October 18th, 2021
We Owe It To The World
I have appreciated a handful of good mindfulness teachers in the last decade and a half. My favorite teachers are not only soulful people and good at explaining the dharma or practice of mindfulness, but also have their feet firmly planted in what's actually going on in our country and show their own sense of bodhichitta by striving for ending all beings ' suffering. Among them, Tara Brach. Here's a page of resources that Tara Brach has shared with us and I pass on to you.
We are inspired by wise souls. Sufi Teacher Vilayat Inayat Khan: Overcome any bitterness that may have come because you were not up to the magnitude of the pain that was entrusted to you. Like the mother of the world who carries the pain of the world in her heart, each of us is part of her heart and is, therefore, endowed with a certain measure of cosmic pain. You are sharing in the totality of that pain. You are called upon to meet it in joy instead of self-pity. Desmond Tutu: Discovering more joy does not, I'm sorry to say, save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily, too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.
Mark Nepo: In truth, the more we let love flow through, the more we have to love. This is the inner glow that sages and saints of all ages share: the wash of their love over everything before them; not just people, but birds and rocks and flowers and air. Beneath the many choices we have to make, love, like water, flows back into the world through us. It is the one great secret available to all.
Our Monday Mindfulness Group (everyone welcome!) spent some time writing last week and we stumbled upon the helpfulness of prompts. The group asked for a few prompts for the week to help them focus their thinking and their being present with all that is painful and tumultuous in our world right now. So, after a practice of taking in and sending (Tonglen) this week, I have suggested three prompts that might enliven their week. Here they are. Feel free to use them and to post anything you'd like about your own experience with these prompts:
I breathe in the suffering of…….and I breathe out the love…. because/by…..
I choose joy by…
What am I adding to the planet right now….
This is the talk and meditation that Amy gave on Monday, May 19th at the noon mindfulness session on Zoom.
Acceptance is usually meant for what’s happening inside of us-a feeling, thought, experience, or what’s happening outside of us like something we can see, or in what we are going to talk about today, a decision by an authority. Compassion is the acceptance of the person or people to whom the thing is happening.
Compassion comes from Latin meaning to suffer with. When we acknowledge a person’s suffering, we can turn toward the difficulty that is already happening and soften into that experience of difficulty instead of turning away and hardening to the experience or to the actual person involved.
Compassion is like water, flexible, moving around dense objects, and able to sink into even the hardest, driest soils; it can seep in and can change the whole grounding of our relationships or even of our communities. Over time, compassion can round out rough edges and can diffuse intense experiences like blame and hate. Our own action can help us open the faucet of compassion, empathy, acceptance and kindness can flow toward that being that is suffering. Sometimes that being is ourselves, which many people seem to find it difficult to activate compassion for ourselves. And sometimes that being is someone very different from us. We are certainly in a transition as we enter this first stage of returning to more contact with other people and I have been witnessing in myself and others the difficulty that this transition to people being in public more is bringing. We are afraid, and when we are afraid, we are much less likely to offer empathy and compassion.
The Dalai Lama says “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” So what better reason is there than that to practice compassion?
I want to suggest to you today that this is the exact time, if we want peace and happiness in our world, to practice seeing our reactions clearly and cultivate empathy and compassion. Because even if we already generally agree that yes, I agree with the Dalai Lama, compassion is a good thing, then you are still about to be challenged with being out in the world. Because compassion is easy when we feel safe and don’t see how the behaviors of others conflict with our own, but compassion is most difficult when we feel unsafe and when we disagree with simple choices of another in our general space. These are the conditions in which compassion dries up, especially when there is fear.
