Revisit to People Are Who They Are..

I used to do a series of posts during the holidays with tips on negotiating some of the emotional minefields many of us have.  I think I’ve skipped a few years now, and thought I’d revisit.  I originally posted this in 2011 (hard to believe I’ve been blogging this long!):

One of my all time favorite teachings came from Serge King when he taught the Huna segment for my class at Nine Gates Mystery School (he doesn’t teach for Nine Gates any more): “People are who they are and they do what they do.” The more you know about who somebody is and what he does, the less you will ever be disappointed because you know you can’t expect him to be or do something else. When Don Miguel Ruiz’s Four Agreements came out some years later I found his “Don’t take anything personally” to be aligned; if you know your friend is being who she is and doing what she does how can you take what she’s doing personally?

That piece of advice has been so incredibly helpful to me and some of my friends have found it life changing too. One friend had a really unhappy relationship with her dad. She was a great believer in communication to heal relationships so she kept writing him letters in which she explained how upset she was by certain things he did. She was disappointed every time because her expectation was that he would change because of what she told him and he never did.

This had been going on for years when I described the concept and said, “seems to me he’s just being who he is.” As I explained it her eyes grew wide and her jaw dropped. As soon as she looked at it from that perspective the whole situation changed for her.

I don’t have a personal anecdote that’s as dramatic but in many subtle ways it has changed relationships and kept me from a lot of hurt feelings. It doesn’t mean you have to stop liking people or to judge them, it means you can make decisions about relationships based on knowing and accepting who people are.

For me that sometimes means creating a little distance and sometimes feeling more trust or closeness. I was always a little oversensitive and I’m so grateful for reducing the hurt feelings factor; I get it that almost everything other people say and do reflects everything about them and nothing about me.

In the holiday season when lots of people are dreading events that involve spending time with relatives, I think it’s a good time to take a breath and remember, “People are who they are and they do what they do.” Don’t expect that anybody’s going to be different and know that whatever is being said and done is not about you – don’t take anything personally.

Seeing the other view

English: Anti-apartheid protest in London, UK,...

English: Anti-apartheid protest in London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In all the finger pointing and rancor going on post-election, I keep remembering two big lessons about world views I got years ago.  I think they keep coming up for me because I see some assumptions being made in the jibes about those who voted for Trump and my lessons told me those assumptions are probably wrong.  In times like these it’s so important to be able to step back and at least try to understand another world view.

The first lesson occurred when I was a sociology graduate student, working on a big study for Northwestern’s Center for Urban Affairs.  I’d been assigned a couple of neighborhoods to interview as many people as I could.  One of the areas was a working class neighborhoodk with some big open housing issues going on.

Having done some networking, I went down one day and interviewed a group gathered in someone’s home.  Afterward, a few of the people took me aside and told me quite nicely that if I wanted people there to feel comfortable talking to me I needed to quit talking so “high brow”.

It came as a shock because I’d been very careful not to go into “PhD speak”, which I’ve always despised.  Eventually I realized that even though I grew up in a blue collar area, my family is loaded with college-educated people and all my friends growing up were the children of educated people — if not formally educated, the kind of people who read a lot and are always learning (often better than school, I’ve noted).  In many ways we don’t speak the same language as people who aren’t readers and learners.  The people I was interviewing were put off by my style of speaking and I could see I didn’t have a clue how to change my language to what they needed.  We literally talked past one another.

The second lesson came as a fairly new lawyer, back in the late eighties, when I joined a pro bono legal team who were defending a group of protesters arrested at the South African Consulate.  Our case intended to set precedent (and did) for using the necessity defense, in this instance arguing that the conditions under apartheid in South Africa were so atrocious it was necessary to violate the law by protesting (kind of a simplified explanation).  A lot of our case involved testimony from people who’d either been there or had some expertise about conditions under apartheid.

During the voir dire (choosing the jury panel) it was very important to both sides to know how much awareness the potential jurors had of the situation in South Africa and whether they already had opinions about it.  We questioned something like 60 potential jurors of many ages, races, jobs, etc, asking every one whether they regularly read the newspaper or watched the news and what they knew about South Africa and apartheid.

With two exceptions,  the startling answer was no.  No one read the newspaper.  No one watched the news.  They barely knew where South Africa was and they knew nothing about the apartheid situation or the call for an embargo, nothing about Nelson Mandela (he was still in prison and far less famous outside the circles who were informed about the situation).  Since my entire family and all the people I knew had newspaper subscriptions and watched the news, listened to NPR and stayed informed, this came as a great shock to me.

