Developing Compassion Through Right Diligence

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Dear Stillwater Friends:

The Fourth Mindfulness Training on Loving Speech and Deep Listening ends with this sentence: “I will practice Right Diligence to nourish my capacity for understanding, love, joy, and inclusiveness, and gradually transform anger, violence, and fear that lie deep in my consciousness.”

Right Diligence is an essential element of The  Fourth Mindfulness Training and is part of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) has written extensively about it, and my growing understanding of Right Diligence has been beneficial to the couples communication work that I have been doing with my girlfriend this year to transform the inevitable “interference” that arises in a maturing romantic relationship.

In The Mindfulness Survival Kit, Thay explains why Right Diligence produces the compassion needed to speak lovingly and to listen deeply:

The first aspect of Right Diligence is that we can practice not watering the unbeneficial seeds in us. In Buddhism, we speak of all the various potential states of mind as seeds in each of us. We aren’t necessarily conscious of these seeds, but we all have all the seeds within us and they contain all the different emotions, thoughts, and perceptions that we may have. We call the place where they live “store consciousness.” If something triggers these seeds—for example, if someone says something unkind that waters your seed of anger—they will come up and manifest in the upper level of consciousness, mind consciousness. In mind consciousness they’re called mental formations; in store consciousness they’re seeds. Store consciousness is like the basement of our home. Mind consciousness is like the living room. Usually we put the things we don’t like in the basement. We want our living room to be presentable.

Loving speech requires the diligence of noticing and moving away when we find that we are watering the seeds of envy, anger, or despair in our store consciousness. When there is a chance of a strong emotion arising you have to sing a lullaby to help that emotion to sleep in store consciousness. Our breathing and mindful steps can also be a soothing lullaby. Try to keep the unbeneficial things in store consciousness before they manifest because when they manifest they will make you suffer and they will be strengthened at the base. The fact is that if you allow anger to come up and occupy the whole living room, and if you allow anger to stay long, then at the base it will be strengthened and become more important. If you get angry every day, then your seed of anger will grow bigger and bigger every day, and it will be much more difficult for compassion to grow because there won’t be space for it. Without room for compassion, it will be difficult to use loving speech.

If our anger, jealousy, or despair does come up, we still don’t need to let it take over. We can practice walking meditation to become more calm. We can also deliberately call up the seed of compassion by thinking of those people and places that easily put us in touch with our compassion. However, we should remember that at this moment the two people who are most in need of compassion are our self and the person with whom we are angry. When we water the seed of compassion, the anger will be released back into store consciousness, and loving speech becomes possible. When that compassion arises in you, stay with it as long as possible. Don’t rush to speak right away. This is part of Right Diligence, taking the time to strengthen the compassion within us.

You can think of the seeds of compassion and understanding as good friends. If a good friend has come to your living room, try your best to keep her or him with you as long as possible so that goodness will continue to grow. Next time, these good things will manifest more easily, because they’ve become important. Sometimes you don’t have to invite them, they just come up into your living room. You can get used to happiness being there. Happiness becomes a regular thing, a normal thing. Perhaps for you right now, happiness isn’t normal, it only comes around from time to time. But if we water the seeds of happiness, they will manifest by themselves more and more often without invitation. We will find that when we listen deeply to ourselves, we will be able to listen to the happiness, as well as to the suffering, and loving speech and compassionate listening will come more easily with others, creating more happiness for them as well.

This instruction to practice Right Diligence tells me that we cannot have compassionate communication with someone unless we look deeply into and transform our own suffering.  Without understanding the nature of our suffering, we cannot muster the compassion to relieve suffering in others.  This is especially true if the other’s own suffering is causing them to express things that could trigger suffering in you when you cannot transform their words.

After returning from a three-week trip to Vietnam and Cambodia last Spring, my girlfriend and I undertook a process to understand and work through some communications problems we encountered while traveling.  I was struggling to understand how some of our disagreements on the trip created so much anger in what I viewed as a “perfect” relationship.  On the surface these arguments seemed rather trivial, whether to close the curtains to our sleeping compartment on a night train from Hanoi or where we should stand to wait for the shuttle bus to the Hong Kong airport.

Back home we began to do Imago Relationship Therapy and Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) to gain insight to what was going on.

In Making Marriage Simple, Drs. Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt observe that you are drawn to the best and worst of the traits of the caregivers who raised you that your partner exhibits.  They call the template of positive and negative qualities of your primary caregivers the “Imago.” They posit that 90 percent of our frustrations with our partners comes from experiences from our past.  Similarly, in IFS we learn from Dr. Richard Schwartz that the personalities, emotions, and behaviors of grown individuals are a result of the coping mechanisms they have developed for dealing with emotional family issues.

Using these techniques, My girlfriend and I discovered that our family histories created inherently conflicting coping strategies in us.  As the youngest of three siblings, my partner has a need to feel as though she has been listened to. I had a very controlling and domineering father and can get very agitated if I feel like I’m being told what to do like my dad did. Through these insights, we have been learning how to navigate the “landmines” planted in our past histories. We are more aware of the conditions that may trigger our negative seeds. This awareness has helped us to practice loving speech and deep listening with more ease.

This Thursday, after our meditation, we will share our experiences with looking inward to practice Loving Speech and Deep Listening.

  • What does it mean to you to practice Right Diligence to offer Loving Speech and Deep Listening to others?
  • Does Thay’s explanation of how to practice Right Diligence to grow our capacity for compassionate communication make sense to you?


Andy Katz