Dear Still Water Friends,
I’ve always considered myself to be a good listener, but lately I’ve been challenged to listen more deeply to my partner, my family and friends, and especially, myself. In the past few weeks, the rise in the collective level of irritability and anxiety because of the virus, has influenced me, triggering old patterns of defensiveness and fear. Right now, I’m especially concerned about my aging mother and uneasy that during this uncertain period she’s far away from me. At the same time, talking with her seems to reinforce my anxiety and frustration at how she’s taking care of herself (not eating as regularly or healthily as she could etc.)
I’ve been taken by surprise by my own reactivity and the judgments that arise as I listen to my old stories re-emerge. I want so much to be able to listen to my mother and others from a clear and calm place, and yet I realize I have to listen to and be with my own reactivity first. My habit is to keep reaching out, when sometimes I need to be still and breathe with what is happening inside me.
Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) writes about the 4th Mindfulness training and listening deeply to ourselves in his book The Mindfulness Survival Kit,
Sometimes when we attempt to listen to another person, we can’t hear them because we haven’t listened to ourselves. Our own strong emotions and thoughts are so loud in us, crying out for our attention, that we can’t hear the other person. We think that what they’re saying only confirms or contradicts our own thoughts and emotions. Therefore, before we listen to another, we need to spend time listening to ourselves. We can sit with ourselves, come home to ourselves, and listen to what emotions rise up without judging or interrupting them. We can listen to whatever thoughts come up as well, and then let them pass without holding onto them. Then, when we’ve spent some time listening to ourselves, we can listen to those around us.
It’s not always easy for me to recognize when I’m letting my own emotions take over. The last time I talked with my mother, partway through the call I became emotionally triggered by what she was saying. It took me a few minutes to catch up with myself, but this time I was able to pause our conversation by telling her I would call her back later that day. After the call ended, I took some quiet time to sit with my fears about my mother’s well-being. In listening deeply to myself, I realized that I was falling into an old trap of feeling like I wasn’t doing enough for her as a “good daughter” would. I felt a sense of relief in identifying why I was feeling so overwhelmed and unable to focus on what she was saying. When we talked again afterward, I found I could better listen to my Mom describe her daily life without getting lost in my own emotional reactions. At least for one conversation, I was better able to listen and respond with my whole heart instead of just my ears!
During this week’s Thursday and Friday Still Water online gatherings we’ll recite the Five Mindfulness Trainings together as a community after our sitting. Our Dharma sharing will focus on the Fourth Mindfulness Training, Loving Speech and Deep Listening. We’ll ask each other— how do we stay open to listening and taking responsibility for our thoughts and emotions in this time when there are so many challenges and uncertainties?
Below is another excerpt from The Mindfulness Survival Kit by Thich Nhat Hanh.
You are warmly invited to join us!
Listening Deeply from The Mindfulness Survival Kit by Thich Nhat Hanh
When you practice compassionate listening, it’s important to remember that you practice with only one purpose, and that is to help the other person to suffer less. You give the other person a chance to say what is in their heart. Even if the other person says something harsh, provocative, or incorrect, you still continue to listen with compassion.
You’re able to do that because as you sit and listen you are practicing mindfulness and compassion. During the whole time of listening, you practice mindful breathing and remind yourself, “I am listening to him with only one purpose, to give him a chance to empty his heart and to suffer less. I may be the first person who has listened to him like this. If I were to interrupt him and correct him, that would transform the session into a debate and I would fail in my practice. Even if there are misperceptions and wrong information in what he says, I’m not going to interrupt him and correct him. In a few days I may offer him some information to help him correct his perceptions, but not now.”
If you can maintain this mindfulness of compassion alive in your heart during the time of listening, then you’re protected by the energy of compassion, and what the other person says won’t touch off the energy of irritation and anger in you. In that way, you can listen for an hour or more, and the quality of your listening will help the other person to suffer less.