But it also stuck with me that I need to always remember the world view my circle shares, which assumes you need to stay informed by paying attention to the news, is not the only world view (and not one I share any more).  I keep seeing people accusing those who voted for Trump of being bigots, misogynists, etc. (and I did it in a post too) based on an assumption they heard and saw all the things he said.

While I am sure there were plenty who did know these things and voted for him anyway, the probability is that a significant percentage of those who voted for him do not read newspapers or watch the news and didn’t know most of the outrageous things he’d been saying.

The sweet spot for me at the end of the trial story:  when I went to the picket line at the Consulate after the trial was over, several members of the jury were there marching. As soon as they knew and understood what was happening they felt they had to take part in the fight to end apartheid.  The fact they’d previously chosen not to stay informed didn’t mean they were stupid or unfeeling, it meant they lived a different lifestyle than mine.  And when they knew they showed up to help.

We’re all divine sparks of All That Is.  Sometimes you have to be open to seeing that spark and trying to understand a different way of thinking.

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Unsolicited Advice and Right Listening

qestion mark and exclamation mark

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Note:  Although I’ve been tagging all my posts with Nano Poblano, when I search the tag, my posts on this particular blog aren’t showing up in my reader.  If anyone from the Poblano group who also follows me can give me a heads up as to whether posts you’ve seen through your subscription also show up when you’re reading the Poblano posts, I’d really appreciate it.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!  So love and appreciate this crowd.  Hope you had a lovely holiday if you were celebrating and a great day if you were not.

After raising issues about what kinds of comments are appropriate in my last post I decided to refurbish and update the post I mentioned about Right Listening and Unsolicited Advice.  The issue was a comment that offered a lot of advice I’d not asked for.  Lots of viewpoints showed up in the comments and it seemed like a good moment to mention the notion of Right Listening and it’s guideline:  avoid giving unsolicited advice.

Right speech is part of the Buddhist Eightfold Path. It’s a huge topic with lots of subcategories. I almost feel as if right listening should have a ninth slot on the Path because it seems too important to be subsumed under right speech. In full disclosure, I’ve learned enough about it to be able to teach Right Speech classes and I have a couple of friends who’ve become master practitioners so I know what it looks like in action, but though I am good at it when I’m sitting in practice with someone, in daily life, well, let’s just say I’m a work in progress.

Both right speech and right listening require you to stay mindful and to learn to be honest with yourself and therefore in what you say. I think right listening has further challenges. For now, I’m just going to look at the aspect of right listening that asks you not to offer unsolicited opinions or advice.

Literally that means that if a friend has just told you about a problem she’s having but has not asked you to tell her what you think she should do, then you should not offer an opinion.  Nor should you hear about someone’s project or plan and immediately start offering advice on how to better it or why not to do it unless they’ve specifically asked you to give advice.

Right speech and listening is a dance of communication in which you each try to hold a space that helps the other person to explore deeper into their thoughts and feelings so that you communicate from the heart.  Your job as a listener is to try to put aside your own thoughts and feelings—a great spiritual exercise—in order to really hear what your friend thinks and feels and to ask neutral questions that help her to explore more deeply into her topic and what she feels about it than she has before.

Our conversational habit as a culture (U.S.) is to step in every time someone mentions a problem or question and start offering suggestions and opinions, so I think it’s a huge challenge to practice right listening.  In the world of blogging, this shows up when people write posts in which they complain or discuss an issue but do not ask for readers to supply them with solutions.  And then in the comments one or more people tell them what they should do.

Whether face to face or in blogging, when you jump in with solutions you’re burdening the other person with your opinions — often fueled by your issues, fears, and unexamined beliefs.  Instead of inviting this person to explore his/her own heart and helping them to examine their own wishes by asking neutral questions, you’re substituting your thoughts for theirs.

Even when you know someone well enough that you’re sure you know what they really want, try to step back and leave space for her to decide on something unexpected but even more right for her.  Even when you love someone dearly and want to save or protect or circumvent, get yourself out of the way and see what you can do to help him figure out what’s best for him– even if it’s not what you would do.

Many unsolicited-advice comments demonstrate a lack of familiarity with the post on which they’re commenting. Right listening requires, well…  actually listening.  Many comments I read on my blog and on other blogs feel like the writer has an agenda of some sort or had a button pushed by some phrase that unleashed a lot of words that don’t address the post’s content; in some cases they give advice that completely ignores what the post-er said.

