I've had plenty of dreams- and still occasionally have them- where I show up to class one day and, surprise, there's a test. I am completely unprepared. The blood drains out of my face, my heart rate accelerates, and my skin flushes. These are not pleasant dreams. Thankfully, I've never been naked in them, despite that being an archetypical nightmare of our overschooled society.
Being caught naked in front of everyone. No clothes to hide behind, everything on display. Everyone can see us for how we really are- corporeally, of course. Terrifying. They see parts of us we'd rather keep private or only reveal in intimate moments. Even the thought of someone walking in on us while we're changing is an unpleasant thought. One has to be very confident with themselves to be comfortable being naked around others. This is irrespective of the aesthetics of that person's body, of course. A beautiful girl can be self-conscious while an ugly girl can be completely accepting and loving of how she looks.
I bring this up not because this is an appeal for public nudity- but rather as a metaphor for conversational nudity. This is an appeal for naked conversations.
We clothe ourselves conversationally the same way we clothe our bodies. And the conversations we have with others are crucial because, as Susan Scott wrote in Fierce Conversations, "the conversation is the relationship." She poignantly quotes a passage from the novel Kavalier and Clay: "Every universe, our own included, began in conversation. Every golem in the history of the world... was summoned into existence through language, through murmuring, recital, and... was, literally, talked into life." Conversation is how we co-create and share experiences with another. Conversation is connection.
Yet we clothe our minds and our conversations with rehearsed scripts, prepared stories, canned jokes, faked attitudes, clever platitudes, white lies, quarter-truths, cheap tricks, and manipulative gambits. When our partner speaks, our mind busies itself with what witticism we'll drop next. We clothe our minds in myriad ways because we're afraid that our counterpart in the conversation will see us naked and not like it. Timid, we worry they will reject us in some way, and that their rejection reflects poorly on us. Like a car salesman who needs the commission on the next sale, we need something from them. A social currency of sorts. It could be validation, attention, favors, sex. We don't really care who buys the car. As long as they drive it off the lot and we get paid. We can sneak out their window the next morning. And so, afraid we won't get what we need, afraid they'll see us naked, we hide behind layers of accumulated and ill-fitting garments like a hobo in a harsh winter.
And yet the truth will come out eventually, just as certainly as I mix my metaphors in my writing. The car breaks down on the way home. We take off a few garments in a rare moment of vulnerability and honesty. And what then? We still inevitably face the rejection we so feared. If all we're after is a one-off business sale or a one-night stand, then perhaps we don't care. Or perhaps we're after something deeper: real, meaningful human connection. Finding it requires presence. And presence requires psychic nudity.
We feel presence when we're in the elusive flow state. When we meditate. When we feel alive. When we're engrossed in a task or overcome by something greater than us. When we get out of our heads and its endless, inescapable chatter and into the wisdom of our bodies. Presence in a conversation means dropping all pretenses, scripts, routines, and manipulations. It means simply being there, in the present moment, with our counterpart, and speaking honestly and directly (though not tactlessly or cruelly) our thoughts, feelings, and desires in the present moment. It is the conversational (psychic, mental, emotional) equivalent of being naked.
But being naked is hard at first. We want to cover our vulnerability. Say we see a pretty girl that we want to speak to. But we freeze up. What can we say that will make her like us? On goes a metaphorical shirt. Even worse, what if we run out of things to say? We'll be standing there like an idiot with our mouth agape. Nope, can't let that happen. On goes the whole damn rain-suit.
That is why the idea of performing improvisational comedy is so terrifying to most of those that haven't done it. Normal public speaking, the #1 biggest fear most of us have, seems like a walk in the park in comparison. In public speaking, we can memorize a script and put on a facade. In improv, we're naked in the moment because the whole skit is being summoned out of thin air... laughed into existence.
And just like an average-looking but confident lass is often more attractive than a beautiful-but-self-conscious bombshell, improv is hilarious when done by those comfortable with being psychically naked in that moment in time. The audience savors the humor more because of the nakedness of the moment.
The same way humor unfolds once the improvisers accept themselves in their nudity, human connection only unfolds once we let ourselves be naked in a conversation with someone else. That is what authenticity means. It requires that we honor the connection above any social currency we might get out of the relationship, and ultimately letting go of any specific outcome we might want. They might love us, hate us, leave us, or just not care. I'm reminded of what one of the characters in the Dune series of books by Frank Herbert, a "Zen-Sufi philosopher", says to another character: "Do not be trapped by the need to achieve anything. This way, you achieve everything." Perhaps not with that person. Perhaps with the next. They'll eventually see Us, You, Me anyway. Save both parties the time, headache, and heartbreak.
Here's a heuristic I've heard: 30% of people, no matter what, are going to like us. 30% are going to dislike us. And 30% will be indifferent. So why not cut through all the bullshit? Slough off the accumulated layers of societal trash like a snake shedding a skin. Have unprotected conversations. Strip ourselves conversationally. I've read that gyms in ancient Greece, where athletes trained and competed nude, had this phrase inscribed above their door: "Strip or Retire". The message they wanted to send was clear: show up and put yourself out there, or get out of here. Spectators are not welcome. We should take the same as our conversational imperative: only those dedicated to connection need stay.
One level of psychic nudity- let's say the equivalent of being in our underwear- is to share emotional experiences- opening up about our vulnerabilities and our passions, our fears and our joys. These are not feelings in the moment but if they are shared with presence they can be powerful. Even more powerful is to move to the level of describing the connection unfolding, in the present moment. Fear, desire, nervousness, happiness, beauty, excitement, whatever it may be that we're feeling, we vocalize it. It may come across crudely or tactlessly at first. But we have to go easy on ourselves, as our commitment, nay, our calling to human connection is nothing short of divine. We'll learn.
Being in such a naked conversation does require a foundation of self love, self acceptance, self esteem, whatever we want to call it. It requires the confidence to stand on our own two feet, alone as the moment in which we'll eventually die, needing no validation and no thing from another, all the while delightfully inviting those around us to join us if they'd like. And the choice to share a moment, an experience, a connection, a relationship is a beautiful thing. To choose not because we need it (our neediness covers us ugly as warts) but because we want it, both parties, the true and sharp and hard totality of it.
"But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There's no godliness there... I feel that a man is a very important thing- maybe more important than a star. This is not theology... I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. it is always attacked and never destroyed- because 'thou mayest'." -John Steinbeck, East of Eden
Dillon Dakota Carroll
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
May 19th, 2016
This article would not have arisen without a magnificent conversation held as part of an online course call. On the call there were seven of us- me, Hans, Daniel, Cedric, Kai, Jihyun, and Mathias. Many thanks to them for the amazing things I've learned from them, and not just what I'm referring to here.
A few practical suggestions for naked conversations.
Create some sort of reminder on a digital watch or what be it. Every time you are reminded, check in with yourself. How are you feeling at that moment? In relation to the other person? Practice vocalizing it.
When you catch your attention wandering in a conversation, immediately make eye contact with the other person- fiercely. Devote 100% of your attention to their eyes. Ever notice how, despite making "eye contact", we never really appreciate another person's eyes? You'll feel more connected to them and they'll light up- they will feel your Presence.
...sees much and knows much