THE ART OF MINDFUL LISTENING

“Do your best to practice compassionate listening. Do not listen for the sole purpose of judging, criticizing or analyzing. Listen only to help the other person express himself and find some relief from suffering.”  Thich Nhat Hanh

Mindful listening is so important in times of trauma and grief, so prevalent in our world today.  Mindful listening, also called active or compassionate listening, is about connection and validation. When we feel heard, we feel loved, cared for and understood, just as we are.

We may think that it is easy to listen, but true listening from the heart requires openness, courage and vulnerability.  Mindful listening helps us stay open with another and be able to sit with the expression of intense emotions.  Mindful listening is active listening.  We do not passively sit there, but convey to the speaker that he or she is heard and understood, whether by paraphrasing, reflection or nonverbal acts, like sitting forward in your chair, maintaining eye contact, and nodding our head.  Roshi Joan Halifax beautifully expresses this as follows:

Listening means that we have stabilized our minds so completely that the person who is speaking can actually hear themselves through our stillness.It is a quality of radiant listening, of luminous listening, of vibrant listening, but it is also very still.  It is listening with attention, with openheartedness, without prejudice….We listen with our being.  We offer our whole listening body.[i]

Listening is not about giving advice, trying to fix the situation or agreeing with the speaker.  What the person who is suffering needs most is someone to compassionately bear witness to what he or she is feeling.    Mindful listening requires empathy, not sympathy.  As shame and trauma researcher and writer Brené Brown has said,

“Empathy fuels connection while sympathy drives disconnection….  Empathy entails the “ability to take the perspective of another person or recognize their perspective as their truth…. Empathy is I’m feeling with you. Sympathy [is] I’m feeling for you.[ii]

Suffering is a universal part of the human condition. However, despite the universality of suffering, we are unique individuals, and our suffering has unique qualities.  Therefore, responding “I know just how you feel” (i.e., “feeling foryou”) is unhelpful and even hurtful. If you identify so completely with another’s suffering, you no longer hear him or her as an individual.  Instead of saying “I know just how you feel,” you might instead say something like “That sounds so difficult.  Tell me more.”  Notice how different the two responses feel.

It is easy to be triggered when someone is describing an experience of abuse or loss.  Out of our own anxiety, we may say something unhelpful or damaging.  For example, I remember listening to a client tell me about her multiple miscarriages at a time in her life she was experiencing substance abuse and homelessness.  I felt my anxiety rising.  Instead of responding right away, I allowed myself to breathe and stay present with my client.  Pausing and breathing allowed me to resist the urge to say “maybe it’s a blessing” or another cliché.  At one point, my client actually said to me “…and if one more person says ‘maybe it’s a blessing” I’m going to strangle them!”  Phew – Mindful listening saved the day!

Mindful listening includes becoming aware of our habitual patterns. Noticing our habits as they arise is the key to changing them.  We all have listening habits, or “listening traps” that create barriers to compassionate listening. It is worthwhile to contemplate the listening trap questions on this linked list, and identify which ones you tend to engage in when you are not being mindful: https://www.smp.org/dynamicmedia/files/f61aa314d326aefcc87af335025a930f/TX004482_2_handout_9A_Listening_Traps.pdf[iii].

For example, when I was interning as a hospice bereavement counselor, I realized that one of my listening traps is #7 on this list:  “Do you get caught up with insignificant facts and details and miss the emotional tone of the conversation?” I became painfully aware of this when I was working with a woman whose son had recently died in a car accident.  As she was describing what had happened and the pain of her loss, I interrupted with the question “How old was your son?”  This mindless question broke our emotional connection in that moment.

We have all experienced the hurt of not being heard, and being responded to with unwanted advice, a cliché or pat response. Some examples:

  • “I know just how you feel.”
  • “Everything happens for a reason.”
  • “The same thing happened to me.”
  • “Well, you can always have another [child, pet, relationship – fill in the blank]
  • “At least he’s in a better place.”
  • “Maybe you should….”
  • “It could be worse.”
  • “Let me tell you about the time when….”

Responding with a cliché does not mean that the listener does not care; it simply means that the listener was not mindful in responding.  Mindful listening is like a dance, where most of your attention is focused on the speaker and moments of attention are focused on yourself to make sure you are actually listening. The following are some tips for mindful listening:

  • Notice your physical and emotional responses as you listen to another’s suffering.
  • Notice where you feel your tension or anxiety in your body:Is your heart beating faster?  Are you feeling tightness in your chest? Fluttering in your stomach?
  • Take a breath before responding.
  • Be curious.
  • Listen not only to the speaker’s words, but also his or her body language and emotional tone.
  • Remove distractions such as cellphones or paperwork that may prevent you from fully being with the other person.
  • Pay attention to any judgments that arise and set them aside.
  • Check in with yourself during the conversation and make sure you are still present and listening.