For the person who wrote the post, that often feels like you weren’t “listening” at all.  If you want to really engage with another blogger, try to read/listen carefully. Pay attention and understand their post and if you comment, comment on material that’s actually in the post, not on the chatter that’s in your head.  If you’re not sure what something meant, ask.  If you’re not sure whether they want advice, ask.  If you want more info to figure out where it seems like they’re headed , ask.  Most people love to be heard.  When you ask for more information based on what they wrote, they feel heard and the questions feel like you really want to understand them.

It’s amazing how much deeper relationships can become when you’re really listening, when you set yourself aside and put the other person first.  When you learn to take your beliefs and opinions out of the equation and try to move deeper and deeper into the other person’s thoughts and wishes…   that’s when you’re connecting from the heart.

For a few years after I learned about right speech at Nine Gates I had a couple of practice buddies and a greater consciousness about the opinions thing so I was better about avoiding it. But old habits are hard to break and that particular habit is so much a part of the way everybody seems to converse that I fell back into it and I know I unconsciously offer that unsolicited advice more often than I’d like.

I try to shift that practice by taking a moment before I respond—can I be that mindful? whole other question… I like Sylvia Boorstein’s question, “Is what I’m about to say an improvement on silence?” I think a moment taken to ask that question would change a whole lot of what comes out of my mouth. Might change what you write in comments.  Anyone care to try it for a while? I’d be interested to dialog about how people do with it and how it feels.

Being Peace in Relationship

I’m posting this one as an entry in Kozo’s Blogger’s for Peace Monthly Challenge, which includes a number of possibilities for discussing peace in relationships.  I’ve chosen “4 things you can do to become a better partner”, which I’m interpreting in the broad sense of partners in any kind of relationship — friends, colleagues, etc.  This is also for Jenny Matlock’s AlphabeThursday , which is “B” this week.

My number one piece of advice for “being peace” in relationships is to know yourself.  Not just the surface you or the you you like the world to see but the deep, dark recesses of you.  Know what your issues are.  The more I’ve known about what my issues and hot buttons are the more I’ve been able to stand back from any conversation or confrontation in which I feel wounded or upset or angry “at” something someone said.  I can wind up seeing they had no such intent but happened to land on one of my trigger spots.  When you can own what’s yours and not blame it on anyone else, you’ve made a big step toward getting along better with other people.

Second, as Don Miguel Ruiz so wisely put it, “Don’t take anything personally”.  The chances are if someone is directing verbal ice picks into your ribs, they ‘re acting out of some of those issues and hot buttons that they haven’t acknowledged and it has nothing to do with you.  Huna teacher Serge King says, “People are who they are and they do what they do”.  If you can figure out who the people around you are and what they’re likely to say and do because of it, they won’t often surprise you and it will be easier to see what belongs to them and has nothing to do with you.

Third:  Communicate well.  Practice right speech and especially right listening.  Pay attention to what people are saying to you and try to keep your own opinions and attitudes out of it.  Ask neutral questions or mirror back what they’ve said in ways that invite them to move deeper into their own hearts about the subject.  It’s amazing how thoroughly you can connect when you make conversation a dance about connecting at the heart.

Fourth:  Do no harm.  Approach every person, every conversation, every action with the intent to create the greatest possible benefit and the least possible harm.  That means not being sarcastic, not criticizing other people’s choices, not cutting people off or ostracizing, etc., not manipulating or one-upping, lying, cheating, stealing, etc.  Since we (in the US) live in a culture that seems to admire a great put down or a smart remark, I find it takes a lot of mindfulness to avoid being thoughtlessly harmful.

I find the only way to do well with 2-4 is to be really good at the first suggestion and to be very mindful.

The instructions in B4Peace blogging include a link to another of the posts:  Perfecting Peace in Relationships.

Why did I attract that?

Wildflowers by street near downtown San Rafael

My second week in Marin I dined with a friend who’s particularly good at the right listening side of right speech.  We discussed the story of the big blow up that happened before I headed to California (see previous post).  She was the first person to realize that I’d been so upset because I’d been sent a psychic fireball of anger and she gave me a practice to clear it.  The practices I’d already been doing (lots of ho’ o pono pono and energy balancing) along with getting away to beautiful Marin had taken care of a lot of it and her suggestion finished the process.  The part I continue to contemplate is the question to which she kept returning, “why do you think this situation came to you?”

As previously noted I feel an overarching reason for this sudden shift is that I’d been ignoring an intuition that I should quit focusing on movement classes and put more attention on writing.  She accepted that but still came back to the question so I realized she felt there was more.  Looking deeper I could see a pattern that started with my mother’s ornery sister — a thread of people in my life with big stores of anger and unpredictable flashes of rage.  In fact, there were a lot of angry people around me as a child and, though I’ve managed to have lots of lovely friends who don’t indulge in angry outbursts, I’ve generally always had at least one in whom I could see the anger but ignored it in favor of the aspects I liked about the person — much I like I ignored that anger in my relatives.  I’ve known about the pattern for a while.  I realized this time that I’m ready to be done with it.  Even though other friendships along the thread had broken and I’d acknowledged relief to be out of each specific one, I’d never actually decided to be done with the pattern.  No more friends with unacknowledged lava pits of anger for me.