I am sure you have noticed that in our country right now and probably in your own neighborhood, people have varying degrees of confidence and caution in interacting with others as the COVID virus is present around us. Some behaviors work with some people and some behaviors don’t work with others. Without getting into the minutiae of those decisions--because we could be here all day and if we did and fear would be triggered for some just in the conversation--we can notice our visual images and reactions to even the idea of these behaviors that don’t work for us. I notice how much fear I have, and notice how easy it is for me to be in a judging thought-mind when I think of people who behave in ways that I don’t agree with around this virus. This transition to new rules out there can be stressful for people. A sense of lack of safety, fear are the conditions in which I judge the harshest and in which I can quickly lose sight of the human being I am judging. There may be people in your life who insist on masks and people in your life who think masks are useless. There may be people inviting you to do things you may not feel comfortable with or people refusing your invitations and you may feel hurt. There may be people in your very same household who practice distancing differently than you that may cause you to feel unheard or even outraged. This is a very stressful time to be in relationship with any other human being who is not exactly like us!
1)Today we will practice compassion by starting with an intention of empathy.
2) We’ll relax the body, use the breath to slow down thinking, and open to a person you will come across in your life with whom you might disagree about some aspect of COVID-related behavior. This person will also likely might benefit from acceptance in the form of empathy and compassion. Certainly, the world will benefit from your putting empathy and compassion out there.
Of course, as we practice empathy, we always want to be aware not to compromise our safety, so I am not advocating letting someone off the hook that is doing something dangerous to you and this is where we get into ambiguity, with COVID spread prevention, so we have to navigate the grey area with caution. And if that grey area a feeling of potential unsafety, is where you notice yourself staying, then it may be enough to work with bringing empathy and compassion with yourself, to help create the conditions of your own safety. So this might be the content of your journey today.
3) We’ll invite our bodies into a position of paying attention, and we’ll sense into the body, noting the breath, the breathing itself that your body is doing, the movement and sensation in the body. And sensing into seeing someone that challenges your way of being in some small way. A person not behaving according to your values, for example. Sensing into the experience while also reminding yourself of your ability to keep yourself safe physically and emotionally. Returning to the senses as much as you need to to be grounded. Sensing into the hesitation, the resistance….remembering that you and this person are different and there is a distinction between what this person feels, thinks and does and what you feel, think and do. Empathy is not agreement. It is not approval. You can practice empathy and compassion without waiving your rights…. And sensing into your own clarity, with a distinct boundary around it that does not have to be compromised to empathize with this person. What you think, feel and sense will be taken away by opening to notice. Your inner experiences will not be erased by offering compassion to this person.
4) Once you have sensed this clarity, this security in your own self, turning attention toward the mental image and moving picture that you have of this person. Noticing as much as you can about the other person’s body and movements: their stance, gestures, small actions. Being careful not to analyse these actions, just noting them as if to mirror them, imagining what it would be like to move the same way, gesture the same way, even to have the same facial expressions. Seeing yourself in your mind doing some of their same movements. We do not have to understand this person to offer them compassion. We can allow that a person deserves kindness just because we share this planet, that we are related as humans and that we will be better off if we bring compassion.
5) Sensing the person’s feelings by watching their face and eyes carefully and by tuning into your own feelings and into your body and breath. If you are in touch with your feelings, you are not far from perceiving someone else’s feelings. If you are relaxed and attentive, you will likely be able to perceive a bit of what they are feeling. You might have to return to the tenet that you and this person are separate people and you don’t have to take what they are feeling on as yours. Rather, you are communing with what they are feeling. And you are vast enough and safe enough to commune with another’s experience. Perhaps some of this person’s experience reminds you of your own?
5) When you are ready to move on, imagining what the person is thinking based on what you know of the person’s temperament, personality, upbringing and personal history, their orientation to the world and the latest COVID-19 news. You might also imagine what they might be thinking based on what you know about vulnerabilities and hopes. Maybe asking yourself what this person is feeling, wanting, fearing, craving. What this person thinks they caused or deserved, or what they think might happen..staying in your own beginner’s mind because you don’t know, but can imagine and open to the possibilities. How can you tell if empathy is arising? What changes in your body or your emotions or thoughts can you notice? How distant or close do you feel to this person? Just checking in with that experience.
6) You might imagine a conversation opener that could take place between you. Something like, “I understand that you think that it is high time we reopen the bars and restaurants and you worry about your friends who own businesses that are in deep financial trouble and you feel worried.” or “I imagine that you want to be able to go out to eat because you miss your life as it was and you feel sad at that.” or “I understand that you are scared of your loved ones getting sick and you don’t want anyone to spread this virus and you are afraid.” Imagine how that conversation might go if the other person is as empathic and open as you are.
