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Relational mindfulness of Milan Kundera

Updated: Jul 18, 2023

Milan Kundera passed away yesterday in Paris. I feel sadness but also huge respect and gratitude for what he gave to us in his novels. His enormous importance for the world literature is indisputable but his works are very inspiring for dialogical practice too.

Kundera was born in Brno, a city where I live. I have been passing the house where he was born several times a week on my bike when I was hurrying from my daughter´s forest kindergarten to my therapy room. It is very ordinary family house, nothing pomp or special, and hardly anyone knows that it is the birthplace of a famous novelist. Next to his house, there is a fancy yoga studio. For me, the combination of these two houses symbolizes something I adore in his writings.

It seems to me that the focus on „present moment“ is important aspect of both yoga practice and Kundera´s novels. But contrary to yoga, Kundera is not aiming at achieving inner harmony. He does not separate the inner and outer. Quite in line with dialogical practice, Kundera captures the tensional, embodied, moment-to-moment search for meaning in polyphony of voices. And he does it in a way that is not fancy or pomp but very ordinary. As ordinary as life is.

Consider this excerpt from Ignorance (translated into English in 2002 by Linda Asher):

„You´re not talking! You don´t know what to say! Just so you know, Mama warned me not to call you. She told me what an egoist you are! What a filthy little egoist!“

Walking back to the table, he feels spattered with filth. Suddenly, illogically, a thought crosses his mind: I´ve had a lof of women in this country but no sister. He is startled by the line and by the word „sister“; he slows his step to breathe in that peaceful word: „sister.“ It´s true, in this country he had never found any sister.

„Something unpleasant happen?“

„Nothing important,“ he replied as he sat down. „But unpleasant, yes.“

Only from these few lines we can feel the richness and uneasiness of human life that is woven precisely from these moments of tension between different voices, that are both around us and embedded in us, intertwined with bodily movements like breathing and feelings. The interaction between all these voices are the basis for the steps we take in our life.

In the Olomouc conference on dialogical practices, Ivana Markova (also born in Czechoslovakia) talked about inner dialogue. She said: „Inner dialogues clash, conflict with external dialogues with the others, all leading to new discursive possibilities.“ Kundera illustrates this process of emerging new discursive possibilities very vividly in all his novels.

When thinking about mindfulness in dialogical practice, I started to play with a term „relational mindfulness“. It invites us to be attentive neither only to what is happening inside us, nor only to what is happening outside us. It invites us to mindfully experience the process when the outer voices flow into the inner voices, when they connect, meet, greet, but also clash or fight.

In his novels, Kundera showed how fascinating but also very natural this process is. He showed how we always see ourselves through the eyes of others, be it those present or absent, concrete individuals or anonymous crowds. He showed that You is an essential condition of I.

In Unbearable lightness of being he wrote: „We all need someone to look at us.“ Now his eyes will no longer look, neither will be looked at. It is the sad part. However, I know that his eyes will stay with me forever and from time to time, they will provoke a question that I sometime ask myself silently: If Milan Kundera saw this situtation, what he would write about it?

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