However, my friend continued to ask the question and I have a notion that she’s right, that there’s another level of the why and that one continues to elude me.  I’ve been in this place many times and I find it both fascinating and frustrating; the process of discovery can produce amazing revelations and yet when something eludes my scrutiny it’s maddening.  Whenever I discover a new issue or comprehend an admonition that I created after some childhood trauma, it feels so great.  Only when I know what’s there can I let go of it so every success in searching for underlying causes leads to a greater sense of freedom.  Even when frustrated I know this new way of handing it is so much better than my old way of letting my feelings fester,endlessly blaming the other person and always feeling “why me?”.  So I’m reminding myself this is better while I scratch my head and feel silly that I can’t see what else attracted a psychic fireball to me…

Here I come…

by User Urban 2004 on wikimedia

Saturday I head off for another house/cat sit in lovely Marin.  Already have a bunch of dates written in for visits with friends–can’t wait!–and in between I’ll be hanging out, walking,  relaxing and working on my next e-book project on the beautiful hill I love.  I’ll be out there with only my new tablet.  Haven’t tried to do writing of any length with it so I’m hazy as to how much blogging I will do (for the book I’ll have one of my trusty yellow pads as I’m a hand writing gal when it comes to books).  I’ll at least try to snap some pix and give you some visuals with brief updates.

Question Everything–Letting Go of Words

simple question mark on a blue background. Microsoft Clipart MH900289433

A long time ago I put up a post about questioning everything, intending to make it a sporadic series–it’s been so long there’s a bit more sporadic than series about posting this now, but here’s my next entry:

I’m a lifelong reader and writer so words have always been important to me.  In recent years I’ve been bemoaning the deterioration of language due to texting and twitter, etc. and the loss of bookstores (worried about whether there will be books).  I think I’ll always prefer to hold a book in my hands rather than a tablet (though I appreciate that I can carry dozens of books with me on my next trip by just taking the tablet, which would have been along anyway).  But in my question everything philosophy I stopped to examine my strong feelings about language and books and I find myself letting go.

Books

Books (Photo credit: henry…)

 

When I do that I always try to ask myself what would really happen if the feared outcome should happen or what would the world look like in a different scenario?  In this case I started thinking about our oneness and the nature of interconnection that has largely been lost.  And then I began to wonder, if we didn’t have all these words standing between us, would we be able to re-discover our connection through the web and to communicate beyond words?

I also had to admit that while a great poem or a well-written book or essay can change people’s thinking or profoundly influence a community or nation, more often words become the occasion of misunderstanding, anger and division.  What if we connected through feeling tones, through our hearts?  Would we care about language or be addicted to reading?  For myself, would I be more calm or more at peace in some way if I spent less time with words between me and life?  As soon as I can see potential great outcomes from a whole different way of looking at the world, I can begin to set down the patterns of thinking I have held too closely to notice.

Now, I’m probably going to remain an avid reader and I’ve been writing since childhood so I don’t see myself stopping and because of those truths about myself I will probably maintain some sense that I prefer to see language used properly and that I like real books better.  But once I could see that my love for them doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re better or even good choices for humanity, it ceased to have the power for me that it once held.

Reading and writing are so deeply ingrained in me that it took quite a while of sputtering and fuming over the bad effect that social media has had on language skills and the potential loss of books from the world before it even occurred to me that this was one of the things that would be worth questioning.  Life is full of those ingrained repositories of thoughts and feelings and beliefs that keep us from finding peace in the moment.  What do you need to step back and question?

2012 Stats for Notes from the Bluegrass

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 16,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 4 Film Festivals

Click here to see the complete report.

Wow, 16,000 views in the year amazed me!  Thanks so much everyone who reads and everyone who comments!  I’m envisioning you all having a peaceful and loving 2013.

 

Love the ones you’re with

Decorated Christmas tree in snowy field on Microsoft Office Clipart

Unlike the old Stephen Stills song, I actually mean LOVE the ones you’re with as the third entry in my series for the holidays about finding ease as you gather with family and friends. For the sake of making an entry in Jenny Matlock’s AlphabeThursday after being MIA for quite some time, let’s think of it as DECEMBER holidays advice since the letter this week is “D”. In the first two posts I talked about how “people are who they are and they do what they do” and about recognizing love the way it’s offered instead of waiting for it to arrive the way you wish.

