Thoughts on Listening

Very unoriginal this month, I fear. I’ve been giving a great deal of thought recently to the overwhelming lack of polite discourse (particularly political, but not limited to politics), and it’s disturbing how we seem to have stopped listening (or only listening long enough to get our own point across). That (very human) tendency only serves to further divide, and makes compassion difficult, and empathy all but impossible. Rather than re-inventing the wheel, I’ve dusted off my August 2015 themed post on Listening. Instead of listening to find an opening for a response, think of how much better off we’d be if we simply listened, and really thought before responding – or realized that sometimes no response is necessary.

“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”

— Anonymous (but with many unconfirmed attributions to Robert McClosky – not the children’s author, a State Department spokesman during the Vietnamese War in the late 1960’s)

When I first started planning what to write for this month’s  #1000Speak post on listening, the quote above popped into my head. An old favorite from my youth (I think I may have first encountered it in an Art Buchwald column at the time). It is, perhaps, not entirely in line with the compassion theme, but it serves to start off with a reminder that we often hear the words and not the intent, and in order to listen compassionately, we have to move beyond our natural tendency toward distracted listening.

The next thing that popped into my head, and stayed there for days (oh, those pesky earworms) was Cat Stevens’ highly introspective, and very short, song, “The Wind”:

“I listen to the wind
To the wind of my soul
Where I’ll end up, well, I think
Only God really knows”

This is also, perhaps, not entirely relevant to a piece on compassionate listening, but it, too, has its place. Compassion has to start within us. And learning to be still and listen to ourselves will bring us closer to being able to do the same for others. It is true that if we are not listening to ourselves mindfully, and with compassion, we will never be able to listen to others compassionately. It sounds trite, but we have to understand ourselves before we can understand others. So, listen to that voice in your head, and occasionally the one in your heart, so that you can find your own equilibrium. That makes is much easier to simply live in a world inhabited by other people, and makes it possible to reach out. With a helping hand, or to take one.

“Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present, and that takes practice, but we don’t have to do anything else. We don’t have to advise, or coach, or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen.”

— Margaret J. Wheatley

Hearing is passive, listening is active. We hear an overwhleming amount all day long. Those of us capable of hearing, are also incapable of turning it off. We are, in fact, bombarded by sounds, all of the time. Our brains, helpfully, do block out ‘normal’ sounds while we sleep – so that we can sleep – and they also filter sounds, in much the same way that they filter abundant visual stimulation, by deciding what’s relevant, and dialing back what isn’t (or hopefully isn’t).

Unfortunately, we filter quite a bit, unconsciously, while listening, also. This is very apparent when we listen while doing other things – we get distracted by email while on a conference call, or we are attempting to eat dinner while chatting with a friend on the phone, or we are trying to read while our children are talking to us about something that we have minimal interest in, or… There a veritable multitude that I’m guilty of and I know I’m not alone. Suddenly I realize that I have absolutely no idea what we are talking about – let alone why my opinion is necessary.

“So when you are listening to somebody, completely, attentively, then you are listening not only to the words, but also to the feeling of what is being conveyed, to the whole of it, not part of it.”

— Jiddu Krishnamurti

When we attempt to listen while doing other tasks, we often miss the intent, if not the actual words. When someone tells us they are tired, it could be simply a factual observation. Or it could mean that they’re bored (a common problem with teens). Or it could be indicative of an existential crisis. Or depression. Unless we are really listening – to the words as well as the tone, the underlying emotion – we may miss something important. Perhaps even an attempt to reach out.

“Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings. The beauty of listening is that, those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you.”
— Henri J.M. Nouwen

But, we have another, more difficult, problem when listening. Part of our brain’s filtering, categorizing, and self-protective functions, includes keeping ‘me’ front and center. Even when we are listening attentively, we are still hearing through our own filters – our own experiences, prejudices, belief system. A co-worker’s spouse has gout? How did your Aunt Jane deal with hers? We are often listening more with an ear out for how to respond. Even if our intent is sympathy, understanding, common ground, it is still making the listening about us, not about the person we’re listening to. Many times all that is needed is someone to listen. Not to offer advice, not to commiserate. Just to listen. This is perhaps hardest of all. Part of our desire to connect leads us to seek out a common thread that we can respond with, but that comes from our own desire. Ask if there’s anything we can do, if that’s appropriate, and sincere, but don’t preface the offer with a commentary about Aunt Jane’s gout, or your problems with morning sickness during your second trimester.

