Deep listening

NOTE: This essay is based on a speech given at Penn Valley Meeting of Friends on January 28, 2007.  

By Kristina Pearson

The idea for this program came out of an opportunity I had a few years ago to hear Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, speak in Denver.  For decades he has been a steadfast champion for inner and outer peace in the world, and Martin Luther King Jr. nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize.  The night I heard him speak, he talked about something called deep listening.  I was moved by a story he told about a husband and wife who saved their marriage by practicing deep listening and gentle speech.  I was equally moved to hear about how he invites Palestinians and Israelis to spend a few weeks living in his community in France to learn those same techniques.  When the Palestinians and Israelis arrive, they can barely look at each other, but they leave saying they believe peace is possible.  After working with these techniques a bit myself, I know they can be genuinely transformative. 

Perhaps we could start out by picturing a person with whom we have some difficulty.  It might be a family member or more distant relative.  Or it might be someone with whom we interact regularly, like a co-worker, who sees things very differently in terms of politics or religion or a general world view.  As we talk about deep listening and gentle speech today, it may be useful to hold that person in our mind.

Because the story about the couple who saved their marriage made such an impression on me, I thought I might retell it for you.  For years there had been nothing but coldness and cruel speech between these two people.  Things had gotten so bad that the woman, who was Catholic, was about to commit suicide.  A friend of hers convinced her to listen to a tape about deep listening.  The woman felt enough hope from what she heard that she decided to attend a retreat to learn how to practice mindfulness and deep listening.  When she got back home, she went to her husband and said (and I paraphrase), “I know you have been suffering for a long time, and I know I have increased your suffering with the way I’ve spoken to you and treated you.  I’m so sorry I have made you suffer.  Please, darling, I need your help with this.  Please help me to make things better between us by telling me what is in your heart.”  When the man heard compassion from his wife for the first time in years he began to weep.  His wife had re-opened her heart to him, and that softened his own heart.  By practicing together with deep listening and loving speech, they salvaged their marriage and brought much peace to themselves and their children.

“Please tell me what is in your heart.”  That is the line I have heard in my mind again and again since I first heard that story.  “Please tell me what is in your heart.”  But we can’t say a thing like that until we are ready to hear the answer.  The power of that line lies in the purity of our intention in asking it.  So how is it that we reach this point of transition within ourselves?  How is it that we become ready to initiate such an intimate and vulnerable exchange with someone when we’ve had our defenses up?  How is it that we open our own heart enough to be able to hear what’s in the other person’s heart?  And what is it that’s been stopping us from being able to do that all along? 

One answer may be about a tipping of the scales.  On one side is the suffering the situation is causing us, and on the other side is our pride.  Sometimes we spend years allowing a situation to fester because we get such satisfaction in being “right.”  It may cause us stress and suffering, but our ego relishes standing its ground.  Only by standing our ground can we maintain the story we want to believe about the other person and the story we want to believe about ourselves.  But eventually we may reach the point where suffering finally outweighs ego—where we’re so weary of the suffering we’re willing to do whatever it is we need to do.  If we’re not really ready, we may not have the courage to see it through.  It feels like a risk because we don’t know how the other person will respond.  But we recognize that we are already suffering, so we have nothing to lose and much to gain. 

So where to start?  One way to begin to open our heart to someone, or to be able to approach a co-worker or even a stranger with openness and humility, is to decide the other person is more important to us than whatever the difficult subject matter is—more important than the point of view to which we’re so attached.  And how do we go about doing that?  Quakers often verbalize it as trying to see “that of God” in everyone.  It seems that Gandhi was able to do that.  There’s a line in Eknath Easwaran’s book, Gandhi the Man, where Easwaran tells how British administrators who were headed to India were warned, “Don’t go near Gandhi; he’ll get you.”   He didn’t “get them” by being more right (though that surely helped).  He got them by sitting down with his “enemies” with an open heart and rapt attention.  People apparently couldn’t help themselves from experiencing a transformation in his presence.  Gandhi demonstrated the profound and boundless potential of deep listening and gentle speech.  Like Gandhi, when we practice deep listening, we’re deciding to see the other person’s humanity instead of the story that has created a separation between us.   True compassion happens when we recognize that the other person suffers just like we do.  A shift occurs, and that person is no longer the “other.”