7)You can also receive empathy yourself, if you want it. It can be uncomfortable to experience empathy because it brings an intimacy that can make us feel at risk. This is tough when we have been hurt and believe we are safer at a distance. And also because over the last thousands of years, our human brains evolved to avoid the risks in certain encounters. It’s normal to be wary of getting close to others, but safe closeness can also bring peace and happiness. So, reminding yourself of your intention for empathy and opening to the flow of it toward yourself as well. Sensing into that others can empathize with you without you losing your wholeness or the healthy boundary between them and you.
Perhaps you can remember the experience of being with someone with whom you feel safe and loved...soaking in those feelings of warmth, open heartedness...letting your own goodwill naturally arise.
Now, with that loving person’s warmth still being felt, you can bring that person that you’ve been working with, who is different from you on something, into the circle of that open heartedness and warmth.
And then you can offer well-wishes as we do, just making them up as you go: may you be safe, may you be free of worry, may you live a life rich with purpose, whatever you want to offer to that person that brings compassion. Your well wishes are for the human being in your attention, not for their belief or actions.
Checking back in with the body now, staying grounded and secure in our own senses here….tuning in to our breath when we need it…maybe even bringing this same compassion for ourselves as we evoke these well wishes...may I be safe, may I be free of worry, may I live a life rich with purpose...
We are all united in our suffering. This pandemic has changed all of our lives and we all experience the uncertainty and the impermanence around us. May we be safe, may we be free of worry, may we live a life rich with purpose. And spending a few more final minutes saying whatever well wishes you have for this person, even if it’s difficult.
Checking in with the body to acknowledge the experience there. Letting your patience hold you, recognizing that this practice of bringing compassion to those you fear takes effort and repetition. We are being asked to grow and sometimes there are growing pains. May we live into our intention for happiness...may we not shy away from the tough stuff...may we be happy.
If we love, we must learn how to forgive. --Jennifer M Refinnej
Each of us will let go of our grudge at a different pace. You can move through these steps at your own speed, of course, but we really might want to hurry, because research shows that holding onto a grudge can significantly impact your mental and physical health. “When we hold onto grudges and resentment, it’s like drinking poison and expecting the other person to get sick,” says Angela Buttimer, Chapman Family Cancer Wellness. “It causes us to carry negative, tense energy in our biology.” And as we know, that tense biology can permeate our whole mind: the body, brain and relationships.
“Living in a chronic state of tension disables your body’s repair mechanisms, increasing inflammation and the stress hormone cortisol in the body,” she explains. “Forgiveness engages the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps your immune system function more efficiently and makes room for feel-good hormones like serotonin and oxytocin.” (https://www.piedmont.org/living-better/how-does-holding-a-grudge-affect-your-health)
If you are tempted to dwell on an offense, remind yourself what you are doing to your body when you run the scenario in your mind again.
“Your brain doesn’t know what is real and what is imagined, when you replay in your mind an experience you had six months ago, your body reacts as if you’re having the same experience over and over again.
The Power of Forgiveness, by Pat A. Fleming
Some people view forgiveness,
As a virtue for the weak.
An act of Mercy undeserved,
That serves no useful need...
They stand firmly in their judgment,
And won't consider a mistake.
They prefer to hold a senseless grudge,
Than accept amends when made...
They feel they have some Godly right,
To reject and criticize.
They're possessed by righteous anger,
And consumed by pointless pride...
They're focused on how they've been wronged,
And won't be made the fool again.
So they feel they must avenge themselves,
By refusing to give in...
They will sacrifice their family,
Or forsake a long, time friend,
Do anything they have to do,
To be the winner in the end...
Or perhaps it's that they can't resolve,
The depth of all their hurt.
Caused when someone that they've trusted,
Left them questioning their worth.
But no matter why the struggle,
Out of pride or out of fear.
Not being able to forgive,
Can cause the loss of ones most dear...