Sometimes the best response is sacred silence, meeting the other with love and understanding. The key is to be present, breathe, and through your verbal and nonverbal responses, let the speaker know her or she is heard.

 

_______________________________

[i]Joan Halifax, in P. Zaleski & P. Kaufman (1997). Gifts of the Spirit

[ii]Brené Brown (2013).  RSA Talk, The Power of Vulnerability. YouTube:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=sXSjc-pbXk4

[iii]© St. Mary’s Press.

COMPASSION: A REMEDY FOR TURBULENT TIMES

The world today is full of turbulence and uncertainty. We wake up to bad news every day. News of mass shootings, terrorist strikes, political dysfunction, natural disasters and other woes dominate the news and social media. On top of that, of course, are the personal struggles, losses and challenges of daily life. Compassion is the remedy for staying open and kind in turbulent times.

In these difficult times, it can be challenging to maintain open-heartedness and kindness toward ourselves and others. We may feel that we are being tossed by the stormy waves of chaos. We may experience anxiety or trauma hearing about all of the misfortunes and confusion in the world. These times can reawaken our feelings about prior struggles we have endured, whether personally or societally. For example, terrorist bombings can bring up our feelings after the attacks on 9/11, as if it were yesterday.

When we are experiencing inner turmoil, it can be easy to harden our hearts, isolate ourselves, and get swept away in the contagion of negativity, hatred, aggression all around us. However, these turbulent times also provide an opportunity to open our hearts and develop compassion for ourselves and all other beings. In Buddhist terminology, this is the path of the Bodhisattva, those who strive to benefit all beings. Compassion is the key that opens our hearts with kindness toward ourselves and all others.

THE THREE-STEP EMOTIONAL RESCUE PLAN

If we are not mindful, we may automatically react to hatred with more hatred. I had a chance to notice and work with this reflexive impulse recently. A transgender acquaintance told me that she was brutally attacked by two men for how she looks and dresses. I noticed that my automatic urge was to say “what idiots!” Instead I used the “Three-Step Emotional Rescue Plan” described by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, in his new book Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy That Empowers You.

Instead of immediately afflicting more hate, I took the first step of the three-step plan, “mindful gap”, and breathed in my bodily and emotional response. Stepping back in this way, I was able to take the second step, what Rinpoche calls “clear seeing”, to get a more panoramic view of the situation. In doing so, what I said instead is “those poor ignorant men, who are so frightened by people who don’t look like them.” This pacified my negativity, and allowed me to “let go” (the third step of the emotional rescue plan), with a sense of compassion for my acquaintance, for these men, and for all of us who sometimes act wrongly out of passion, aggression or ignorance.

COMPASSION FOR SELF AND OTHER

Self-compassion does not mean resignation or self-pity. Rather, it means allowing yourself time to feel your pain and difficult emotions without judgment. Notice when you are under the sway of negative self-talk, negative thoughts or intrusive memories. It is helpful to think of these negative thoughts and memories as leaves floating down the stream. Despite their seeming power, thoughts and memories are fleeting and ephemeral, and have no true substance.

The word compassion literally means “suffering with.” Self-compassion is the first necessary ingredient for extending your compassion to others, with the understanding that pain and suffering and the wish for peace are universal. You cannot really extend compassion and “suffer with” another without self-compassion.

This concept was beautifully described by the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami in his book Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage:

One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone.
They are, instead, linked deeply through their wounds.
Pain linked to pain, fragility to fragility. There is no silence
without a cry of grief,… no acceptance without a passage
through acute loss. That is what lies at the root of true harmony.

I would like to offer some practical suggestions for maintaining compassion in difficult times:

• Take a break from the media. It can be tempting to watch the news all day and obsess about the woes in the world on Facebook and other social media.

• Take breaks from your devices. Staying glued to them day and night can increase stress and prevent us from being in the present moment.

• Turn off the television and all digital devices at least 30 minutes before bed. Instead, read a good book, cuddle with your pets, talk with your partner or take a warm, soothing bath or shower.

• Do something that you enjoy fully every day. Take the time to relish and appreciate those moments as they are occurring. Make the wish that all others have moments like these.

• Take time to smile and laugh. Exercising our smile muscles naturally relaxes us and creates feelings of positivity and optimism. It is said that laughter is the best medicine, and indeed it is. Moreover, a sense of humor creates perspective and more spaciousness.

• Practice self-care. It is important in stressful times to take care of your physical health. Although it may sound obvious, make sure to get plenty of rest, eat healthily, drink water and herbal tea, cut down on caffeine and alcohol.

• Create a good balance between caring for yourself and caring for others. Devoting all of our time and energy to the well-being of others without taking care of ourselves can result in what is called “compassion fatigue.”

