Idols & The Art of Intimacy

two years ago, my spiritual teacher died of an overdose. I remember holding vigil in a friend’s guest room, crying into the carpet while we waited for the official announcement after his family took him off life support. it wasn’t until later that I learned the cause of his death, and like many people who followed his work, I initially felt betrayed.

I wanted to believe he was better than that. I needed him to be an example of a person who had transcended life’s challenges and was mostly riding above them, unscathed. I needed that for the same reason any of us idolize another person, because we want to believe it’s possible for us to transcend the mess of being human. we want to believe that if we just figure out how to do things right, we can escape confusion and get comfortable.

and yet it was as if his death was another teaching. what I loved about his work, what spoke (and still speaks) so deeply to me, was his willingness to question our images of what enlightenment looks like. instead of encouraging people to seek out some ideal state and try to hold onto it, he taught about how to be intimate with whatever fun or chaos arises, to be with reality. if anything, his death was a sobering reminder that the only fulfillment we can hope for is found when we sink further into the impulses of human experience and trust their innocence.

what I love most about being alive, what makes me feel routinely overjoyed and speechless with pure gratitude on an almost daily basis is the opportunity to be intimate. to be intimate with anything, we must first be willing to be wrong. to be wrong is to be surprised. to be surprised is to be flexible. to be flexible is to be open, curious.

when we think we already have something figured out, we stop paying close attention. as my teacher would say, “rigidity is the enemy of intimacy.” for michael to die of an overdose really forced a lot of people to adjust their fixed view of who they thought he was. in our daily lives, we’re asked to do this over and over. none of us is living up to the image we hold ourselves to. even if we’re achieving everything we’d like to, we will eventually falter — then what? if we’re honest, we are continuously surprising ourselves with how extraordinary and disappointing we can be.

in order to be intimate with another person, this same flexibility is required. we must lean into confusion without running away. instead of holding an expectation that we will ever get everything right, we are tasked with laying down our pride and using curiosity as our compass. to be curious about who another person is, about how they feel and how we’re affecting them, is a tremendously generous act. in fact, this is the act of love. if someone is not curious about another person’s experience, they are not loving them. 

if we’re not willing to give up our images of who a person should be in order to learn who they really are, we’re not willing to know them. unless we’re willing to set down our ideas about how our life “should” look in order to experience the life we’re really living, we won’t be able to be intimate with anything. without intimacy, is joy even possible? if we can’t be intimate, can we feel anything at all?