Yes, forgiveness is a virtue,
They even say it is divine.
But more than that it sets you free,
From what weighs you down inside...
The best way to approach this life,
Is to ask forgiveness and to forgive.
There's a balance to this crazy world,
So live and just let live.
John Greenleaf Whittier: House of Forgiveness
My heart was heavy, for its trust had been
Abused, its kindness answered with foul wrong;
So, turning gloomily from my fellowmen,
One summer Sabbath day I strolled among
the green mounds of the village burial place;
Where, pondering how all human love and hate
Find one sad level; and how, soon or late,
Wronged &wrong-doer, each with meekened face,
And cold hands folded over a still heart,
Pass the green threshold of our common grave,
Whither all footsteps tend, whence none depart,
Awed for myself, and pitying my race,
Our common sorrow, like a mighty wave,
Swept all my pride away, and trembling I forgave!
Here’s poet, philosopher, David Whyte: “To forgive is to assume a larger identity than the person who was first hurt, to mature and bring to fruition and identity that can put its arm, not only around the afflicted one within but also around the memories seared within us by the original blow and through a kind of psychological virtuosity, extend our understanding to one who first delivered it. Forgiveness is a skill, a way of preserving clarity, sanity and generosity in an individual life, a beautiful way of shaping the mind to a future we want for ourselves; an admittance that if forgiveness comes through understanding, and if understanding is just a matter of time and application then we might as well begin forgiving right at the beginning of any drama rather than put ourselves through the full cycle of festering, incapacitation, reluctant healing and eventual blessing.”
Mark Nepo, poet and spiritual adviser, writes that “The pain was necessary to know the truth but we don’t have to keep the pain alive to keep the truth alive…...This is what has kept me from forgiveness: the feeling that all I’ve been through will evaporate if I don’t relive it; that if those who have hurt me don’t see what they’ve done, my suffering will have been for nothing. In this, the stone I throw in the lake knows more than I. Its ripples vanish. What it really comes down to is the clearness of heart to stop defining who I am by those who have hurt me and to take up the risk to love myself, to validate my own existence, pain and all, from the center out. As anyone who has been wronged can attest, in order to keep the fire for justice burning, we need to keep burning our wounds open as perpetual evidence. Living like this, it is impossible to heal. Living like this, we become our own version of Prometheus, having our innards eaten daily by some large bird of roundedness. Forgiveness has deeper rewards than excusing someone for how they have hurt us.The deeper healing comes in the exchange of our resentments for inner freedom. At last, the wound, even if never acknowledged by the other person, can heal, and our life can continue. It is useful to realize that the word forgive originally meant both to give and receive—to “give for.” In keeping with the original meaning, we can see that the inner reward for forgiveness is the exchange of life, the give and take between our soul and the Universe. It is hard to comprehend how this works, yet the mystery of true forgiveness waits in letting go of our ledgers of injustice and retribution in order to regain the feeling in our heart. We can only hope to begin this exchange today, now, by forgiving what’s broken in each other and imagining through love how these holy pieces go together.”
Let’s practice some steps that I’ve put together from some research I’ve done. Please try to think of some destructive act that someone has done to you in the past that caused you to need to forgive that person. Maybe you did and maybe you didn’t. If you did, good on you, and you can glide in this and apply these steps to see how they match up or could have helped. If you didn’t, that’s a good one to choose as long as it’s not someone who did something to you on the magnitude of “I should probably go work this through with a trained counselor and I haven’t. It’s too much to do here today as we start this. But in the spirit of training your brain, we will begin the process here and as your brain integrates what you are learning, you might feel ready to work up to a bigger destructive act later on. Coaching and witnessing by a trained professional always helps, of course.
Let’s first do a little breathing….get ourselves transitioned to being here right now. The work we do here is the work of being in the moment in order to do more of being in the moment. Check out that you are safe here….
1. Come into language for what exactly happened and why it is not OK with you. Then practice your elevator speech by sharing one on one with a couple of trusted people in your life. Imagine doing that now with someone you trust. Share what happened.
