Growing Compassion, Attention, Presence: the 4th Mindfulness Training
From a talk by Walt Keough in 2012
Loving speech and deep listening are broader, wider practices than might first appear. Practice and effort are needed just to become ready to listen deeply! For example, a key line in practicing with a challenging person might include words like “Please help me to make things better between us by telling me what is in your heart.” Obviously, we can’t say these words until we are ready to hear the answer; the power of such words lies in the purity of our intention in saying them.
The question therefore becomes, how do we open our own heart enough to be able to hear what is in the other person’s heart? This is where the “training” part of this mindfulness training comes in. We need to engage in regular metta meditation practice, a low-risk way of opening our hearts that can be extremely helpful. Metta consists of focusing our attention during meditation on wishing health and happiness to ourselves and others, including those with whom we are not naturally harmonious. I have found that doing this as a regular practice really does soften the heart.
Central to opening our heart to a person with whom we have some difficulty or conflict is to decide that the other person’s humanity is more important to us than the story that created the separation between us in the first place, more important than the point of view to which we are attached. In Buddhist terminology we allow ourselves to see the Buddha nature in the other person. We exhibit opening and compassion when we recognize that the other person suffers just as we do. At this point a shift always occurs, and the person is no longer “the other.”
Here is a useful exercise. Picture someone challenging. Then picture them about to have a bad accident. Or picture yourself present when that person gets a phone call that they have cancer. What has happened to the thoughts and feelings that had come between you? In that scenario the “story” is swept aside, the past vanishes, and compassion and care arise spontaneously within us.
Regarding deep compassionate listening, Thich Nhat Hanh in his book Anger writes, “Listen with only one purpose: to allow the other person to express themself and find relief from suffering. Keep compassion alive during the whole time of listening…focus with all your attention, your whole being: your eyes, ears, body, and mind. If you….do not listen with one hundred percent of yourself, the other person will know it, and will not find relief from their suffering.”
If the other person is not able to use gentle speech, for example, we may be tempted to fall back into the habit of listening defensively, with blame of self-righteousness. Thay says, “Compassion alone can protect you from becoming irritated, angry or full of despair.” Listening, we must be willing to respond with honesty and humility to what presents itself to us moment by moment. At the same time, we must remember that we are doing something very courageous, and must thus have compassion for ourselves too.
I have found it to be true that we can “grow” our compassion and the gift of our attention and real presence. As I get older, I see more and more that my presence and attention and compassion are the best gifts I can give those around me. So another payoff of this practice is that deep listening has the potential to change our personal relationships and, in ways both small and large, to change the world. But there is one thing deep listening cannot change; we are unable to control the other’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. Doing the inner work needed for deep listening is profoundly beneficial regardless of the other’s response! By making the transformation from defensiveness and aggression to openness and compassion, the suffering in the world is already reduced and we are growing into a more complete person in the process!
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