I remember, in the late 1980s, watching the interviews Bill Moyers did with Joseph Campbell and hearing Campbell tell a story about a young man who was standing on a cliff about to commit suicide.  A police officer approached him just as he leaned forwards, and the officer grabbed hold of him.  When a reporter asked the officer why he held onto the man even though he could easily have gone over the cliff with him, he said, “If I had let that young man go, I could not have lived another day of my life.”  What Campbell noted about the situation was enlightening to me.  That officer had family and friends and dreams and things he wanted to do in this world, yet he dropped it all in an instant for a person he’d never met before.  What phenomenon could possibly be at work that could cause us, without hesitation, to override our most basic instinct of self preservation in order to save the life of a stranger?  Campbell referred to Schopenhauer, saying that in a moment like that, the ultimate reality that we and the other person are one becomes manifest.  My life is his life.  His life is my life.  He went on to say, “The concept of love your neighbor is to put you in tune with this fact.  But whether you love your neighbor or not, when the realization grabs you, you may risk your life.”

So why is it that in a life or death moment we can experience that oneness, but we spend the rest of our time creating distinctions between ourselves and others?  Go ahead and picture the person you decided to hold in your mind for this exercise.  Picture that person about to fall off a cliff.  Or picture being in the room when the person gets a phone call that he or she has cancer.  In that picture, what has happened to the thoughts and feelings that have been coming between you?  Can we imagine a scenario, a life or death instant, where everything between us vanishes?  Can we feel that oneness, that spontaneous compassion and care, if only as an exercise?  Can we, in our minds, look right into that person’s eyes and sweep the story aside for a moment?  If so, then the question is, how long do we want to suffer?  How long would we rather be right than be at peace?  Are we ready to give deep listening and gentle speech a try?

We may see all this quite clearly but still not be ready to let go.  That’s okay.  But when we are ready . . . what exactly do we do?  In his book Anger, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests we spend some time centering ourselves in prayer or meditation or just doing some mindful breathing or walking.  We have to commit ourselves to using gentle speech.  (If we don’t feel we can use gentle speech, he suggests writing a “peace note” first and postponing the talk.  And if at any time during the session we can no longer use gentle speech, we ask the person if we can continue a little later.)  He suggests we say three basic things.  First, we confess to the person that we’ve been suffering.  If we’re angry, we say that too, in a calm but honest way.  The point of this is not to “punish or to blame,” it’s just to acknowledge the suffering of the situation.  We may want to acknowledge the suffering he or she has been going through, too.  Next, it may help to let the person know we’re doing our best.  If we see that we’ve added to his or her suffering in the past, we can acknowledge that but also let the person know we’re doing our best.  Finally, we ask for his or her help.  We need that person’s help to understand his or her side of things better and learn how to communicate differently.  That’s when we may want to say something like, “Please tell me what’s in your heart so I can understand better and help us to suffer less.”  If our intention is pure and we are open-hearted and earnest, we may indeed get that person to share with us what is in his or her heart.

So then comes the listening itself.  The deep listening.  The compassionate listening.  In Anger, Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Listen with only one purpose:  to allow the other person to express himself and find relief from his suffering.  Keep compassion alive during the whole time of listening.”  He says to “focus on the practice of listening with all your attention, your whole being:  your eyes, ears, body, and your mind.  If you just pretend to listen, and do not listen with one hundred percent of yourself, the other person will know it and will not find relief from his suffering.”  If the other person is not able to use gentle speech, it may be tempting to fall back into the habit of listening defensively, with blame or hostility or self-righteousness.  Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Compassion alone can protect you from becoming irritated, angry, or full of despair” as you listen.  Whatever allowed us to shift into a place of compassion can continue to help us as we listen.  We can look directly into the person’s eyes to see that he suffers as we suffer.  We can see “that of God” in her.  We can be willing to respond with honesty and humility to the truth as it presents itself to us moment by moment.  We are doing something very courageous, and we have to have compassion for ourselves, too.

As I approached this topic for today, I thought deep listening was the main event.  But I began to see that the real work is in the becoming ready to practice deep listening.   Deep listening has the potential to change our personal relationships and, in ways both small and large, to change the world.  But there’s one thing deep listening can’t change:  our inability to control the other person’s response.  What if we do all this work and the other person simply dismisses us, or worse?  Has deep listening been a failure?  That’s the real beauty here.  When we do the inner work for deep listening, we’re doing a profoundly beneficial thing no matter how the other person responds.  When we make the transformation from defensiveness and aggression to openness and compassion, we’re already reducing the suffering in the world.  Even if the person we’ve had in mind doesn’t respond the way we might have hoped, the ease and acceptance in our presence will have an effect on the people around us, including that person.  We can begin today by listening deeply to ourselves to see if we are ready and by having compassion for ourselves if we’re not.

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1 Comment »

  1. Peter Stauffacher said

    Wonderful truth, thank you! I found myself able and Inspired to breathe more easily than before i read it- Even With that person that arouses my anxieties in mind.

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