Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Mindful Speech, Part Two: Listening

This is Part Two of a series of articles on Mindful Speech. Part One focused on Idle Chatter. This installment looks at the art of Listening, and the role of Emotional Intelligence in authentic communication. Part Three will examine the Six Points of Mindful Speech taught by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

Listen Up

I heard a story about Mother Teresa. Once, during an interview, a cocky young reporter asked this great spiritual leader -- whom most people considered to be a saint, even while she was still living -- about her daily prayer habits. "What do you say to God when you pray?" he asked.

"I don't say anything. I just listen," was Mother Teresa's reply.

The reporter's curiosity was piqued, and he ventured a further question. "So what does God say to you?"

Mother Teresa replied: "He doesn't say anything. He just listens." I imagine she watched the reporter for a long moment, and let this point sink in. She then added: "And if you don't understand that, I can't explain it to you."

I draw several lessons from that story. One is that there may be less difference between prayer and meditation than we commonly imagine. Another is that prayer itself -- perhaps the highest form of speech, from a spiritual perspective -- does not necessarily consist of what we think of as "speech" at all. In fact, speaking -- which probably involves carrying our little agenda into our meeting with the Divine, and spelling out for Him or Her what we think He or She should be concerned with -- is somewhat beside the point. For Mother Teresa, authentic, two-way communication with the Divine was based first and foremost upon listening -- on both sides.

The same principle applies to our "ordinary" conversations with other people. Authentic communication can only take place when all of the parties involved in a conversation are actually listening to each other. But this happens, in our human realm, far less often than any of us would like. When real listening is present and authentic communication takes place between people, it can feel like a form of prayer. Through listening, we recognize and respect the divinity with each other. And when our listening is absent or eclipsed, we essentially say to the other person: I don't recognize or respect you.

Lately I've been watching our conversations at the dining table, here at the Abbey -- trying to step back and observe, somewhat impartially, what kinds of things we're talking about, and how we're talking about them, and even speculating on the reasons why. As I mentioned in a previous article, it seems that we get involved in a lot of idle chatter at mealtime, and that quite a few people share a wish that we could have more meaningful conversations. Some people have taken this to mean that we should be talking more about Dharma at mealtime -- which makes sense in a way, since Dharma is what we came here to the monastery to study and practice. This has even led to the creation of a new, twice-weekly "Dharma discussion group" during the dinner hour -- which is great. But my observations lately have reinforced my conviction that merely talking about a meaningful topic doesn't make a conversation meaningful. What makes it meaningful has less to do with what is being talked about, and more to do with the how and the why.

Emotional Intelligence

We're often not fully aware of how we speak, and how the way we speak affects others. I used to work with someone who is very sharp and intellectually perceptive, and always has compelling things to say. But because he habitually speaks with an angry tone, other people have difficulty hearing what he says -- they primarily hear the "how," and their negative reactions to the "how" keep them from really hearing the "what." Trapped in a vicious cycle, he ends up feeling like no one listens to him, which only makes him more angry, and on and on it goes. What seems to be missing, on his part, is some basic awareness of how his speech habits are affecting other people; lacking this awareness, he constantly undermines his own happiness and increases his feeling of alienation from others.

This kind of thing happens more than we might imagine. A person who speaks in a loud and brassy voice might make other people cringe and recoil from her, but remain oblivious to the reasons why people react that way. A person (like me) who often speaks in a timid, quiet tone and forgets to project his voice adequately might make other people grow frustrated and give up trying to listen, and they might then speak over him, causing him to feel frustrated too.

Being aware of the "tone" and "feel" of how we speak -- and how others speak to us -- is a basic skill of emotional intelligence, and a fundamental part of the practice of Mindful Speech.

Recently, on an open day here at the Abbey, I was sitting around the table with several people at breakfast. We were talking about various Dharma teachings and ways of practicing the teachings in our own lives. After having been frustrated with encountering a lot of idle chatter during mealtime, I was delighted that the conversation didn't stray into trivial things, but stayed with topics that felt, to me, by comparison, fairly significant. But as the conversation went on, stretching towards an hour, I began to feel that, somehow, it was starting to sour. At one point, someone interrupted me and spoke over my words, raising her voice to assert her viewpoint and eclipse what I was saying. And I noticed myself wanting to do the same thing.