2. Articulate your own commitment to feel better for your own benefit. You are embarking on the adventure of forgiveness for yourself and not for anyone else
3. We are forgiving, we are seeking the peace that spontaneously results from understanding more and blaming less. We are reaching out an act of mercy toward the person who hurt us. It is possible to offer kindness, love, generosity to the offender. We are embarking on forgiving but this doesn’t necessarily mean we will make peace or reconcile with the person who did the thing to you. Reconciliation is a strategy for negotiation that takes mutual trust. In forgiving, we not only do not need to trust the person again, but we also don’t need to see them, talk with them or let them know we are working toward forgiving them. We are not forgetting, we are not excusing the actions of the person who offended us, we are not letting go of the value of justice. We are intending to understand more and to blame less. When we succeed at this effort to forgive, we are somehow able to take the offenses less personally. We and those around us that we care for and who care for us will benefit from the putting out there this kind of bigness, this kind of courage.
4. So, placing the source of your present distress in the right place. You are not likely distressed right now, in this moment, from the hurt you suffered by this person. You are likely suffering right now from your own feelings of being hurt, your own other uncomfortable emotions about being hurt, your own thoughts and physical upset (sensations, primarily) that you experience nowadays when you think about the offense. This is a challenging concept, to separate the two. For example, the hurt that the person did to you then becomes “the fact that this happened” and not the initial experience of pain or unsafety or whatever was worse about this destructive act. The memory of this happening and you being unsafe, but now that you are safe, you are experiencing continued impact from the experience and forgiving the person may help you see the difference and loosen a bit of the association. If this is difficult to comprehend, just let it sit and breathe through it.
5. Ask yourself some questions, exercise your understanding and your empathy: What was life like for this person growing up? What wounds did this person suffer that might have made it more likely for them to hurt you? What kinds of pressures and stressors were going on for this person at the time they hurt you? These questions are not meant to excuse or condone the behavior but to help you understand this person and their base humanity better. Perhaps you will find something in common with you that opens your heart to forgiveness more easily, or perhaps just allows you to learn from this context and protect yourself from being hurt in the future.
6. When your nervous system is responding to the hurt feelings, etc, take care of yourself by using whatever techniques you can to get yourself back into the window of tolerance that makes you feel balanced and safe. Maybe here today this means taking some deep breaths, opening your eyes, getting up and walking around the stacks, or finding a tree out the window to look at from bottom to top, but please don’t leave here. At home you can do any of these things and also take a shower, make some tea, whatever brings you into your body even more. I don’t recommend doing anything that helps you escape, like tv, alcohol, the internet, etc. (Do you know what is most effective for You? If not, you can work on a list later of what helps you be less aroused, or less numb, if that’s what happens when your nervous system gets defensive.)
7. As you explore this person’s experience, be aware of any sensations in your body (especially in your chest/heart area) that might indicate even the slightest whisper of compassion for the person in question. Perhaps you are willing to admit that this person made a mistake, that they were confused. Perhaps you can acknowledge that they feel bad about what they’ve done. As you focus on this person, can you notice slightly softer emotions towards them? And tune in again to your present experience of being safe.
8. Imagine yourself bearing the experience of the pain that they have caused. We often want to throw the pain back to the person who caused it in ourselves and you can drop down into the level of your values and question if that is the person you want to be. It is normal to displace our pain onto others, especially onto the person who hurt us. This perpetuates a relationship, a network, a society of anger, injury, disrespect and destructive action. Is that what you want? If not, envision this different way.
9. Take a breath and move your attention to the thought that you can let go of your expectations that life or another human being will give you what it or they do not choose to give you. You do not have the power to enforce getting love, power, friendship, wealth, safety but you can work hard to get them. Suffering happens when you demand that you get these qualities from life and from others because we simply don’t have the power to make them happen
10. Imagine now placing your energy on achieving your desired experiences instead of putting your energy, your focus into the way you were offended/hurt. You have two wolves inside of you, the good and the bad. It matters which wolf you feed.
