The Hocking Hills Festival of Poetry


          Thousands of times in my life I have been walking down a path or a street and seen another person walking toward me. I habitually did not even consider what to do when we would meet. I had become ingrained in robotic behaviors. Most often I just kept walking, eyes averted, making sure to not violate their space. The exception to this was the time during my teens, when I was grappling with machismo, I would stare at the oncoming person and make sure to step into his space – unless he looked too formidable or projected a tangible aura of menace. But one day I was invited to examine this simplest of interpersonal interactions.

          My aikido teacher had asked a friend to present a daylong workshop. He was a unique guy, versed in the martial arts, practiced in humorous magic, was the opening act for the Flying Karamazov Brothers juggling act tour, and had played the ‘Jewel” in the film Jewel of the Nile. His name was Avner Eisenberg.

          Avner used the situation of two people walking toward each other to wake us up to looking at our own hard-wired programs. First he asked me to just stand alertly in place. As he slowly walked toward me from 20 feet away he asked me to tell him when he hit my ‘bubble’, the place that I considered my own space. When he reached a spot about five feet from me I actually felt his energy meeting my own. I said, “Stop!” He did and surprised me with a front kick that whizzed right in front of my face. A step closer and the kick would have landed. He then asked to let him know when he hit the next bubble and slowly took a step. Stop! He punched forward and came up just short. Then he reached his hand forward and I reflexively clasped and shook it. We were ‘at arm’s length’. Any closer could be highly unsafe.

He then broke down the choreography of the walking toward each other. We slowly walked forward, not really engaged with the one approaching. We both looked straight ahead. Exactly when we reached the outside bubble I realized that I had a decision to make. Do I look down and away, avoiding the interaction, or do I glance at his eyes, inviting something else? He suggested practicing this on the street with everyone I met and noticing what happens at the crucial moment.

I practiced. I realized that many people, especially in cities, looked down and away. They avoided any unplanned interaction. Meeting the glance was a chance to give offense, something not be risked.

In small rural towns I found that something else happened. At the crucial moment most people nodded, smiled or said ‘Hello’. They seemed to know that such a greeting would show the others that no harm was meant; that it was safe to proceed. Instead of succumbing to fear, they opened themselves to an opportunity to connect with another person.

One of the most ancient greetings is Shalom, or Shalom aliechem, which literally translates into Peace unto you. The response is Aliechem shalom, unto you peace. Wishing peace to someone serves to diffuse the chance for threat, but it is important to realize that peace is a process, not a state of being in itself. Peace is not some sort of destination, that once reached provides a continual haven from strife. Peace is the result of constant struggle and constant compromise and accommodation.

The greeting and response display a wish for peace by the greeter, and then a similar affirmation by the responder. Thus the balance between the two is established. From this place they may go on their way safely or an authentic dialog may ensue. In light of such an ideal the fact that the Hebrew Shalom aliechem and the Arabic Salaam aliechem are cognates is one of the ironies of our time.

Another traditional greeting is Namasté, which can be seen to mean the divine spark in me recognizes the divine spark in you. The greeting is given by bringing the palms together in front of the heart, fingers pointing upward, followed by a bow with the eyes closed while  Namasté is voiced.

The greeter is totally vulnerable at this time. S/he has demonstrated that the sentiment comes directly from the heart and has by closing the eyes, put an attack out of the question. Bowing, which exposes the back of the neck, is the ultimate sign of vulnerability. The placing together of the hands is a sign of the resolution of opposites, just as a peaceful coming together can be.

Aloha can be seen as an expression of the desire to share life energy, or more literally ‘breath’. This profound idea predates the scientific knowledge that when we are in the presence of another we are both breathing in molecules that have come from the other, thus literally making part of the other into our self. Such a recognition can trigger the realization that if we harm another we are also harming our self. The connection between us is tangible and not simply figurative.

The greeting Sawubona comes from the Zulu culture. My friend, Orland Bishop has studied this word in great depth and relates that the literal meaning of the word is ‘I see you’. But because we carry the legacy of our ancestors and divinities, sawubona can be seen to mean ‘we see you’. When answered with yebo sawubona – We see you too, it can become an opportunity to determine what possibilities may result from our coming together at this place in this moment of time. Such an interpretation sparks the imagination out of inertia and provides a chance to reimagine our life in the light of a larger community. Each time we invoke sawubona we again get the chance to become more than we have been.

The Mayan greeting En La Kesh means I am another you, or you are another me. Again, ancient wisdom recognizes that a meeting between people is a reaffirmation that we share deep connection with the other. Our vision of the world transcends the individual self and its selfish desires, and becomes something that embraces a larger way of living.

Greetings can do more than simply hold a tattered social fabric and casually acknowledge another. The words we use are not magic bullets. Greetings are usually culture-specific. What is important is the feeling we hold in our self as we greet another and the intention of being open to the meeting. In this way we can cross the threshold to deeper, richer and more meaningful connections with the people we encounter in our lives.

I, you, he, she, we

In the garden of mystic lovers

these are not true distinctions


Shams Tabriz

Translated by Coleman Barks