Dear Still Water Friends,
From an early age, I was taught compassion. My parents were good examples and I learned the value of being kind and reaching out to help others. However, I did not learn how to listen deeply to myself. In my early adult years I identified strongly with helping others at my own expense. This led to emotional fatigue and a lack of connection to my inner self. Learning to listen to “me” has been crucial for my personal growth and has been crucial for me with the Fourth Mindfulness Training.
I’m learning, through stillness and quiet, to tune into my physical body and the subtle (and not so subtle) messages it sends to me. My awareness of this aspect began several decades ago when I noticed discomfort in my body when I ate meat. I felt bloated and experienced poor digestion. My body was telling me to take notice. Over a period of several years in the late 1970’s I lessened my consumption of meat, finally had my last hamburger in 1982 and became a vegetarian. Through the years I have continued to modify my diet based on what I am hearing from my body. For example, I added poultry in for a time when I was breastfeeding infants. More recently, as I experience aging and changes in my body, I have learned to ask questions and be curious. What care does my body want? What does it want me to notice?
Another facet of my inner listening is acknowledging and caring for my emotions. Am I anxious? Am I afraid? Am I angry? When I was a child, I did not learn how to identify strong emotions and care for them. Rather, I learned how to avoid them, push them down, and be afraid of them. This habit led to an eruption of pain and anger, in later years, that hurt me and those I love. Thay’s teaching sends a strong message about listening to ourselves first. He writes in 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…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 on to them. Then, when we’ve spent some time listening to ourselves, we can listen to those around us.
Coupled with the practice of listening deeply to myself is the practice of being gentle and patient with myself. When I am broken hearted, I offer comfort; when I am afraid, I offer safety; when I am lonely, I offer presence. It is my hope that by nurturing these practices within, my compassion will grow strong with deep roots.
This Thursday, after our meditation and the recitation of the Five Mindfulness Trainings, we will discuss the Fourth Mindfulness Training. Our dharma sharing will begin by considering these questions: What messages does my body have for me right now? How does my practice of listening to myself affect my ability to listen deeply to those around me?
From a Dharma Talk by Thich Nhat Hanh on August 4, 1996
In order to be able to listen with calm and compassion, we should train ourselves in the art of mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful sitting, so that every time we hear things that shock our ears, that are provocative, that go against our common sense, we will not get irritated. Because the moment when we show our irritation at the anger, the other person will stop talking. So we have to listen in such a way that encourages the other person to continue to talk, because it’s very healing for him or for her. You are the best therapist if you know the art of compassionate listening. You listen because you have compassion, you want to relieve him or her of the suffering and not because you want to listen in order to analyze, or judge, or condemn, or correct.
Because compassionate listening is just to give the other person a chance to empty what is in their heart. And because he has had no one to listen to him, that is why he has become more and more like a bomb, ready to explode; she also. So you are afraid of him, of her, you don’t want to approach, because you are afraid of the explosion. And as you try to avoid him or her, they think that we despise them, we want to boycott them and the suffering will increase. So the only alternative is to train ourselves in the art of deep listening, compassionate listening, and go to him or to her to help. If you cannot do that, who in the world can? Because you may be the closest person to him or to her. So the Fourth Step of Training is about deep listening and using loving speech.
How to practice that? Sit quietly, and maintain your mindful breathing, and nourish your compassion. Remind yourself that you are listening in order to relieve him or her of the suffering and not for anything else. And then when the other person says things that are wrong, incorrect, full of injustice, misunderstanding, you can continue to listen with serenity. That is the act of Avalokiteshvara. Many of us are able to do that after some time of practice and that is very healing. And if at some point you feel that your capacity of listening has come to a limit, you cannot go on for another five minutes, you have to bow and say “Darling, could we continue later on, I need to do something right now, I would love to continue to listen.” Don’t try too hard, because you should know your limit. I also practice that. I learn of my limits. I know that I should not do more than I can.