

Ten minutes is a long, long time to look at the actual, real-live-breathing face of a person you don't know. As a matter of fact, I'm here to tell you that it's an excruciatingly long time, and that by the middle of the 10 minutes, you could hear sobbing from the people around us, also seated on the hotel carpeting and gazing into the surprising hellhole of another person's face. Eyes especially—it's true what they say about eyes being the windows on the soul. TMI, as the kids say, Too Much Information.

Plus we had to struggle with our failing interactional abilities, which seemed to be waving gamely like those giant, willowy, white-plastic columns at the used car lots, pumped up by air and wagging at customers—blathering social instincts not to stare, not to stand by while someone is consumed with anxiety; instincts to smile or not to smile; all this quickly reaching a crux, our faces distended by the wondrous strain. They say we have an inordinate number of neural pathways in the brain that are involved in that mask we call a face. I believe I felt a reddened…

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