Don’t multi-task, try to take your own experiences out of the equation, and just listen. Something that is increasingly difficult to do in our highly electronic, multi-tasking oriented world, but it is necessary to try as we continue our efforts to make our corner of the universe a better, more compassionate place.

“The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

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“Simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.”

— Lao Tzu

As expected, a weekend of visitors – some expected, some not – has left me, late on a Sunday, unprepared, and so this post isn’t quite what I’d had in my head, but no matter – I will eventually get caught up, and get this month’s #1000Speak post written, and possibly some others that are floating around my head.

And so, I am instead sharing these words of wisdom from the Tao Te Ching as a reminder to myself that everything will be fine as long as I don’t get caught up in what is not fine now.

Thoughts on Compassion and the Dying

I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to death, and the process of dying, recently. Not in any sort of morbid, depressing way, but because death is, quite basically, a part of life –  and as we age, as our families and friends age, and as disease strikes, we are often left floundering when confronted with the inevitability of death. We don’t know what to say, what to do. Quite simply we don’t know how we are supposed to act.

Those of you that read my blog semi-regularly know that my, still mentally alert, nonagenarian mother-in-law passed away last year, after a year of her body slowly failing. We all knew the end was coming, and she had long accepted it (welcomed it, even). Time spent with her in the last year, and also in the preceding years, was primarily for sharing happy memories and sharing our lives and those of our children (and in some cases, their children). Although not a terminal illness, the realities of living to a very old age allowed for mentally preparing for what would come – and it allowed us all to enjoy the time we had left together.

Age combined with natural causes is ‘normal’ – on some level all of us realize that our time is finite – our bodies will eventually give out. There are even theories that we all have our own unique, genetic, ‘expiration dates’, as it were, even though we do not know how to decode them. But terminal illnesses, especially when they strike well before advanced old age, are far more complicated for us to process. With three recent cancer-related deaths of friends – one my age, one younger, one older – I’ve been doing a bit of processing myself.

In her groundbreaking 1969 book, On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross first laid out the 5 Stages of Grief. She posited that people commonly experienced most of these stages when confronted by a terminal diagnosis – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. This process is now widely accepted to also be experienced by those coping with the loss of a loved one, or other types of grief. And we do begin the grieving process with the diagnosis that the end is near. Although part of our own grieving may be the hunt for the often elusive ‘closure’.

The concept of closure, from an overly-broad psychological perspective, is defined by the degree to which an individual avoids ambiguity and needs well-defined – and clear – outcomes. There is even a scale used to determine an individual’s need for cognitive closure. In recent years, however, there has been a ‘pop psychology’ type of belief which promotes closure as something that is needed, and to be expected, when endings come. Always. But perhaps it shouldn’t always be. I was surprised several years ago when a coworker’s spouse unexpectedly died during a chemotherapy session, and he mentioned to me when he returned to work that it was the lack of closure that he was having trouble dealing with – the things left unsettled and unsaid. And I understood, sudden death is always very hard – we are never prepared – but what surprised me was that he contrasted that with the death of his nonagenarian father. His father had slowly ebbed away over a two week period, and during that time, my coworker felt that he was able to resolve things with his father, and in that respect he was ready to accept his death. That notion always disturbed me a bit – surely the compassionate thing to do is not to look for resolutions to your own inner issues from someone grappling with the far more traumatic knowledge of their own imminent demise? I recognize that part of coming to terms with imminent death for some people may be by seeking closure with those closest to them, but that decision should be theirs to make.

Shortly before my third friend was diagnosed (his was a late diagnosis and a very rapid decline), I came across an article on Next Avenue that discussed the same subject with much the same conclusion – it is better to appreciate the bonds that tie you together and love that you share, than to try to clear any historical grievances. Few people really achieve the magical clearing of the air that they are looking for, and really, isn’t the important part trying to ease the worry that the one that is dying has for those about to be left behind? My own experience has been that telling stories when they are unable to talk much, letting them direct the conversation when they are, is a much better, and kinder thing to do. Saying a final good-by is never easy, but when we have the opportunity, we should use it selflessly.