11. Create an image for yourself inside illustrating that a life well lived is your best revenge against someone that has hurt you. Call to mind several good things about your life, or imagine how you will live your good life by envisioning it now. By expanding the good you do have and ignoring the hurt that will never feed you, will only poison you, your life will be improved.
12. Remember that you are capable of changing the way you tell yourself your story and of choosing to focus on your strength in choosing to forgive. Perhaps you can find a handful of positive outcomes that have come from this particular experience of hurt. (Perhaps you have become sensitized to others who have been hurt, or energized to protect others from being hurt.) Finding those positives does not mean the experience was positive, only that you have the courage to make something out of it.
Let’s return back to the body, to a softening, can we? Relax the tongue….
Mark Nepo again: We can see that the inner reward for forgiveness is the exchange of life, the give and take between our soul and the Universe. It is hard to comprehend how this works, yet the mystery of true forgiveness waits in letting go of our ledgers of injustice and retribution in order to regain the feeling in our heart. We can only hope to begin this exchange today, now, by forgiving what’s broken in each other and imagining through love how these holy pieces go together.
If you really want to put more of yourself into this, consider extending mercy in some noticeable way. You might be merciful to them in a way that they are not merciful to you. Reaching out in some way, or at least stopping talking about them negatively—might shift your own internal experience enough to create hope and peace for yourself. After all, this is the primary goal of forgiveness anyway. Note: Please consider whether interacting with this person might put you into the path of more destructive behavior. Instead you might write in your journal, create a small piece of art, throw your energy into gardening with this person in mind, or do a compassion meditation to cultivate compassion for this person and for all beings.
After all, the compassion we put out there, is compassion we take in as well.
May you be well. May you be forgiving. May the world receive your energy of forgiveness and may it cause a chain reaction of softening, allowing, and forgiving….
What I'm Reading...
I am currently reading this really interesting book, reminding me of my days of reading choose-your-own-adventures and reminding me also of my days as a Anthropology/Women's Studies major. It's called "She He They Me: For The Sisters, Misters and Binary Resisters." I have, in the last few years, come to know about a sizeable group of young people--brilliant and caring and working toward a better future, mind you--who are not apparently interested in accepting the heteronormative/gender normative ("being gay is bad/identifying your gender as something other than your sex parts is bad/do not question the labels and the prejudice and the repression our mainstream culture supports") culture around us. The more I know them, the more I admire their courage in the face of teasers, disbelievers and fearers. Some people apparently can't yet (grit, you can get there, people!) accept that the world is changing. people are empowering themselves to be MORE themselves. Anyway, inspired by those young people, I found and am reading (after my daughter devoured it) "She He They Me" and it's so well-laid out, with answers to all the important questions that people who care enough to have an open mind are wondering, whether they are asking them out loud. What if a person is called a girl but feels like a boy/knows they are a boy? Is gender construction the same across cultures? Where did "queer" come from and why did it used to be a bad term and now it's an empowering term? What happens if someone wants to change their bodies to mirror their sense of themselves inside (ie "I am really a woman with a man's body")? And even, "what's a drag queen?" This book does a lot to give great information, to increase our understanding and hopefully, to lessen ignorance which so often feeds hate. DId you know that lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth? Check out: https://www.thetrevorproject.org/resources/preventing-suicide/facts-about-suicide/ for more vital information. This is a crisis and the more we understand, the better we will be to help this crisis disappear.
People: Even if you "don't believe in" some of the concepts you'll read about in this book, then at least you should know that you are going to be left behind, because THEY EXIST for people and if you do anything with people--have neighbors, tak to children, work in a store, watch sports, cook food for others, ride a bus with others, go to church with others, or--take a breath, Amy--teach our youth or provide physical or mental health care for them, YOU SHOULD UNDERSTAND WHAT OTHERS ARE EXPERIENCING.
Thanks to Robyn Ryle for this enlightening and comprehensive book. Yes, it is an adventure, this whole gender and sexuality discussion, so let's choose to be on it with open hearts as we meet those who might be having a bit of a more terrifying adventure!
