Not long ago, or maybe it was just last week, my friend had an epiphany.
She said, in a surprised and exasperated voice, in that tone you normally reserve for discovering you have obscenely bad breath or a third nipple or maybe a clump of shiny black hairs sticking out of your nose for the past week and no one bothered to tell you, she said, "Oh my God! Do you know what I just realized? I talk way too much."
This was no small discovery. This was no inconsequential awakening. My friend -- who was, by the way, wholly correct -- was not one normally prone to sudden bouts of self-awareness, much less a startling, quasi-spiritual confession that something was seriously amiss in how she was interacting with the world, and she needs to do something about it.
She was stunned. I was stunned. She said she just recently grasped, to her horror, that she never really heard a single thing anyone else said, never really connected to a conversation, never really listened for anything except a pause in the conversation so she could jump back in and fill it with an opinion she'd been manically forming while others were talking.
I tried to act surprised.
"It's true!" she said. It was like she just awoke from a dream and now, everywhere she looked, examples. Whenever she left a business meeting, she had no idea what her colleagues had suggested because when she wasn't dominating the conversation, she was up in her own ego, formulating her next comment, trying to impress everyone with her incessant stream of overwhelming ideas, terrified of shutting up for a moment, lest she become irrelevant or someone else steal the attention.
Close friendships, her children, her husband, her sister? The same. She was never one to ask how you're doing or what was going on in your life with anything resembling genuine interest or concern. She never leaned in, never held eye contact for long, never softly touched your elbow or held your hand in empathy.
When she did ask, it was cursory and throwaway, which you understood immediately because as soon as you'd begin to answer, her eyes would usually glaze over and her gaze would wander and you might as well say "and then the zombies ate the babies and Jesus exploded in giant banana pudding wappa wappa boom," for all the attention she was paying.
Yes indeed, she was one of those people. One with a self-absorption habit so deeply ingrained, so woven into the fabric of her personality, it seemed inextricable, impossible to know who she was without it. If she wasn't so funny and amiable in general, generous with her time and (despite the rabid solipsism) kind of heart, she'd have no friends at all.
But here's the impressive part. Her epiphany extended to a potent realization many who suffer the same affliction never attain: She understood that her manic need for chatter was preventing her from authentic, heartful connection with anyone or anything; all the white noise was blocking all sorts of love and compassion, not to mention a sense of deeper self or divine wow. Maybe, she said, this was why she was so unhappy, so lost, so endlessly needy and never fulfilled! Maybe this was the root of the problem! All energy in, nothing offered out. Could it be?
Oh, hell yes. I was impressed. For one thing, no one really led her to this awakening. No teacher, guru, book, YouTube video, Zen workshop slapped her awake or pinched the ass of her consciousness. She just sort of snapped to it. Maybe it was cumulative? Maybe her endless complaints of feeling stressed and unloved had finally cracked her open? Maybe it was the toxic stew of anger and loneliness? Impossible to say.
And really, it doesn't matter. Because most amazing of all is what she decided to do next: She said she was going to a meditation retreat, one of those introductory, three-day vipassana (insight meditation) weekends up at Spirit Rock I'd recommended to her, long ago, during one of her bouts of lamenting her love life, her job, her body and her marriage and her everything. She looked at me, sidelong and sweet, as I suggested it, like you do a mental patient. Not a chance.
But now, a radical shift. An unexpected opening. She didn't really know a thing about vipassana (or any form of meditation, for that matter), except the little I'd told her. She had no spiritual practice or exposure of any kind, no idea what she was in for. But it felt right, she said, something she had to do. "Perfect," I said.
I was, as I say, impressed. With her nerve. With her resolve to actually go in, sit still and really look. This, in the modern age, is no small feat. This is a brave and often terrifying thing. Most people cannot handle any kind of inward-focused quiet for half an hour, much less three days, cannot sit still and hold silence and watch the demons, the voices, the memories and the panic rise up like a whiny little army that stabs at your ego like a piñata.
I had no idea if she'd make it, if she'd survive, or if she'd bolt for the door in the first hour and go slam some tequila and wonder what the hell she was thinking. But to recognize the need? To commit energy to the possibility? To actually sign up for the weekend and tell me about it, excitedly? Halfway there already.
Is it not a mega trend? Not the way of the modern world? We all know someone...
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Mark Morford is the author of The Daring Spectacle: Adventures in Deviant Journalism, a mega-collection of his finest columns for the San Francisco Chronicle and SFGate. He's also a well-known E-RYT yoga instructor in San Francisco. Join him on Facebook, or email him. Not to mention...