Once you know who someone is and know how that person shows love you’ve come a long way. But I think the next step is to know who someone is and how s(he) loves and then decide: can you love him anyway? I began asking myself that after being involved for many years in conversations with unhappy spouses who complained incessantly about their mates—and I was around enough to know that the bitter recriminations went on daily in their households.

The complaints were not unreasonable and for a long time I agreed, “Yes, that’s bad, blah, blah…” But as I moved along this path I began to put myself in the shoes of the “bad guy” and ask myself, “What must it be like to be married to someone who tells you every day you’re not enough, you’re wrong, you’re annoying…”? (I learned the hard way not to ask that one out loud…) And I wondered what might change or how the marriages might work if the complaining party decided to just love the one she or he was with instead of wishing for the partner to be someone else. It seems to me that if you really know who your loved ones are and what they do and you know how they show love then your choice is either to accept and love the person you’ve got or to leave and try for someone who meets your expectations.

Some of my teachers feel that finding the way to love and accept your family members is the highest spiritual calling and that when you can find your way to staying in a space of love with your most difficult relationship(s) you can hold that space for everyone. I’m somewhere on the road with that lesson.

It’s helped me to see that when I’m irritated by someone it’s usually really some issue of mine that’s leading to the irritation; other people rarely make a point of trying to annoy, they just unwittingly press your hot buttons. [Unless you’ve got a mean one like my late aunt (see previous post) who loves to stick an ice pick in your ribs, in which case I think the “don’t take anything personally” advice applies. And then try for the love. Well, you know, as best you can.]

When I hear people dreading the holidays because they’ll have to hang out with family members they don’t get along with I find myself thinking “figure out who they are and what they do and how they love and then try to just love them”. Of course my family is tiny and I don’t actually see anyone for the holidays whom I don’t see otherwise. But I have occasion to practice most of the year and I’m finding that it’s pretty easy for me to figure out who they are and what they do and to understand that a lot of criticism and unsolicited advice is their way of loving but I’m finding it harder to hold that space of lovingkindness. When I do, though, we get along much better. Just trying helps. So my unsolicited advice for the holidays is, just try to love the ones you’re with… for (in spite of?) who they are and what they do.

Right listening and unsolicited opinions

Right speech is part of the Buddhist Eightfold Path. It’s a huge topic with lots of subcategories. I almost feel as if right listening should have a ninth slot on the Path because it seems too important to be subsumed under right speech. In full disclosure, I’ve learned enough about it to be able to teach it and I have a couple of friends who’ve become master practitioners so I know what it looks like in action, but though I am good at it when I’m sitting in practice with someone, in daily life, well, let’s just say I have a long way to go.

Both right speech and right listening require you to stay mindful and to learn to be honest with yourself and therefore in what you say. I think right listening has some bigger challenges. Because it’s a big topic and I try to keep these posts short, I’m just going to look at the aspect of right listening that asks you not to offer unsolicited opinions or advice.

Literally that means that if a friend has just told you about a problem she’s having but has not asked you to tell her what you think she should do or supply your own take on how she should feel, then you should not offer an opinion.  Nor should you hear about someone’s project or plan and immediately start offering opinions as to how to better it or why not to do it unless they’ve specifically asked you to give advice.  Right speech and listening is a dance of communication in which you each try to hold a space that helps the other person to explore deeper into their thoughts and feelings so that you communicate from the heart.

Your job as a listener is to try to put aside your own thoughts and feelings—so a great spiritual exercise—in order to really hear what your friend thinks and feels and to ask neutral questions that help her to explore more deeply into her topic and what she feels about it than she has before. Our conversational habit as a culture is to step in every time someone mentions a problem or question and start offering suggestions and opinions, so I think it’s a huge challenge to practice right listening.

For a few years after I learned about right speech at Nine Gates I had a couple of practice buddies and a greater consciousness about the opinions thing so I was better about avoiding it. But old habits are hard to break and that particular habit is so much a part of the way everybody seems to converse that I fell back into it and maintain it as my conversational mode most of the time. I want to try to shift that practice by taking a moment before I respond—can I be that mindful? whole other question… I like Sylvia Boorstein’s question, “Is what I’m about to say an improvement on silence?” I think a moment taken to ask that question would change a whole lot of what comes out of my mouth. Anyone care to try it for a while? I’d be interested to dialog about how people do with it and how it feels.