Sensing that the conversation had gone off its axis, I began to withdraw. I grew more quiet and tried to pay attention to the emotional dimension of the dialogue. Somewhere, it seemed that we had crossed an invisible line and now there was less open listening and responding taking place, and more assertion of prepared statements. I felt my own frustration at having been interrupted by the other person, and my feeling that she wasn't really listening to me but was just upholding her own conversational agenda. In observing the emotional dimension of her communication, I sensed a feeling of insecurity on her part, which may to have led her to interrupt me -- and then I saw the same insecurity reflected in myself. I saw my own ego's involvement in the conversation -- my need to be heard and my need to be right, a vulnerable feeling that showed up as an urge to react impulsively to what other people were saying. I realized that what I was frustrated with another person for doing to me, I was also doing: I wasn't really listening to the other person, and I was starting to cop a resentment that she wasn't listening to me. Somewhere along the way, a meaningful conversation had deteriorated into idle chatter -- a dialogue in which listening and authentic communication had been lost, replaced by a competition of viewpoints, a meeting of egos, each one of us dragging his or her own emotional baggage into the conversation.

"Speak only if you can improve upon silence," said Gandhi. That morning, I realized that my own more dubious motives for speaking had crept into the conversation, and my own speech was no longer an improvement upon silence. It was time for me to shut up and listen. In AA, old-timers often advise overly talkative newcomers: "Take the cotton out of your ears, put it in your mouth, and just listen."

Listening Is the Better Part of Conversation

There is a traditional teaching about how to listen to the Dharma properly -- how to hold one's mind so that the truth that's conveyed in the teachings can actually reach us -- which I've written about here before. The same principles apply equally to the art and practice of authentic conversation between people. For meaningful communication to take place, our minds need to be like a clean, sturdy, upright container or pot that's ready to receive whatever is placed in it.

If the pot is upside-down, nothing can be put into it: this is what happens when we don't really listen with an open mind, but instead we assume that we know what the other person is going to say. Our minds begin to wander distractedly while the other person speaks to us. Caught up in our own internal chatter, we may be thinking about something else altogether, or mentally preparing our response to what they're saying before we've really heard them out. And we forget that other people can usually tell when we're not really paying attention; if they have any emotional intelligence at all, they pick up on the subtle cues in our expressions as our minds wander to other things or begin preparing a response prematurely, and this undermines their trust in us. They may feel disrespected because we're not really listening, and we may not even be aware that we've made them feel that way. To really listen to another person, we have to be open-minded and humble of heart, and drop our assumptions and our prejudices in the moment that we're listening.

If the pot has holes in it, then even if it's right-side-up, whatever you put in it will leak out and be lost. This is what happens when we don't actually absorb and remember -- accurately -- what the other person is saying. We may think we're remembering it accurately, but if we're challenged to repeat it back to them, our memory is patchy and full of holes, and may be distorted in important places. If we repeat to someone else what was said to us, our distortions and omissions are carried to the next person, and then that person distorts it a bit further. When it finally gets back around to the person who originally said it, her words may have been completely changed and people think she said something she didn't say at all.

If the pot is contaminated with something poisonous -- maybe it's really a container for food, but somebody has used it as a mop bucket -- then whatever is placed in it will also become contaminated. This is what happens when we listen with a mind that's caught up in its own emotional reactivity. We hear something that the other person has said and it triggers a reaction in us -- anger or jealousy or fear or lust, whatever it might be -- and it's like we can't hear anything else they say after that, because we're so consumed by our own emotions. If we don't possess a certain degree of emotional intelligence and self-awareness in the moment, we may be largely unaware of this process as it takes place; and if we're reacting to what the other person is saying, we may be reacting more from this emotional mind than from a place of understanding and listening.

"Conversation is a give-and-take," writes the Zen teacher Norman Fischer. "If we don't listen, we don't hear anything, and real conversation is over before it begins. We haven't taken anything in, and so we are just beaming our message at the other person."

The next time you have a conversation with someone, watch your own mind and try to notice when you are really listening to the other person and when you are not. Are you daydreaming while they talk to you? Are you mentally preparing your response as soon as they've begun to talk? Will you be able to actually remember what they are saying? Are you getting caught up in emotional reactions? What effect does this have on the conversation and on your relationship to this person? What role does Listening play for you in the practice of Mindful Speech?

I would love to hear about your experiences with this.

-- Read Part Three: Witchcraft --

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