The “Art” of Being Human: Mindful Connection and Compassion

Mindful Connection and CompassionAh, not to be cut off, 

not through the slightest partition 

shut out from the law of the stars.

The inner- what is it? 

if not the intensified sky, 

hurled through with birds and deep 

with the winds of homecoming. 

                           – Rilke, via Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach 

So, I believe this post is about human’s desire to connect and the many and varied ways we fail and succeed to do so, but I found myself winding and weaving through various sources of inspiration I have recently encountered, so bare with me!  It will be an interesting and (slightly?) tangential ride. (I hope.)

I recently joined a book club, and due to some procrastination on my part, I went on a three-day reading binge this weekend to finish Delicious Foods by James Hannaham for my first meeting.  I am an empathetic reader, so engrossing myself in the world of a book that begins with a teenage boy escaping an unknown but clearly terrifying situation in a car he is trying to drive without his recently dismembered hands was not an easy read.

After spending hours in the brains of these characters and narrators, one of whom is Crack, as in, yes, the street drug crack cocaine, I needed to find a positive and inspirational balance which I sought in the way of a couple of documentaries, Crafted and Sound City.  Each was created by an artist for whom I already have familiarity and respect- Morgan Spurlock the documentarian who created Supersize Me and David Grohl the former drummer of Nirvana and the frontman of Foo Fighters.

The documentary Crafted features a pair of brothers who own Bloodroot Blades and make their custom knives by hand in their two-person shop; a married couple who owns Bar Tartine and pickle their own vegetables and cure their own meats for the restaurant; and Yugi Nagatani (in the featured quote), the third-generation owner of Nagatini Inn, who makes hand-thrown pots for cooking rice that took years to perfect.

As obvious as each artist’s passion for the painstaking and time-consuming craft was, the desire to be intimately connected to humanity was equally inherent in each of the three narratives.  The artists’ driving force, beyond the artistry itself, was to serve as a conduit for a deeper relationship with others.  The first sentence from Bloodroot Blades Story page states, “Commitment and relationship are central to who we are and how we have come to this place.”  Nagatani talks about his interactions with clients giving him a sense of his own life’s purpose as an artisan.  He states, “I try to live my life like every interaction is unique and irreplaceable.”

Human connection was also a common theme in Sound City.  The documentary focuses on a studio with the same name as the film that has a tape-based soundboard called a Neve. In order to use it, musicians have to be in the room together, playing at the same time.  This is different from the digitally created form of music-making popular now where one person can create an entire song in a room by themselves and then manipulate the sounds to get what they want.

The film really becomes about bringing the humanity back to recording. The musicians describe “feel” as a primary component of success, which is an artist’s ability to connect with those in the room.  Mick Fleetwood who is a prominently featured interviewee states, “Music isn’t supposed to be perfect. It is about humans’ connecting; it has to include the soul.”

Both of these counter-culture perspectives implicitly advocate a shift in perspective, one that is less individualized and more connected to the people (and products) in our lives.  They provide an interesting compliment to the themes in Delicious Foods where the majority of the book takes place on a farm where minority workers are treated poorly, banned from eating the fruits and vegetables they harvest by threat of punishment, and often paid in crack and alcohol to feed the addictions they harbor.  In every way, the vegetable and fruit pickers are trapped in their grotesque, yet somehow invisible, situation without connection to the outside world of people whom they are serving.  Sirius, a character who provides the philosophical waxing for the themes of the book, states:

“… most often people who have power turn their story into a brick wall keeping out out somebody else’s truth…  he often thought about the people who were going to eat the strawberries and lemons and watermelons he picked for Delicious, about what those folks would look like, how they might peel the fruit, how the fruit would taste, maybe about the fruit salad they would make, or the pie.  But I’m sure they never thought about me…  No, not from behind that brick wall.”

Hannaham’s novel, partially based upon true events, reads as a plea to connect with others to better understand the shared and nuanced expressions of humanity with compassion and to seek the personal truths that remain invisible in the folds of our complicated society.

These artists are expressing what science states as well: connection is what we are built to do, an art form inherent in the fabric of humanity, woven through each and every moment of individual lives.  Confirmed by research, anthropologists have found evidence that the human brain evolved to the size and capacity that it has because of a need to relate.  Mathew Lieberman, researcher and author of the book Socialconfirms this in an interview for UC Berkeley’s Greater Good, “To the extent that we can characterize evolution as designing the modern brain, this is what our brains were wired for: reaching out and connecting with others.” He states that “social thinking” is literally our default mode of thought when we are not consciously directing our attention elsewhere.

Conversely, a lack of social connection has been shown to have adverse reactions, even more so than smoking or obesity. Professor Brene Brown stated in an interview, “A deep sense of love and belonging is an irresistible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as were meant to. We break apart. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.”

In my personal experience, it is not always easy to “be present” for others’ stories and experiences in ways that allow me to connect.  I often times find myself zoning out when I am supposed to be listening to my five-year-old in the backseat telling me about the playground we just passed and what he did the last time we were there.  I don’t always seek the “unspoken story” for the angry person who tailgated me on the highway before speeding around to the passing lane or the dismissive sales clerk scanning my groceries at Kroger’s.  I do try, though, to be more present every day.  I try to redirect my attention to the person speaking when I begin thinking of “what I am going to say next.”  I try to remember the last time I cut someone off in a hurry when I find myself thinking someone is rude (or worse) because they have done the same to me on a different day.

When I do succeed in connecting and understanding, there is little more valuable to me than the moment when my brain is not speaking and my heart is receiving something essential from another.  Furthermore, akin to the many and varied artists mentioned in this post, I, too, have found my vocation and my art form to be a rich thread connecting myself to others. Teaching, writing, researching- through each of these venues, my truest self is found and exposed, and because of this, my connection to humanity is deepened and enriched.

To humbly expound the words of Rilke, through both being present with others and finding the ways we can most express our own humanity, the “partition” between self and other lifts.  The outer world pours in, the inner world glows, somehow more of itself.


Human connection will be a common theme in future posts, so I would love to hear where and in what ways others find their deepest connections to humanity. Please feel free to share comments on this post or email me from the “Contact” page.   


Note: The photo featured here was one I took of an artwork left on a tombstone in Roussillon, France.  I thought the couple, the story implicit, and the creation itself were just a beautiful illustration of how our connections and our love persist despite all, even death.

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