In Celebration of Poetry
Last week, I heard from several friends and two clients that they'd watched at least one episode of Marie Kondo's new Netflix show that shows her coming into people's homes and helping them notice what sparks joy, and facilitating the decluttering, or, as she calls, tidying up process. It seems to have really struck a chord in Americans with certain means, kind of like the yoga-teacher-training-as-spiritual-path phenomena that I have noticed in the last seven years. It seems we are finding meaning from these activities that encourage simplicity and getting in touch with our inner selves in a quiet, acknowledging way. Mindfulness. Anyway, I was struck by a study done about clutter and stress. Here's the NY Times article that sums it up, with references to the actual studies done. Enjoy, and maybe you'll want to clean up a few piles around the house after you read it!
Close your eyes and remember an experience where you were listened to, really listened to. If you can remember this time, try to remember how you felt in your body, what you thought and what the entire experience gave to you.
So often, in this life of hurry and defend and plan and convince, we lose the daily practice of deep listening. Or maybe we haven’t lost it, but never really developed it in the first place. We often: worry about all the things that need to be accomplished today; think about how to respond to the current conversation; make judgements about what the other individual is saying; are distracted by events occurring simultaneously in the environment around us; jump to conclusions before contemplating what is being said. Obviously, this contributes to the relationship we have with the speaker. When we do a loving kindness meditation, we say something to the effect of “may (this person) be free from suffering” or “may this person be safe from inner and outer dangers.” we can move toward making that experience happen for the speaker if we practice listening mindfully.
Mindful listening is a skill we are not born with: we learn from the parental and familial role modelling we see, we build habits for listening in one direction or the other based on life experience and how communication happens around us, and we adapt our skills to the messages we receive from our own nervous systems. For example, when we are anxious in our bodies, we are less able to sit and listen, to really hear. Listening is such a big part of communicating, but how in tune with what we are hearing are we, really? How open and curious are we as we listen?
If we take all that we are learning through this mindfulness practice about paying attention to ourselves, our thoughts and our bodily sensations and apply that learning to listening, let’s think about what we might have available to us. We might use beginner’s mind as we listen. What might that be like inside our mind? We might slow down and use patience in our listening style. What might this look like? We might let go of judgment. How might that look or sound in conversation? If we use non-striving in our listening, how might that influence the speaker who wants to be listened to (don’t we all?) We might truly commit ourselves to the intention of just that one activity...listening. And imagine if we embodied the mindfulness attitudes of gratitude and generosity as we listen? Can you imagine how this might change a stale (at best) or hostile (at worst) dynamic of communication you find yourself in with certain people, beloveds even?
If we decide to listen, we can do one thing. Listen. With beginner’s mind, non-judgment, non-striving, patience, gratitude and generosity on the part of you, the listener, you can create an energy that allows and eventually invites a speaker to open up, like a flower in the warm sun.
When we are truly listening deeply, we are aware of our own sense of ourselves as we listen. We can attend to the internal experiences even as we tune back again and again into the listener, to be surprised by whatever information the speaker is sharing and to catch the speaker with soft arms of deep listening (or to bathe the listener in the warm sun of your mindful attention). This ability to allow ourselves to stay in what is being heard, regardless of our discomfort with it is something Keats talked about: when someone “is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” He called this negative capability. Wouldn’t this be wonderful, to ‘be in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without irritable reaching’ much of the time we are supposed to be listening?
Let's Practice...We can prepare our bodies for mindful listening by doing a couple minutes of centering, both physically and mentally. So, as we sit….(head over spine, over hips and leaning forward ever so slightly to ensure uprightness that can be lost over the years of aging and slouching into our lives) Once we are physically centered and ready, we can spend a moment clearing our minds, noticing what is present for us, and using the outbreath to clear space for listening. If you have any particular internal experiences that are holding on, perhaps you can imagine that those experiences can recede to the background and you can promise yourself you will work with them later. As you breathe, you are preparing yourself for true listening without so much interference of your own internal experience.
--Take a couple minutes to focus on your breathing, just as we do in the beginning of many meditations. Allow this to be your cuing to attention and your clearing out of previous experiences.--Pair up with a partner, and invite the partner to talk without interruption about whatever s/he wants to share for about 5 minutes.
