Role-playing is a good tool to develop people’s capacity and to put them in touch with their internal material. It’s challenging. It’s revealing. And, yes, it can be frightening, but to be present in fear is a good way to build capacity.
With this group, when I asked for volunteers for a role-play, there was always an awkward silence. Sometimes one or two people would reluctantly step forward, but usually, I ended up picking a couple of people. The air was thick with resistance and discomfort. Once into the exercise, people usually appreciated how helpful it was, but the passivity continued.
At our meeting in June this year, however, something happened that made all the difference.
After lunch one day, when we met for our afternoon session, I again asked for a couple of volunteers. Instead of the awkward silence, every hand shot up! It took me a moment to adjust. This was a completely different situation — or was it?
In one sense, nothing had changed: I still had to pick a couple of people for the exercise. In another sense, everything had changed: I could now focus on picking people who would benefit most from the exercise or who could demonstrate the points I was trying to convey. I no longer had to be concerned about pushing people against their will.
What had happened? Apparently, over lunch, the group had decided that they were fed up with my constant pushing and organized a conspiracy. Everyone had agreed to step forward whenever I asked for volunteers.
The shift in energy was dramatic. The air almost sparkled with the energy of engagement. Most important, we were all able to work at a much deeper level.
The same dynamic applies in other settings. Two or three times a month, I lead Sutra Sessions, at Against the Stream and Insight LA here in Los Angeles. More than the meditation period, the Q&A that follows is where the real learning takes place. The few people who pose questions are not being passive. They are presenting their questions, challenges, or insights, and inviting a response. We go back and forth until they are clear in their experience. The interaction is two-way, not one-way, and this two-way interaction is crucial if one is to deepen practice and make it a way of life.
Most teaching situations are one-way interactions. A person listens to a talk, reads a book, or plays a podcast or other recording. However beneficial a person may feel the talk or the book is, the flow is one-way and it is difficult to say what, if anything, has actually been learnt.
In the two-way interaction, both teacher and student find out very quickly what they know. Does the student stand in his or her own experience and give expression to their understanding? Does the teacher respond to the student without concern for position, identity, status, role or other forms of protection? Is there a meeting of minds? And what happens then?
This two-way interaction is challenging for both parties. Neither one knows where things are going to go. It can be uncomfortable, even frightening, but when minds meet, understanding arises, and with it, a subtle joy. This is where the rubber meets the road — where our practice comes alive and active in our lives.