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Wednesday, April 04, 2007


I’ve been listening to other people a lot in the last few days. Some of that listening has left me moved, even energized, while some has left me cranky and depleted.

The retreat on Simplicity and Transformation that I co-led in Kalamazoo, Michigan was energizing. Sometimes the participants talked in small groups, and I only heard snippets of the conversation. Other times they shared in the big group, often movingly. A few people got teary, sharing frustrations with people they love. Their candor elicited love and compassion. Yesterday I had another experience of what felt to me like deep listening. Someone shared with me a very painful story, including the hurt caused by someone we both know. She cried, and I felt my eyes well up in sympathy. But this listening didn’t deplete me either. I felt my listening was part of this woman’s healing journey, and she was sharing with me out of a hope for growth, not out of a desire to hurt the person who hurt her. I don’t feel burdened by her story.

This morning I am feeling burdened, however, by other stories I heard yesterday. Even though the people in question were also sharing out of their own pain, I felt they were gossipping, rather than deep sharing. I tried to draw boundaries and not get hooked by what felt to me like very negative energy, but the fact that I’m still thinking about these conversations this morning makes me realize I didn’t succeed. I remember the advice in The Secret that when people start complaining, we should say we’re sorry we can’t listen to that and walk away. When I first read that, it felt callous and un-Quakerly. Now I’m wondering how I could have walked away sooner.

I’m also wondering if the difference between gossip and sharing is all in the intent of the speaker (my first thought), or if it is also in the heart of the listener. There do seem to be people who like to spread negativity, to stir things up, and there are people who like hearing it. In general I like to avoid gossip, though there have been times when I’ve felt that I was able to help someone by listening deeply to them, despite their uncenteredness. It’s partly a question of where I want to put my energy and how much listening I can do before my inner wall goes up, which definitely happened yesterday.

I’m also trying to figure out how to shake off the after effects of these conversations, which is probably why I’m writing about them now. For me, journaling or blogging is often a way of processing (hopefully without dumping on my readers). In the Simplicity retreat we talked about the Quaker idea of simplicity as clearing away everything that gets in the way of our relationship with God. That’s really what I’m trying to do here, clear away the listening that blocked my spirit yesterday and acknowledge the listening that helped me hear the Divine in someone else.


Blogger jamm said...

I want to say how much I appreciate the way you try to see clearly. I follow a Buddhist practice and I identify with the Quaker practice, especially with sitting in silence. I visit your site regularly. It was recommended to me by a Quaker I admire in Philadelphia.

So with that little intro, I would like to respond to your wrestle with the “gossip-type” of discourse versus the well intentioned, “genuine” discourse. The Buddhists teach, first and foremost, that we are all suffering. It is not possible to be in the world as a human and not suffer. If I always return to this root idea, I am saved from a lot of travail. In the teachings, only those who see clearly, the awakened / enlightened, are free from suffering. The path to the end of suffering is achieved through “renunciation.” Renunciation has a bad connotation for those of us in the west. However, renunciation, in the language of today, is about giving up our distractions, so we can be in the present joyful moment. I don’t mean to do a rap on the Buddha’s teaching. I am hardly qualified, but I empathized with this struggle you articulated. I know it well.

Briefly, this distraction you may be seeing in yourself is the tendency to value one kind of speech over another. The Buddhist would say that speech is just speech, a creation that arises out of the mind’s urge to make reason of the ever changing, unknowable world. The world frightens us and the mind protects itself by making up stories to explain it and our place in it. We each have almost no intentional part in it, unless, and this is huge, one is continually mindful of the mind’s folly (my word: spewing). Once we become deeply aware of our own mind’s endless noise (most of which we think is who we are, but that is another discussion), we are able to have compassion for those who are lost in the suffering of their stories, spoken and unspoken.

The Buddhist would say that your attachment to the stories that annoy you is your suffering. They would use the analogy of the arrow. Hearing the story is like being shot with an arrow. Rather than pulling the arrow out, you shoot yourself with another arrow. This arrow is now your suffering about another’s annoying stories (their suffering).

It seems to me that listening cannot block the spirit (compassion). What blocks the spirit is getting stuck on the story and not “hearing” the suffering. Each kind of speaker is suffering. When we hear the suffering we can feel only compassion. If attention is the strongest form of love, then what is called for is simply your attention, not your additional suffering.

I am uncertain that the “processing” is useful. In Buddhist terms this is letting the mind create more stories, or distractions from the essential truth: we all suffer. IF this is true, than all we can do is relinquish our own suffering for the betterment of the world. These are the teachings, the practice is a moment-to-moment engagement. It requires clear seeing of what is before us and this is the life-long practice. Does this make some sense? Thanks for listening.


12:52 PM  

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