The subtle art of self sabotage

When I talk about self-sabotage or mention something like resistance to getting over chronic fatigue a lot of people assume I’m talking about a conscious decision to miss a goal or stay sick. But I think most self-sabotage happens far more subtly and is driven by the subconscious mind.

Like many things, it’s easier to see self-sabotage in other people. I watched a friend of mine embark on diet after diet and one alternative health path after another. Every time she got five or six weeks into a diet or appointments with a bodyworker (usually about the time it started to have an effect) she would announce that this wasn’t working for her and she would drop it.

I know enough about how we serve as mirrors for one another to realize that if I could see a pattern of self-sabotage in her I should be looking for it in me. It didn’t take long to see that I didn’t make as clear a decision to drop things as she did. But often when I started—or restarted—my meditation practice or some exercise regimens (yoga always stuck for some reason) that clearly left me feeling better, I would wander away from it. It usually began with something like the flu or a vacation that threw me off schedule. I’d be slow to start again and I’d practice less often. Then I’d leave more and more time in between and suddenly I’d realize it had been months since my last practice.

I never consciously thought, “Oh, this makes me feel better and I don’t really want to be well so I’m going to stop.” I just wandered off the program. It was only when I explored the process and asked myself why that I had to acknowledge on some level I didn’t want to be well even though a lot of my time and effort were devoted to getting well.  The ins and outs of why that worked for me can be the subject of another post or three.  It’s the same for many people I know, whether it’s creating chaos or procrastinating or sidetracking or bailing, their sabotaging doesn’t arise from a conscious thought of “How can I screw this up?”

Whatever you hold within that fears success or doesn’t want to change or wants to keep you isolated, etc. will guide you to sabotage your progress. And unless you’re staying very aware of what you’re doing and why, you’ll keep sabotaging yourself and not even realize you’re doing it.

Do you know what you do to get in your own way? Do you know whether you have beliefs that say you’re better off sick or you shouldn’t succeed or you can’t do a good job, etc.?

Oh how hard it is to hear and be heard

As I’ve previously mentioned, I’ve long been fascinated by right speech and right listening (see post). The more I’ve contemplated communication the more I’m amazed sometimes that we ever understand one another at all. For instance in my latest post on my other blog I poke fun at the way southerners react to winter weather. In this case even though we’re from the same country and basically speak the same language, our life experiences concerning snow are so different that we don’t understand one another’s views.

I can stand back and take in the usual explanation, that they just don’t get snow as often nor as much so they’re not used to it. OK, up to a point I get that. But then I start reasoning, “But even if you’ve never dealt with 10” of snow, how can you not see that 1” is just not a big deal?  Even if you’re afraid of snow how can you not see that a road wet from snow flurries is the same as a road wet from rain.?  How does a wet road not equal a wet road just because you’re from the south?” Clearly there’s a level on which my experience (and my mind’s attachment to what it knows) leaves me unable to comprehend what they see and feel when it snows. And the people who are scared by conditions here cannot figure out why I don’t see the danger that’s making them cancel all plans and refuse to leave the house.*

There are so many world views that arise from different experiences. Class, region, culture, religion, country, career—all carry sets of beliefs and views of life that often are incomprehensible to others.  I’ve seen a number of couples founder because the poor origins of one and the rich background of the other led to such radically different assumptions about money and how to handle it that they couldn’t find a way to reconcile. We see labor and management failing to see each others’ point of view all the time. When it comes to foreigners it’s almost impossible for lots of people to comprehend or accept ways and mores that are unlike theirs.

A big key to right speech and right listening so that you reach true understanding is being able to step out of your set beliefs and opinions so that you can really hear the other person. When it comes to the beliefs that are ingrained in your story from birth—like north or south, middle class or rich, Guatemalan or Balinese, Muslim or Hindu, etc.–they’re built so deep into your being that you often don’t realize that you have them or that they don’t represent an absolute truth. It takes a lot of questioning to find and release those beliefs that are woven into the tapestry of your being, especially since they’re often held by lots of people around you. The more we can release of those views or at least step aside from them in conversation the more we can listen and find the place where our hearts connect instead of focusing on how we differ.

*  Not talking about the mountains here as driving on curvy roads that meander up and down when it’s slick is its own story…

Right Speech

I’ve been keeping these short and that’s my intention, but I was re-reading an old piece I wrote for my right speech classes and decided to post even though it’s very long:

We live in a world, I think, in which we have yet to learn to communicate with each other in ways that create harmony and understanding. Instead, with words we build hostility, barricades and wars. Words can also build bridges leading from one heart to another to another. By practicing right speech each of us can build bridges that connect our hearts with all those with whom we speak.