--When you are the listener, you can simply listen. Don’t comment or question, don’t answer, just listen. This is practice not for a conversation but for listening and allowing the talker to fill the space with her/his own thoughts.
--You can offer direct eye contact as much as feels comfortable, and let other non-verbal cues such as nodding, smiling, demonstrate your “getting” your partner.
--Notice your own impulse to speak, your wandering mind, any indications of emotions or urges that you can notice in your own body, even as you come back to just listening.
--You can switch roles so each person gets a chance to speak and a chance to listen.
Maybe you want to reflect on this experience with your partner:
Now let’s settle back in to our own experience and take a few deep breaths to settle the mind, and just be present.
And now let’s turn our thoughts to the person or people who might be most impacted by this kind of listening that you have just practiced. Notice yourself thinking about how it might impact you as the listener and your relationship to that person in general.
Deep Listening by Mary-Elizabeth Cotton - Hello Poetry
Let us listen...
Just for awhile
let us silence our minds
and open our hearts
Just for awhile
let us listen from within
not to gain knowledge
not to formulate questions
rather to chance upon
sacred bonds and
Just for awhile
let us not seek information
Let us not rouse the intellect
but embrace the spirit
If thoughts cloud the brain
let them pass
If replies tingle on the tongue
let us breathe them away silently
Return to them later
here in this precious time of sharing
Let us listen
let the words wash over us
and seep into a still quiet pool
Let us listen.
The Thanksgiving holiday. A time of giving thanks. A time of returning to family. A time of feeling cramped and criticized. A time of regression to old roles, long-since forgotten until returning to family. A time of overdoing it--food, drink, speech. Bless this day, with its many expectations, commitments and foibles. May it be as messy and real as it gets, and may you be present for it all!
Of course it won't be all bad. But many people these past weeks have spoken their trepidation about the challenge of Thanksgiving, 2015. So, this is written for you who dreads, who worries, who anticipates with an elevated heart rate and sweaty palms (you, my friend, are trapped in "Fight, Flight or Freeze" and breathing will help!) As we bring our attention to the present moment, perhaps we can also expand awareness to the spaces between difficulties. The gentle pause between the expectable discomforts, or the way some person at the table has changed, or the way you've chosen, in this moment, not to speak to unleash the cascade of patterned interaction you have known at past family gatherings.
Yes. Something different. Creating a new pathway in your brain as you sit in this dining chair, not the dining chair of your childhood, listening now to sounds as they enter your ears, not needing the story, but rather just listening. Or perhaps touching the tablecloth and noticing it's texture, contrasting it with the smoothness of your plate, the coolness of your glass every single thing is different. You can always (what a concept!) pay attention to the feel and flavor of that mound of effortfully-made food in front of you, noticing each bite as it enters your mouth and makes its way to nourishing your body. There are so many ways to be present this Thanksgiving, 2015. The invitation is open and the grounding to present moment awareness is possible.
This poem from Danna Faulds (http://dannafaulds.com/) sums it up, though I don't think Danna was thinking of this Thursday, it is a good one to unfurl from your pocket or call up on your phone when you head to the bathroom for a quick Time Out during the feast.
Walk Slowly (Danna Faulds)
It only takes a reminder to breathe,
a moment to be still, and just like that,
something in me settles, softens, makes
space for imperfection. The harsh voice
of judgment drops to a whisper and I
remember again that life isn't a relay
race; that we will all cross the finish
line; that waking up to life is what we
were born for. As many times as I
forget, catch myself charging forward
without even knowing where I'm going,
that many times I can make the choice
to stop, to breathe, and be, and walk
slowly into the mystery.
You are enough and don't need to prove it. You are not in a race with your sibling. Your parent loves you deeply, regardless of that last comment s/he made. You were born to be awake and alive, even at this meal, not deadened and regressed to something unconsciously familiar. Striving to let go of judgment of you and others, open your eyes to what the real blessings are around your table this Thanksgiving. Can you be curious about those and finish your meal with new presence?