• Maintain a healthy balance between alone time and time with others. It is important to take time for yourself, to meditate, journal, exercise, take a quiet walk or read. At the same time, be vigilant not to isolate yourself. Spending time with friends, family and your spiritual community are as important as alone time.

• If you have a spiritual practice, maintain it. This will help you open your heart to yourself and others.

• Notice the tendency to judge others. For example, when passing a homeless person on the street, notice any tendency to cast judgment. Instead, extend compassion to that person, knowing that he or she is suffering.

• One of the best and most healing ways to practice compassion is to extend it to those we see as aggressors and perpetrators. For example, as an eyewitness to the horrors of 9/11 in New York, part of my healing was to extend compassion to the nineteen terrorists who flew the planes into the World Trade Center. I remembered that they were young and confused and acted out of ignorant passion. This truly helped me heal.

• Feel gratitude. Despite all the ugliness in the world, there is much to be grateful for: friends and family, the beauty of nature, appreciation of others’ generosity and compassion, the song of a bird, the purr of a cat.

• If you are experiencing secondary trauma from witnessing or hearing about the horrors in the world, or if you are experiencing compassion fatigue or increased anxiety or depression that are interfering with your daily life, seek guidance from a spiritual advisor or psychotherapist. The world today can be overwhelming, and professional support can be helpful in alleviating your personal suffering.

References:

Dzogchen Ponlop. (2016). Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion Into Energy That Empowers You. New York: Tarchen/Perigee.

Haruki Murakami, (2014). Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

The Importance of Self-Compassion

We throw the word “compassion” around so much that it can seem like a trite cliché.  Yet, the more I listen to my therapy clients, the more I realize that compassion — particularly self-compassion – is the key to healing ourselves and our relationships.

Compassion means “to suffer with.”  The word is generally used to describe empathy toward another.  However, I am clear that one cannot really have true compassion toward another without experiencing his or her own suffering and having kindness and empathy toward him or herself first.

The Sanskrit word maitri has been defined by Tibetan Buddhist master Chogyam Trungpa as unconditional friendliness, particularly toward oneself.  Pema Chodron, a student of Trungpa’s and a master in her own right, observes:  ” I teach about maitri a lot. In fact, sometimes I think it’s the only thing I    teach. I also teach about        compassion a lot, but actually compassion is a form of maitri so this unconditional friendliness to oneself, it seems to be what most of us do not have”  (www.shambhala.org/teachers/pema).

I have made this same observation in my work as a psychotherapist.  Most of my clients come in complaining of depression and low self-esteem.  They think that something “out there”–even something as beneficial as caring for others —  is going to make them “better.”  When I tell them that what will heal their depression is kindness toward themselves, some look at me as if I were speaking a foreign language – the idea of self-compassion is that alien to them!

For many, the messages they received in their families of origin have contributed to their low self-esteem and negative self-talk. Western culture’s emphasis on perfection doesn’t help.  Because of these familial and cultural messages, many believe that’s just the way it is, and their beliefs about themselves can’t be changed.

For example, a client I’ll call “John” recounted in his first session with me his regrets about the breakup of his marriage, and concluded “I’m a failure.”  In my work using the modality of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, I challenged John’s belief, asking how doing something that he now regrets means he’s a failure.  I told him that he did the best he could at that time, and encouraged him that the key to his healing will be having compassion for himself and his human imperfections and neuroses. My homework for John was to simply notice when he calls himself a failure, what triggers it, and to start to challenge that long-fixed belief.  Changing these thoughts takes time, practice and discipline because they are so habitual and deep-seated, but it certainly can be done

I can challenge and have compassion for John, because I had to do the same work myself.  As I have recounted in other articles, after a period of regular mindfulness meditation practice, I was able to not only notice my negative self-talk, but realize that was just another thought, and that I could relegate those thoughts to my mental trash heap.  In fact, I told myself that if someone could have magically heard the way I talked to myself, they would have to turn me in to the police for abuse!

The Buddhist teachings on buddhanature or basic goodness are very helpful in developing self-compassion.  Those teachings tell us that we all have buddhanature, but due to our habitual tendencies and patterns, it is obscured and we have difficulty experiencing it.  An image I have found helpful is that of the sun in a cloudy sky.  The sun is always there, even on a cloudy day, but we can’t see it.  Imagine being in a plane, and seeing the sun in a clear blue sky after rising to an altitude above the clouds.  Indeed, the sun was there the whole time.

The next time you make a mistake or do something you consider less than “perfect”, take a breath, and try not to go on automatic pilot and start beating yourself up.  Instead, have compassion for yourself and all others who suffer in that way and remember the image of the sun in a cloudy sky.  Yes, you made a mistake and you can feel regret about it, and resolve not to do it again. Remember that your thoughts about your mistakes and imperfections are just fleeting clouds, and the sun of your self-worth is there the whole time.