Right speech is one of the steps on the Eight Fold Path of Buddhism, but the concept of communicating with truth and compassion can be found in most religious traditions. Thich Nhat Hanh beautifully described the basics of right speech in his book, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (Parallax Press, 1998, p. 77):

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am determined to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope. I will not spread news that I do not know to be certain and will not criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break. I am determined to make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.

In perfect practice, this means speaking only the truth — not the opinion you would like to shove down someone else’s throat or a convenient excuse that covers the real story, but the truth that is from your heart. It means never being sarcastic or criticizing others or making another person the butt of a joke. It means avoiding words that are abusive, insulting or angry. Gossip is also outside the bounds of right speech and some teachers advocate a periodic practice of refraining from saying anything about anyone who is not present, thus curtailing all conversations devoted to analyzing someone else’s life or behavior. It means truly listening to another — not to check whether they hold the opinions you think they should or so that you can tell them what they should be doing, but listening to understand what is in the other person’s heart.

According to the Taoist Book of Changes, or I Ching, life is always changing. You can flow with the cycles of life or try to fight against it, but change is always present. You can experience this in speech. When right speech is truly practiced, you are present in the moment and open to the possibility of change in the next. In other words, you enter conversation not from a fixed and immutable viewpoint but with openness to really hear another’s view and be changed by it.

Right speech can also be discussed in the context of the energy of the throat, which, in yoga and other systems, is one of the major chakras. At this level you encounter the blocks you have created with your unexpressed feelings and your fears about expressing your authentic self and your deepest truths. It is not possible to express your truth if you are numb to your feelings or repressing them. The ongoing practice of right speech can help you move down through the layers of repressed thoughts and feelings to discover what is true for you.

One of my teachers, Gay Luce (founder of the Nine Gates Mystery School), developed a methodology for formally practicing right speech and right listening. There are five questions to consider when you are about to speak and while you are speaking:

1. What am I talking about?

Sometimes we start talking just to fill a silence and without any particular point. Try defining for yourself what the topic or subject is that you wish to talk about. You may begin to realize that sometimes there is more connection to another in harmonious silence than in speaking.

2. What am I thinking as I talk about this topic or what do I believe about it?

This invites you to examine what you really think about a given subject — to express not just what someone else has said or the point of view you think you should hold but what you believe to be true.

3. What am I feeling as I talk about this?

In our society we are often out of touch with our own feelings and we talk without being at all aware of what our feelings are about the subject. Frequently even when we do identify a feeling it is one that has been triggered by some deeper, unidentified emotion. The more you attune to what you are feeling about the things you discuss, the deeper you can go into your true feelings.

4. Why am I saying this to you? Why do I want you to know this?

Sometimes we have something we want to say so badly that we’d tell it to anyone who happened to be there. But most of the time there is some unacknowledged and unexpressed reason why we have chosen to raise a particular topic with a particular person. Perhaps you trust this person more than others. Or you have some reason to believe this person will know or understand more than others about your subject. Maybe you want to show off for this individual or manipulate him into doing something for you.

5. What do I want for myself from this?

We have all kinds of motives for talking and many of them involve something we want to get or accomplish. Sometimes we talk just to pass time or fill the air with sound. Sometimes we want to persuade or show superiority or deflate someone or reveal our great knowledge. Knowing your motives for speaking (and for speaking to a specific person) helps you to choose your words more carefully.

As cumbersome as it may seem, if you engage in the practice of consciously answering those questions in your own mind before you speak and also out loud to your listener, you will find that you rarely stray from right speech. If you stop to think about what you want to talk about and why, you will rarely indulge in idle chatter. In reflecting upon what you want to say you will find that it is easier to curtail hurtful or divisive words. When you examine your motives for speaking, you begin to realize how often you use words to create distance or say things to show off or make yourself look good or to control or manipulate another. “Think before you speak,” becomes a spiritual practice.

Right listening is talked about less than right speech, but for me the listening side of the practice has been more compelling and has taught me many lessons. Right listening means being totally present for the other person, hearing all of what the speaker is saying instead of letting your mind wander or busy itself with deciding how it wants to respond based on the first words it heard. It is trying to help the speaker to arrive at a deeper self-understanding. That is accomplished by listening and responding without judgment about what has been said. It is rarely an act of right speech or listening to tell someone else what you think they should do

Our usual habits of responding with commands, admonishing, moralizing, suggesting solutions, criticizing, blaming, disagreeing — and also praising, agreeing and approving — are ways in which we create walls instead of understanding because we cut the speaker off from expressing her own feelings. Even “That is great” can express judgment if the speaker is aware that only certain acts or behaviors that you approve of get a “That is great” while other endeavors of which they might be equally proud draw indifference or silence.

