“We invoke your name, Avalokiteshvara. We aspire to learn your way of listening in order to help relieve the suffering in the world. You know how to listen in order to understand. We invoke your name in order to practice listening with all our attention and openheartedness. We will sit and listen without any prejudice. We will sit and listen without judging or reacting. We will sit and listen in order to understand. We will sit and listen so attentively that we will be able to hear what the other person is saying and also what is being left unsaid. We know that just by listening deeply we already alleviate a great deal of pain and suffering in the other person.”
~Invoking the Bodhisattvas, from the Plum Village Chanting Book
As practitioners, we learn about Right Speech, speech that is timely, true, spoken with kindness, with heartfelt-ness, and with a mind of goodwill. When we practice in community, we also have the opportunity to cultivate Right Listening. In our culture, we often listen to find out the views of others. We can listen for signs of political affiliation, for biases, for education level and for information. Our listening to others determines our comfort level. Are they like me or are they very different? We listen to position ourselves in the hierarchy of intelligence, money, and power. Are they dull or do they outshine me? We listen to find if it is safe to express ourselves openly, especially if the person we are listening to is our boss or holds a position of power. We listen to gather information so we can be safe and thrive or persuade others to think as we do. We listen from a place of self-interest to maximize our advantages. Our listening is a form of self- protection.
If you come to a Plum Village sangha, or if you are in a healing profession, you are taught to listen in a different way. The instructions at sangha include listening to hear what it is like for that other person. We are encouraged to aspire to the qualities of Avalokiteshvara, or Quan Yin, the Bodhisattva who listens to the cries of the world. The mission of this great being is to hear the voices of those who are suffering. When our pain is heard by another and we and our situation are held with compassion, there is often a profound shift. When another being can hold our pain with us, our burden is halved.
In order to listen like a Bodhisattva, we must be able to have the capacity to sit with another’s pain without trying to fix, to advise, to manage, spiritualize, or minimize their experience. We may say things that we believe to be helpful, but these expressions ward off any authentic connection. We’ve all been there and heard or said, “everything happens for a reason. We don’t get things we can’t handle. When one window closes, another opens. You need to let go…” and the list goes on. Or we ride over what the person is expressing and fill the space with our own experiences, “When that happened to me I…I know a friend who had the same thing and she…” Unwittingly we abandon the other person and shine our attention back on our own experience and our perceptions of how and what should be happening. This is false empathy because it does not allow the other to feel felt and understood; it keeps us in the foreground as the authority and denies the validity of another’s experience. If we find ourselves drawn into a quick comeback to fix the issue, we can silently tell ourselves, “Just listening, just listening.”
Sometimes it’s hard for us to listen when we feel filled up with our own grief or sorrow. We may become frustrated and impatient when we hear about someone else’s confusion and fear. We may want the problem solved so we do not have to be close to these painful and unpleasant emotions. They may be too real and trigger these feelings in ourselves because we haven’t had the time or training to care for these feelings in ourselves. When we are under stress and filled with big emotions, we do not have room for more. Our ability to listen and to hear is only as large as the space we are able to create in ourselves. That’s why it is so important to take care of our own pain in order to show up for others.
Listening without rushing to solve or fix means that we trust the other person to find their own solution in their own time. When we rush to fix with advice, spiritualizing, or platitudes we do not allow the other person to develop their own agency. Most advice is not taken because it is not given to one who is ready to hear it. One of the factors of right speech is speaking at the right time. The time for advice is when it is wanted and it is truly beneficial for the other person.
The ability to listen to others requires us to first listen to ourselves, to take stock of what our emotional capacity is and to care for what is longing to be known in ourselves. Only when we can stop and care for our own wellbeing do we have the capacity to show up for others with real listening. We know the body and mind are one and all thought have a reverberation in the body. Being aware of and consciously releasing tension and contraction in the body are ways to create more solidity and equanimity in ourselves as we practice listening. When our body is calm our mind can be calm also. One of the greatest gifts we can give to someone we love is to listen with a calm mind.
Often when I listen, I imagine that it is me saying the words. When I find myself reacting with judgment, comparing, or criticizing, I come back to my body and breathe to my belly, letting my shoulders be soft, consciously releasing tension as I exhale. “Listening is enough,” I tell myself, “Just listen.” When I can stay with this openness, aware of the other and aware of my own presence, something shifts. Understanding appears. When I can offer the other person my non-judgmental attention, we are connected in the act of compassion. I become big enough to hold this shared pain without sinking and in the sharing—the pain is lessened. This is one of the ways out of suffering. This is a way we can become a presence of compassion in the world.
May we all trust our light,
When Someone Deeply Listens to You
by John Fox in Finding What You Didn’t Lose.
When someone deeply listens to you
it is like holding out a dented cup
you’ve had since childhood
and watching it fill up with
cold, fresh water.
When it balances on top of the brim,
you are understood.
When it overflows and touches your skin,
You are loved.
When someone deeply listens to you,
the room where you stay
starts a new life
and the place where you wrote
your first poem
begins to glow in your mind’s eye.
It is as if gold has been discovered!
When someone deeply listens to you,
your bare feet are on the earth
and a beloved land that seemed distant
is now at home within you.