Looking Both Ways Before We Listen
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Looking Both Ways Before We Listen

Discussion date: Thu, May 09, 2024 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will recite together the Five Mindfulness Trainings and focus our Dharma sharing on the fourth training, Loving Speech and Deep Listening.

The training invites us to commit to “speaking truthfully, using words that inspire confidence, joy, and hope.” Contemplating this training has led me to reflect on my way of always looking for the positive. I used to think that looking for the silver lining, seeing the glass half full, and looking on the bright side was what I was supposed to do automatically. Every time. Without fail. Therefore, if I saw the glass half empty, the dark cloud, the dark side, I was doing life wrong. I needed to get back to that bright side as quickly as possible, and the fastest path was to pretend I had never been bothered in the first place. Needless to say, with this wrong view at the helm, unresolved feelings built up over time and made it difficult for me to listen deeply and to speak lovingly and truthfully.

Thích Nhất Hạnh (Thầy) teaches us, 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. 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. …Then, when we’ve spent some time listening to ourselves, we can listen to those around us.

I learned from Thầy that painful emotions such as anger, sadness, and frustration are mindfulness bells asking to be listened to. They are wise messengers, deserving of our respect. Of course, as we practice mindfulness, some situations that once would have bothered us no longer do, and we experience more happiness and peace. That said, life creatively and impressively offers us new disagreeable situations, bringing us moments of anger, despair, frustration, and boredom. Instead of fixating on the difficult emotion or ignoring it, I can incorporate it. Literally welcoming it into my body, that emotion becomes a homing signal that draws my attention to what I do want, in the midst of experiencing something I do not want.

The Buddha taught that we can transform negative emotions by deliberately choosing our focus. The practical guidance in the Discourse on the Five Ways of Putting an End to Anger is that if we become angry with someone whose actions of body or speech are unkind, we will find relief if we choose to pay attention to their actions and words that have been kind. If we cannot see any kindness in them, we can find compassion and soften our anger by remembering they are suffering. Additionally, if we are around someone who offers only kindness, we do well to concentrate on their kindness and not look for things that will make us dissatisfied.

When I am scared over a threat to my children’s well-being, I can look at the other side of that coin and realize love is the animating force behind the fear. Focusing on that love and my faith in their Buddha nature brings me relief and helps me listen better to my children. When I feel outrage over abuse of power, I might realize this reaction means that I love community, inter-being, and harmony. I may like to prompt myself: “What can I do right now to create an experience of collaboration?” That question puts me back in the driver’s seat, animated by compassion and reconciliation.

I’m mindful these moves to a more positive outlook cannot be rushed or faked. The Fourth Mindfulness Training suggests that even the uplifting words we speak to ourselves serve us when they are truthful, and so every inner turbulence becomes an opportunity to practice honesty with ourselves. Years ago, a colleague was upset when I earned a promotion instead of them and ended our friendship. At first I told myself, “I’m fine. I know it’s not about me, and I’m not upset. They’ll come around.” That actually made me feel worse, because I knew I didn’t believe it yet. I was trying to comfort myself, but the happy words were hollow. When I instead told myself, “This hurts. I miss my friend and I’m scared,” that was true. Accepting this part of my experience was my first moment of relief. Eventually I believed it when I said to myself, “If I hurt, I bet they are also hurting and doing the best they can. I wish them peace.” Soon I was grateful for what they taught me about letting go. Over time I was able to listen to and speak with my colleague more openly, a little bit at a time.

Sometimes it takes years to go from hurt to happiness; other times it can take a second to go from mildly irked to joyful. I notice that listening to myself and accepting the entire experience just as it is opens the door for more satisfying responses. Seeing the glass half full is a way to avoid being caught by seeing it half empty and vice versa; seeing the entire glass brings even more spaciousness. When I feel better, I can listen better. The more clearly I understand, the more skillfully I can speak and act.

I look forward to exploring the Fourth Mindfulness Training with you this Thursday with these questions and whatever else is on your heart:

  • When you are upset with someone, how do you look more deeply into the situation?
  • How do you nurture your ability to listen to yourself? To others?
  • When is it easier for you to focus on qualities you can appreciate in another person or a situation? When is it harder?

A teaching by Thầy about this training and the importance of preparing to listen is available online. The text of the Fourth Mindfulness Training is below.

Wishing you peace and happiness,
Kristin Hamilton


The Fourth Mindfulness Training: Loving Speech and Deep Listening

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and compassionate listening in order to relieve suffering and to promote reconciliation and peace in myself and among other people, ethnic and religious groups, and nations. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am committed to speaking truthfully using words that inspire confidence, joy, and hope. When anger is manifesting in me, I am determined not to speak. I will practice mindful breathing and walking in order to recognize and to look deeply into my anger. I know that the roots of anger can be found in my wrong perceptions and lack of understanding of the suffering in myself and in the other person. I will speak and listen in a way that can help myself and the other person to transform suffering and see the way out of difficult situations. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to utter words that can cause division or discord. 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.

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, May 09, 2024


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