In essence, right listening involves taking an unconditional, unbiased stance, reflecting back to the speaker what s/he has said to be sure you are understanding and developing a skillful ability to ask nonjudgmental questions that help her/him to move more deeply into the subject. When you succeed the other person will feel fully understood and that helps her/his heart to be more open to you. At its best right listening helps the other person to know her/his own heart and brings greater intimacy and understanding between the two of you.

To hold a complete conversation you must offer your full attention. It is thus like an open-eyed speaking meditation. For some people, who find mindfulness meditations difficult, right speech practice can be a pathway into the practice of mindfulness. You must be present in the moment, allowing your heart to be as open as possible, fully conscious of what you are feeling and saying. When two people (or groups) engage in a genuine practice of right speech and right listening their hearts become more open and they can express themselves more deeply.

When I reflect on my own habits of speech, as well as those of this culture, I am humbled by how far short I fall from that ideal. We are a culture of people who judge, condemn, ridicule, criticize and gossip and I am immersed in my culture. We use sarcasm and bitter irony to the detriment of others. Even our most revered comedians usually base their humor on cutting other people down with words and most of the popular sit coms involve people using biting sarcasm on one another.

The closer people are to us, the more likely it is that we will speak to them harshly and critically, because much of our speech is born of unexamined habits and repressed anger or suffering. Those closest to us are the people whose very presence triggers our deepest emotional and reactive responses. Over the 17 years since I was introduced to right speech, I have become aware that the greatest percentage of what I say — and what others say — is not right speech and that I have often been so unconscious of underlying emotions or motivations that even what I have presented as my truth did not reflect what was really true. I still find impatient or sarcastic tones erupting without even realizing what I am doing until it is too late.

These habits of communication are nearly as deeply ingrained and as unconsciously conducted as breathing. It takes an intense commitment to practice the tenets of right speech if you are to make any inroads on changing those speech patterns in all situations. It requires that you set up a sort of guardian or monitor — a Jiminy Cricket if you will — to pay attention to what you are saying and make you aware when you have strayed from right speech. You also have to stay present so that you are aware of the motive, intention and feelings of all you say and of how you are affecting whomever you are talking to. Be kind to yourself by acknowledging that the deeply embedded habits of a lifetime do not change over night. Like any new skill, the key is to practice and if you can find one or more people willing to sit down for formal practice sessions once a week or, if you lack partners, if you can commit to yourself that for one hour each day you will practice right speech with anyone you encounter, you will find that the new habits begin to expand into other times and places.

How does all this relate to peace in the next century? At the core, much of the violence and discord in the world today are caused by the inability to communicate in ways that foster harmony and knowledge of the heart. In this century we have come to live in isolation, barely knowing our neighbors, riding busses and planes with strangers. We often speak harshly to our families and judge one another. The world is full of discord and misunderstandings that erupt into wars. A difference in religious beliefs is more likely to lead to bloodshed than to a dialogue that leads to greater respect and understanding of different viewpoints. In a true dialogue between groups or nations or individuals, each side must believe that it is possible that the exchange with the other side can enrich and even change their own side. Each must offer both right speech and right listening to the other.

But we cannot force world leaders or religious groups to learn to communicate. The process of peace begins first inside an individual and then moves outward to establish peace in the family, peace with friends and neighbors, peace among religions and nations. When each of us pays attention to what we say, when we talk to others in the spirit of deepening understanding and connection, we are each contributing to peace for the world. My hope for the next millennium is that we all learn to hold our conversations heart to heart.

The weight of words

We put a lot of importance on words and their power in our society.  I’m a writer, so up to a point I agree.  But lately when somebody goes on and on about the power of some word I think, “Hey, it’s just a word.”  A great phrase can move millions to act, a great idea expressed with the right words can lead to great change; so yes, I know that words can have power.  But sometimes I think people (including me) can get too hung up on particular words.

I think the import we give to words reflects our overly mental culture.  We place a premium on reasoning and evidence and it’s usually through language that we deduce or present proof.  We’ve largely lost touch with our intuitive selves, the aspect of us that understands without words.  All that mental activity keeps us in our heads, making it much more difficult to act from our hearts or to allow our spiritual selves to guide us.

The more I move into a more expanded space, the more I get the feeling “Too many words,”  which is a strange feeling for a writer.  I worry sometimes that my writing just adds too many more words.  I finally understand the notion many native traditions have, that words are heavy, weighing us down.  It’s in the silence that we soar.