The Practice of Deep Listening

The Practice of Deep Listening

Discussion date: Thu, Aug 09, 2018 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

In a phone conversation with my mother the other day, I found myself growing frustrated and impatient. She asserted that from now on she’d use the internet as little as possible because her computer was hacked by the Russians. My mother’s explanation of why she thought this was true did not make sense to me. I gripped my phone, aware of my irritation with her. But instead of immediately contradicting her, I slowly breathed in and out, unsure of what to say or how to respond. I waited.

“I’m not paranoid, probably all our computers are hacked. We just don’t know. The world is so scary these days,” my Mom continued.

The word ‘scary’ resonated with me. I felt my own fear like a knot in my stomach, silently contracting in response to her fear. I realized that I wanted to end the conversation, and get off the phone. But I didn’t. I started doing slow walking meditation around my house as I listened to my mother talk. I asked questions about her fear, and tried to alleviate her suffering. I did my best to be present, but felt drained by the end of the call. To calm myself, I walked outside and picked ripe cherry tomatoes from my garden, letting the sunshine warm me.

Does this story of difficult communication with a loved one have a familiar ring to you as a Mindfulness practitioner? Thich Nhat Hanh writes in ‘The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching’:

So many families, couples, relationships have been broken because we have lost the capacity of listening to each other with calmness or compassion. We have lost the capacity of using calm and loving speech. The Fourth Mindfulness Training is very important to restore communication between us. Practicing the fourth Mindfulness training on the art of listening and the art of loving speech is a great gift. For example, a family member may suffer very much. No one in the family has been able to sit quietly and listen to him or her. 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.

I don’t know if my mother felt relieved after our talk.  I wondered later if I should have ended the phone call earlier and practiced listening to and calming my own triggered suffering before trying to alleviate hers. I recognize my longing for measurable results with the Fourth Mindfulness training. What I’d like to do is let go of my attachment to a specific positive outcome.

This Thursday night, after our regular sitting at Crossings, we will recite the Five Mindfulness Trainings. We’ll pay special attention to the fourth training in our sharing, exploring our experiences of listening deeply to others and ourselves. The questions I would like us to start with are:

  • How do we release the need to fix or rescue our suffering loved ones?
  • How do we stay present with ourselves and take care of our own suffering while we listen to theirs?

You are warmly invited to be with us!

An excerpt below gives more of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching on calm and loving speech.

Many blessings,

Eliza King

Using Calm and Loving Speech
by Thich Nhat Hanh from The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings

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.” That is called compassionate listening. 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. Maintain your compassion within you for one hour. That is called compassionate listening. If you can listen like that for one hour, the other person will feel much better.

If you don’t feel that you can continue to listen in this way, 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. That is the practice of the Fourth Mindfulness Training — training oneself to listen with compassion. That is very important, a great gift.

Sometimes we speak clumsily and create internal knots in others. Then we say, “I was just telling the truth.” It may be the truth, but if our way of speaking causes unnecessary suffering, it is not Right Speech. The truth must be presented in ways that others can accept. Words that damage or destroy are not Right Speech. Before you speak, understand the person you are speaking to. Consider each word carefully before you say anything, so that your speech is “Right” in both form and content. The Fourth Mindfulness Training also has to do with loving speech. You have the right to tell another everything in your heart with the condition that you use only loving speech. If you are not able to speak calmly, then don’t speak that day. “Sorry, my dear, allow me to tell you tomorrow or the next day. I am not at my best today. I’m afraid I’ll say things that are unkind. Allow me to tell you about this another day.” Open your mouth and speak only when you are sure you can use calm and loving speech. You have to train yourself to be able to do so.


in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Aug 09, 2018