The Spirituality of Being Seen
by Peggy McDonagh
In 2007, I hosted a tour to South Africa, an incredible experience that I shared with thirty-nine other people. As we met the South African people we were welcomed with the Zulu greeting ‘Sawubona!’ that means ‘I see you!’ We soon learned to respond by saying, ‘Yebo, sawubona,’ that means, ‘Yes, I see you.’ Another greeting that was used was ‘Sikbona!’ ‘I am here to be seen.’ At that time, I was unaware of the powerful significance of that exchange of words. Recently I was reminded of this greeting when I read an excerpt from The Book of Awakening by Michael Nepo in which he reflects on this simple but profound greeting and its significant affirmation of our humanity.
Of late, as I’ve watched and listened to events of life unfold on this planet, I have been thinking much about human behaviour and interaction. I believe that many of the problems and conflicts that tear apart families, marriages, communities and nations result from our inability to see fully and respect completely each other’s humanity. I wondered what life would be like if we were to embrace this African tradition of sawubona as a spiritual practice.
Robert Holden, PhD, is the author of the books Happiness NOW!, Shift Happens!, and Authentic Success. He engages his audiences with his innovative work on psychology and spirituality. At the beginning of his talks, he often invites the audience to share the African greeting with ten other people. He writes, “[Sawubona] is a powerful experience both for the person who says it and for the person who hears it.”
The deeper meaning underlying this North African greeting can suggest that ‘as I see you I bring you into existence and I respect you.’ According to Holden, sawubona is the intentional “release of any preconceptions and judgments so that ‘I can see you as you have been created.’” And so, when I say ‘I see you,’ to another person I am affirming that that person exists fully for me at that moment and that we are participating in each other’s life. In my eyes we are equal and the other has my respect. This is a profound act of acceptance, grace and love. In the Zulu tradition sawubona obligates a person to be fully present to the other in that encounter so that each person’s life is enhanced.
Many of our negative reactions and responses, many of the tensions in our relationships, many of the misunderstandings that occur at work or other such communities and many of the conflicts in the world stem from our inability to see the other person.
In his article “The Power of a Vision,” Kris Vallotton begins by asking the question, “What is vision?” He responds, “Vision is what we see, but it is also the way in which we see. Vision is the lens that interprets the events of our life, the way we view people… If we have a scratch on our glasses, it may seem like everybody around us has scratches too, but the problem actually lies with us because our vision is impaired.” Vallotton suggests that people “perceive with our eyes but we see with our hearts. Our minds receive images from our eyes but our heart interprets these images. If our heart becomes bitter, jealous, hurt or in some way infected, the lens of our heart is distorted. What we perceive and what is real can be two completely different things.”
Too often the labels we apply to people erase their humanity in our eyes giving us motive to bully, disregard, demonize and even destroy. When we understand that what is real is our humanity with all its foibles and beauty and what is not real are the labels we place on others and the misguided perceptions we have of people’s gender, sexuality, age and personality, we clear our vision to see the worthiness of the other.
Dr. Holden teaches that sawubona “begins with two people meeting and looking into each other’s eyes.” Doing so establishes “an uncommon depth of connection” as “eye contact is akin to soul contact.” ‘I am here to be seen’ and ‘I see you,’ means that someone bears witness to our humanity in whatever form it takes: it is a declaration of existence.
In some African tribes, sawubona is used collectively to affirm the members of the tribe. For example, when a person engages in the wrong behaviour the tribe encircles that person and each person around the circle tells of the person’s good qualities and acknowledges the ways the person helps the community.
In these tribes there exists a belief that no person is born bad but that people can be steered into bad behaviour that does not reflect the true essence of that person’s nature. The community acknowledges the harmful behaviour but seeks to validate the person’s personhood, hopefully enabling that person to reclaim his or her self-worth so that the bad behaviour can be altered. Sawubona “signals a willingness to engage with integrity, and in that encounter, there are no masks, no editing, and no defences”
Imagine if a misbehaving schoolchild, rather than being disciplined by the teacher or ridiculed by the children, were to be surrounded by her classmates who tell her what they like about her. Imagine if this became a practice in schools to reframe disciplinary action.
We all need to be seen, to be loved and to have someone appreciate and accept us for who we are. When we are seen by another, we are taken into his or her heart awakened to what it means to belong. We receive the gift of love and acknowledge our own worthiness. In so doing, we begin to see others with new eyes. “As far back as we can remember,” writes Mark Nepo, “people of the oldest tribes, unencumbered by civilization, have been rejoicing in being on earth together. Not only can we do this for each other, it is essential in a world that erases our humanity in so many ways.”
Orland Bishop is the director of an organization called Shade Tree Multicultural Foundation in Los Angeles and is a research fellow with The Center for the Study of Violence and Social Change. Bishop is a compassionate advocate for human rights and cultural renewal combining his study of medicine, naturopathy, psychology, and contemporary and ancient indigenous practices in his work with at-risk youth and human development. He shares the following in one of his presentations: “I experienced a moment of sawubona yesterday when I looked at my wife while I felt the warmth of her beautiful hands in a cafe. . . .and I felt the sheer beauty and miracle of being alive, here, today at this moment.
“I saw it again when I looked at the face of my two-year-old son while becoming frustrated as I searched for my car. The lovely thing about experiencing sawubona with toddlers in my experience is [that they] don’t wear [psychological] costumes or masks and are ready to meet you here and now, totally and completely.”
I ask you to reflect on Bishop’s questions: “What if we can cultivate this way of seeing each other in our relationships? Or put another way, how can we cultivate more soulful and meaningful relationships with all the distractions and issues the modern world brings into our homes?”
Imagine greeting your family, your colleagues and your friends with the conscious intention of seeing their humanity fully and without prejudice. Think of the effect it would have if you greeted everyone you know with this conscious intention. Imagine how you would feel to be greeted in such a profound and affirming way. Sawubona!
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