On Compassionate Listening and Loving Speech

May 20, 2021

As prac­ti­tio­ner of non­vio­lent com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on, I feel great­ly inspi­red by the approach to com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on pro­po­sed in the Buddhist tra­di­ti­on of “Plum Village”. Please find at the end of this pos­ting a Dharma talk that speaks to this approach in more depth. 

First I want to share here the text on loving speech and deep (com­pas­sio­na­te) lis­tening, known as the fourth of the five mindful­ness practices:

Loving Speech and Deep Listening

Aware of the suf­fe­ring cau­sed by unmindful speech and the ina­bi­li­ty to lis­ten to others, I am com­mit­ted to cul­ti­vat­ing loving speech and com­pas­sio­na­te lis­tening in order to reli­e­ve suf­fe­ring and to pro­mo­te recon­ci­lia­ti­on and peace in mys­elf and among other peo­p­le, eth­nic and reli­gious groups, and nati­ons. Knowing that words can crea­te hap­pi­ness or suf­fe­ring, I am com­mit­ted to spea­king truthful­ly using words that inspi­re con­fi­dence, joy, and hope. When anger is mani­fest­ing in me, I am deter­mi­ned not to speak. I will prac­ti­ce mindful breathing and wal­king in order to reco­gni­ze and to look deep­ly into my anger. I know that the roots of anger can be found in my wrong per­cep­ti­ons and lack of under­stan­ding of the suf­fe­ring in mys­elf and in the other per­son. I will speak and lis­ten in a way that can help mys­elf and the other per­son to trans­form suf­fe­ring and see the way out of dif­fi­cult situa­tions. I am deter­mi­ned not to spread news that I do not know to be cer­tain and not to utter words that can cau­se divi­si­on or dis­cord. I will prac­ti­ce Right Diligence to nou­rish my capa­ci­ty for under­stan­ding, love, joy, and inclu­si­ve­ness, and gra­du­al­ly trans­form anger, vio­lence, and fear that lie deep in my consciousness.

The core method that I see being employ­ed is set­ting a clear inten­ti­on - how we wish to impact when we speak — and con­cen­tra­ti­on plus deep loo­king — also known as the prac­ti­ce of mindful­ness — in order to con­nect to the deep roots of inten­se fee­lings such as fear, despe­ra­ti­on, anger, grief and more. The prac­ti­ce also includes con­nec­ting to joyful fee­lings in that way, in order to nou­rish our­sel­ves for the more dif­fi­cult moments of hol­ding the suf­fe­ring insi­de of us with care. 

Over time we can increase our capa­ci­ty to hold and embrace our own expe­ri­ence, wit­hout run­ning away from it, wit­hout igno­ring it, wit­hout try­ing to down­play it, wit­hout being over­whel­med by it. All of tho­se ways of deal­ing with pain are habi­tu­al and we can find them insi­de of us. It takes time to noti­ce tho­se ten­den­ci­es and to start a con­ver­sa­ti­on insi­de of us, in order to speak to the fear behind such non-empa­thic stra­te­gies. “Are you sens­ing fear, when you hear that … ?” Or it could be just silent empa­thy towards our­sel­ves: “I noti­ce my run­ning away kind of thin­king, I feel the fear insi­de of me.” And just be with that for a moment, brea­the and be with it.

All of this hap­pens while we inten­tio­nal­ly sit and brea­the mindful­ly, while we inten­tio­nal­ly walk and brea­the mindful­ly or while we do any other acti­vi­ty and brea­the mindful­ly. Standing mindful­ly, eating mindful­ly, doing any­thing mindful­ly. I guess for most of us lay peo­p­le a first step would be to take time for one hour a day to brea­the mindful­ly or to intro­du­ce cer­tain anchor moments, to brea­the mindfully. 

We use our breathing as an anchor, we noti­ce when we lose con­cen­tra­ti­on on the breathing becau­se a thought aro­se and car­ri­ed us away, beco­me awa­re what the thought is that we try to run away with (noti­ce), feel into the ener­gy of the thought and then gent­ly return to breathing — prac­ti­ce this being the­re for our­sel­ves, bey­ond judgment and bla­me — dili­gent­ly moment by moment, day by day.

This prac­ti­ce helps us — as I see it — to res­to­re com­pas­sio­na­te com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on within our­sel­ves.

As a prac­ti­tio­ner of NVC I some­ti­mes also offer mys­elf empa­thy within this mindful­ness prac­ti­ce, to guess my fee­lings and needs when I noti­ce bla­me. “When you think that you are stu­pid, are you lon­ging for more awa­re­ness?” Hearing my own curious ques­ti­on, I could then brea­the and sen­se into my expe­ri­ence and report what I am fin­ding to that curious open-hear­ted part within mys­elf. This approach gra­du­al­ly builds a more peaceful cul­tu­re insi­de of mys­elf. I like this pos­si­bi­li­ty of exten­ding my practice.

Opening our heart for our expe­ri­ence — first insi­de ourselves. 

The more suf­fe­ring we car­ry insi­de of our­sel­ves, the more we can even­tual­ly also help others. I remem­ber Sister Dang Nghiem — also know as the “hea­ler” — sha­ring how Thich Nhat Hanh told her: “Practice, my dear, you will be able to help many peo­p­le.” when she beca­me a novice. She car­ri­ed deep trau­ma and suf­fe­ring insi­de of her and he noti­ced it right away. And now, many years later, she has inde­ed the capa­ci­ty to help many people. 

If we have not trans­for­med a par­ti­cu­lar kind of suf­fe­ring insi­de of us, we can­not help others with that suf­fe­ring. Hearing about their suf­fe­ring, our own suf­fe­ring will get sti­mu­la­ted and then two peo­p­le are suf­fe­ring. That can look like sym­pa­thy or like sha­ring judgments with each other. At first plea­sant per­haps, for not fee­ling so alo­ne, this may actual­ly sup­port our belie­ving in our own judgments, making the walls of the pri­son thi­c­ker and sha­ring it with a fri­end of fate.

A com­pas­sio­na­te com­mu­ni­ty (Sangha) may also sup­port us in the prac­ti­ce of lear­ning to be the­re for our­sel­ves. Others who have been prac­ti­cing with them­sel­ves for some­time can help us, when they lis­ten to us with this open heart and wit­hout bla­me or judgment. Practitioners of non­vio­lent com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on usual­ly have found the­re deep need for having a net­work of empa­thy bud­dies or for having a com­mu­ni­ty that sup­ports the flow of com­pas­si­on. We can always offer to do our best to be the­re for someone, to lis­ten to them with an open heart, just being the­re and offer our full pre­sence. Our abili­ty to be pre­sent for others is rela­ted to our abili­ty to be available for ourselves. 

Eventually we can try to extend this prac­ti­ce to res­to­re com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on with signi­fi­cant others or get out into the world to help others, whe­re com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on has bro­ken down. There are two won­derful examp­les of this in the talk.

I enjoy­ed the ener­gy and cla­ri­ty of this Dharma talk and I hope you will enjoy it too.