Dharma Topic: Deep Listening

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Dear Still Water Friends,

This Thursday evening, June 9, after our meditationperiod, we will recite the five mindfulness trainings and explore inour discussion the fourth mindfulness training, right speech.

I would like to focus particularly on the notion of deeplistening. The first sentence of the training reads:

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering.

In the Heart of the Buddha’s teachings, Thich Nhat Hanhexplains:

Deep listening is at the foundation of Right Speech. If we cannot listen mindfully, we cannot practice Right Speech. No matter what we say, it will not be mindful, because we’ll be speaking only our own ideas and not in response to the other person.
. . .
You have to practice breathing mindfully in and out so that compassion always stays with you. "I am listening to him not only because I want to know what is inside him or to give him advice. I am listening to him just because I want to relieve his suffering." . . . You have to listen in such a way that compassion remains with you the whole time you are listening. That is the art. If halfway through listening irritation or anger comes up, then you cannot continue to listen. You have to practice in such a way that every time the energy of irritation and anger comes up, you can breathe in and out mindfully and continue to hold compassion within you. It is with compassion that you can listen to another. No matter what he says, even if there is a lot of wrong information and injustice in his way of seeing things, even if he condemns or blames you, continue to sit very quietly breathing in and out. (Heart of the Buddha’s teachings, pp. 79 and 81)

In the language of Nonviolent Communication, ‘deeplistening’ is ’empathetic listening’. We are fully present and giving ourawareness to what is alive in the other person. This simple act of deep orempathetic listening nourishes both the speaker and the listener.

If there is someone capable of sitting calmly and listening with his or her heart for one hour, the other person will feel a great relief from his suffering. If you suffer so much and no one has been able to listen to your suffering, your suffering will remain there. But if someone is able to listen to you and understand you, you will feel relief after one hour of being together. (Heart of the Buddha’s teachings, p. 80)

It is often hardest for me to listen deeply to those I amclosest to. If I begin to talk with a stranger on an airplane or train, and theytell me of the difficulties they are having with their partner, parents, orchildren, I can listen attentively, without anger or irritation. But if it is mypartner, parents, or children, more is at stake. Their perceived shortcomings,their perceived misguided words ands behaviors, I see as having consequences forme, not just while I am talking with them, but afterwards as well. They are thepeople I live with, in my heart, if not in the same physical space. I perceivetheir words and behaviors as threatening what I want, sometimes concretely interms of frustrating an action I want to take, sometimes mentally in terms oftheir not acting in a way I consider to be appropriate or healthy.

Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that when we are no longer able tolisten with compassion, we stop and go back to the basic mindfulness practices:

If you don’t feel that you can continue to listen [compassionately], ask your friend, "Dear one, can we continue in a few days? I need to renew myself. I need to practice so I can listen to you in the best way I can." If you are not in good shape, you are not going to listen the best way you can. You need to practice more walking meditation, more mindful breathing, more sitting meditation in order to restore your capacity for compassionate listening. (Heart of the Buddha’s teachings, p. 81)

In my experience, these basic practices calm us, allow timefor our larger heart and mind to restore balance and equanimity. The small,frightened, self recedes. We can do a better job of listening. But also, whenthe listening is over, I find it helpful to explore the underlying energieswhich so quickly blossomed into irritation, anger, or defensiveness.

When I look, often what I find is that I am most likely tosuccumb to irritation, anger, or defensiveness when I have given over to othersthe predominate capacity to create my happiness and to validate my self worth.[In Nonviolent Communication, they phrase this same idea in terms of seeing thewords or actions of other people as the cause of our feelings, rather thanunderstanding that what other people say or do are only stimuli which throughour way of perceiving them we translate into feelings.] Of course I am somewhatsad and defensive when someone I am close to (or anyone else) is angry at me.However, when my happiness and self worth is firmly established through myawareness of the life energy that is always passing through me, then I am likethe healthy oak tree whose branches are moving with the strong wind while thetrunk remains stable. When I allow what others do or say to predominantly definemy happiness, I am like the disease-ridden oak– each gust of wind threatens tosplit my trunk in two.

You are invited to join us for our meditation period, ourrecitation, and our discussion.

You may wish to consider three questions:

When have I felt most deeply listened to?

When have I offered deep listening to another?

In what small, concrete ways can I increase my capacity for deep listening?

The best times to join us are just before the first sittingat 7 pm; at 7:25, at the beginning of walking meditation; and, at 7:35, at thebeginning of the second sitting. (To allow others to maintain concentration andcontinuity, we ask that practitioners not enter during the walking meditation.)

Peace and joy to you,

Mitchell Ratner 
Senior Teacher