“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to.”
― Elisabeth Kübler-Ross


Thoughts on Compassion – and why it matters

A bit late this month with my monthly #1000Speak post (no linkup or theme this month) & not at all original – this post was originally published in December 2015. But It still holds meaning for me.

“A movement is only composed of people moving. To feel its warmth and motion around us is the end as well as the means.”

— Gloria Steinem

As I was finishing getting my thoughts organized for this month’s #1000Speak post, Yvonne’s post with the monthly linkup hit my inbox. So as I finally begin putting this together, I’m also reflecting a bit about the the past near-year that I’ve been involved.

When I’d first heard about this, I thought it was a wonderful idea – no, I did not expect that the world was going to change. I knew it wouldn’t – that takes many more people, and much more time, but you have to start somewhere. And the best, in fact, only, place to start is with yourself and your own corner of the universe. No matter how much we may think otherwise, everything we say and do has an impact on those around us. Sometimes intentionally, most times not. Sometimes the impact is direct, sometimes not. But when we are compassionate, or at least kind, most others will pass that positive feeling or action along to those that they come into contact with – in the same way that our rudeness or carelessness can negatively impact someone else’s day. Or someone else’s thoughtlessness can ruin our day – especially if we we are dealing with our own challenges. Everyone has challenges of their own to work through, and they are not always obvious, so part of being a good human is to be mindful of other people. All of the time.

I still think it’s a wonderful – an important – idea. Not only has it given me the opportunity to share my own thoughts with a wider community, but it’s provided me with perspectives, and individual stories, that I would otherwise have missed. It’s also helped me to focus my thoughts on what it means to be human, and perhaps has kept me more aware of my own words and actions, and the impact that they can have.

Humans are social creatures. We need other humans – and their interactions with us are critical to our own well-being. Just as we are to theirs. Yes, we are highly individualized and do not function as a hive (although mob actions may sometimes make it seem so), but that does not mean we can discount the crucial fact that we need society. And it also needs us, or the social compact fails.

Human societies have historically formed in order to protect and support it members. The nuclear family is the initial society, the extended family the next level. Eventually we find others outside the family unit but still like us that can supply us with food, shelter, protection from outsiders. Expanded, these become the states and nations where we live, or where our roots lie. Within these, and frequently moving beyond, we also affiliate ourselves with others through our religion beliefs, our genders, our race and ethnicity, our hobbies, our interests, or anything else that means much to us, and fulfills our basic need for someone to share with. Someone to identify with. Someone to understand.

But since societies exist for the benefit of all members, we have obligations to the group, and we have rules that need to be followed. Legal, societal, religious – whatever their source in our lives, each group has rules defined in order to keep order, provide for the common good, and keep the group protected. Living with those rules require us to give up some individual rights, or to limit others, because the entire point of a community is the benefit to the majority.

Over time – millennia, in fact – the base communities that formed undergo changes. People move – for trade, for food, for a more hospitable climate – and the outsiders integrated with their new community, sometimes not so smoothly, and the community, as a living organism, adapts itself to these changes. Assimilation for the newcomers, yes, but also adaptations in the old guard to fully integrate the newcomers.And many times the newcomers became the dominate culture, and rules and expectations changed – perhaps not always for the better. But, through it all, humanity survived. Flourished, actually. And still we moved, conquered, assimilated, and endured. We are likely to continue doing all of the above as long as their is life on this planet. But the world has gradually become smaller in a very real sense – transportation and communication have improved that our movement, and our information flow has reached ever-increasing speeds, at the same time that population has increased, and there are fewer uncharted territories. So, then, all movement now tends to be to areas already populated, sometimes densely so. For those regions have available jobs, relative tranquility, relative prosperity. We move seeking more opportunity, or simply to flee an untenable situation at home. We do this locally – within our own borders, and in too many case, we do so globally – to new nations that are not suffering drought, famine, war. And our very human desire to close ranks and keep the outsiders on the outside is in conflict with our equally basic human need to connect, to reach out, to care. And for many, that internal conflict inexplicably causes us to close ourselves in tighter.

I don’t have answers – I wish I did. Like most of us, I understand the complex, and not so complex, reason why we behave as we do. But I do firmly believe that we each have the capacity to do good in small, localized ways, and that those acts of kindness and compassion do ripple out outward. And if enough of us continue in that vein, knowing that we are not alone in our endeavors, that slowly we can begin to change things – one small piece of the universe at a time.

