Just the way quieting down in meditation allows us to notice the patterns of our own thought processes, offering a safe quiet space for someone else to speak allows them to explore their thoughts and find clarity. Offering witness in this way is a great gift to them, to ourselves, and to the world.
Now more than ever this needs to happen. So many people are being bombarded with words that activate fear and can erupt in hatred and blame, causing disruption in their lives and in the lives of others when they act out.
Of course, fear can be useful when we are in physical danger and need that extra rush of adrenaline to dodge a threat. But if we feel afraid all the time, we are drowning in adrenaline, making our bodies more susceptible to physical illness and our minds more prone to the three poisons of aversion, greed, and delusion.
This week in our Zoom meditation sangha, we were grateful to have a safe space to acknowledge the heightened sense of fear that current conditions are activating. There was a moment when our collective sense of grief was a presence, eyes welling up. We held it tenderly, allowing it to be felt.
One sangha member said that she was still feeling a little rattled because earlier that morning she awoke to an alarming text message from someone she cares about and by necessity deals with on a regular basis. Along with a practical note, the texter shared a video with a heart emoji. After a few seconds of watching the video, it was clear that it was a radical right rant, bent on activating fear. And it certainly did! She quickly turned it off but was shocked that someone she knew could possibly believe and promote a world-view that was encouraging taking up arms against fellow Americans. OMG!! Her husband advised her to just delete the video and forget about it. But she couldn’t. She felt it was important to watch it to better understand the motivation of the people who stormed the Capitol. After watching the whole video, she felt even more horrified and was in a quandary about how to proceed in her relationship with the person who sent it. What a timely dharma dilemma! Together we explored it. Much wisdom was shared and we all learned something.
We talked about how the tendency to want to talk people out of what they believe backfires and shuts down conversations. How can we skillfully shift gears? As I share in my new book ASKING IN, when entering into any conversation, it helps to check in with our intention. The auto-intention, rooted in fear, might be to make the other person know that they are wrong. There can be a sense of urgency and defensiveness, that their contrary world view cannot co-exist with our own. This is both fruitless and destructive. What’s constructive is to quiet down, center in, and find intention rooted in deeply understanding the interconnectivity of all life. This intention embodies loving-kindness and true compassion, so we don’t meet their rant with our own rant, like a duel to the death. Instead, we listen.
Engaged listening means letting go of the need to prove we know something or that our position is the right one. The ‘don’t know mind’ allows us to listen more easily. It doesn’t set us up to buy into what is being said, but neither does it set off counter-claims and attacks. It makes space for even the most discordant things to be expressed and explored safely. It can be skillful to imagine the conversation resting in a compassionate space between us and the other person. (I chose the photo for this post, in part, because of the reflecting pool that represents that spaciousness.)
People are often so busy and exhausted, they don’t have time to pause and question what is being shouted at them from the internet sources they turn to in order to feel connected to others who share their concerns. Talking it through with a trusted friend who knows how to really listen and has no agenda, the jumble of thoughts can be looked at from all angles. Perhaps there will be some dis-entangling, or perhaps there won’t. But respectfulness keeps the space open for more clarity.
Each of us has the capacity to be that friend. To avoid feeling threatened by what is said, we bring ourselves back again and again to this moment. We can remind ourselves that we have nothing to prove, nothing to defend. But we do have something to offer to this person: our compassionate respectful attention like the spacious sky that holds all the clouds and storms that pass through, so that our perspective isn’t skewed but imbued with compassion and clarity.
This way of engaging in conversation may be different from what we typically do. Instead of really listening, we get caught up in planning our own words, and if we do listen at all, we are actively looking for loopholes and flaws in the other person’s thinking, ready to leap in and set them straight. We might have a strong need to be acknowledged as right to fortify our sense of separate (superior) self.
The body gives major clues when we’re off track: the heart pumps faster, there’s a sense of urgency, emotions are heightened, the mind rushes to gather memories of past experiences or things we’ve heard about as supporting evidence, as if we’re in a courtroom instead of sitting with a friend. When we notice the body’s hints that we’re off on a destructive tangent, it’s important to recognize that it’s not because we’re bad or inept, it’s just because we’re human. And because we are human, we also have a choice about how we proceed. We can pause, take a breath, and let the dust settle. Then we reset our intention.
If there is a person you care about with whom you have strong disagreements, try practicing engaged listening. Right now, as you think of them, send metta, loving-kindness to them. “May you be well. May you be at ease. May your mind be peaceful. May you know the joy of being fully present in this moment, just as it is.” Actively sending loving-kindness whenever you think of someone, especially someone who activates aversive thinking, is powerful. Give it a try! And it will pave the way for more engaged listening when you do have a conversation.
And give yourself some metta, too! “May I be well. May I be at ease. May my mind be peaceful. May I know the joy of being fully present in this moment just as it is.” Do this now and any time throughout the day. It will release tension, cultivate compassion, and realign intention. In this way you’ll be ready for whatever arises.