“It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

— Robert F. Kennedy












Thoughts on happiness, compassion and where we are

Originally prosed March 20, 2016 for 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion & the monthly topic of Happiness- now seems like a good time to dust it off.  Have a peaceful weekend.

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
― Dalai Lama XIV

When my thoughts go to the subject of happiness within the context of compassion, it is perhaps not surprising that Buddhism is the first place I turn – and in particular, to the current Dalai Lama.

The key to being happy lies in recognizing, and truly coming to live with the reality, that happiness doesn’t come from things. Things are impermanent, and if they are what makes us happy, then we will no longer be happy when they are gone. Although certainly, being human, things, and people, and situations will bring us transitory happiness – and they should. Emotions – positive and negative – are part of what makes us who we are. And how we handle those emotions are another important part of our coping mechanisms and our ability to live with ourselves and with others.

But achieving a more general state of contentment comes from within ourselves. And like compassion itself, this is something we need to learn and develop for ourselves.

“Every day, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to be alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others; to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry or think badly about others. I am going to benefit others as much as I can.”

― Dalai Lama XIV

Somehow the world now seems an angry place – I know the US is not alone with that. I can see it in election results and campaign rhetoric around the globe. Our shrinking planet, and our ability to communicate instantly, everywhere, should have made it possible for us to see how we are all essentially alike, but instead it seems to have accentuated the differences, and stoked the fears. Perhaps the pace has been too quick for many. I’d always though that the world of my grandparents was the most astonishing time – horses and no refrigeration to moonwalks, technicolor and the Internet. And I’m awed that my own children seemed born with an innate understanding of technology. But I look at the strongest supporters of some of the most hateful rhetoric – not the fringe groups for they will always find someone to hate – and I see members of my own generation, and those that fall into the gap between my parents’ generation and my own, and I realize that the world has changed beyond recognition for them as well. This is certainly not the world we grew up in – the one that we think we remember (nostalgia is funny that way and the past was seldom what we remembered it as being), and as we age, we are railing against our own impending obsolescence. And the Internet has made it possible for conspiracy theories to spread farther faster, and to live on (and on). And the generation that advised itself never to trust anyone over 30, and to fear the government, has lived well past 30, and in many cases still cannot manage to believe anything that anyone in authority says. We have, in some ways, been victimized by our selves. We are acting out our own self-fulfilling prophesy.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We all have a choice – in what we choose to believe, and how we choose to respond to what we disagree with. Although this piece has evolved into a darker piece than I’d intended, my overall thinking is actually positive. I do believe that each of us, in our own small way, has the capacity to positively impact our our corner of the universe – beginning with ourselves, and spreading out in ripples to our our families, friends, coworkers, and even strangers whose lives we touch on a daily basis. And that we as humans instinctively pay that positivity forward. As Gloria Steinem once noted “a movement is only people moving”. And that is how the momentum builds. Our positive momentum truly can act as a counterbalance to the negative momentum that is propelling some politicians forward. And that positive momentum has to start internally – once we find our own inner balance and related happiness, we are better able to radiate it outward.

“If we think only of ourselves, forget about other people, then our minds occupy very small area. Inside that small area, even tiny problem appears very big. But the moment you develop a sense of concern for others, you realize that, just like ourselves, they also want happiness; they also want satisfaction. When you have this sense of concern, your mind automatically widens. At this point, your own problems, even big problems, will not be so significant. The result? Big increase in peace of mind. So, if you think only of yourself, only your own happiness, the result is actually less happiness. You get more anxiety, more fear.”
― Dalai Lama XIV

In that spirit, I turn back to the Tao, and one of my favorite writings – and the reminder that it all starts within:

“If there is to be peace in the world,
There must be peace in the nations.
If there is to be peace in the nations,
There must be peace in the cities.
If there is to be peace in the cities,
There must be peace between neighbors.
If there is to be peace between neighbors,
There must be peace in the home.
If there is to be peace in the home,
There must be peace in the heart.”
― Lao Tzu

And then I turn to the modern troubadour – Donovan – and leave you with “Happiness Runs.” Perhaps not so profound – but definitely in the right spirit.

“Happiness runs in a circular motion
Thought is like a little boat upon the sea
Everybody is a part of everything anyway
You can have everything if you let yourself be”