Revisiting Compassionate Listening

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In the two years since I first published a post on compassionate listening, I’ve had many opportunities, both personally and professionally, to experience how very essential to our wellbeing and our relationships compassionate listening truly is.

Whether our listening involves another person face to face, on the phone, or via text or email, or just watching a speaker on TV, we can miss a lot if we aren’t giving what we hear (or consume electronically) our full attention. True wisdom mandates we really attend to the other person openly, empathically and with kindness.

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I have encountered two more potential impediments to compassionate listening and both relate to aging that I experience in my work as a psychologist practicing psychotherapy. Because I’m now a Medicare provider in an area with fewer such providers, my psychotherapy practice embraces more older men and women than ever before. As I and those around me get older I’ve had many personal experiences with these listening impediments as well.

The first impediment is impaired hearing in which the listener mishears or fails to hear all our words and “fills in” what they think we said, sometimes getting it very wrong. Later someone one tells us emphatically that we said thus and so, perhaps something very contrary to our intent or even tragically so, creating a conflict we must now try to resolve, a potential distraction to the potentially sensitive work at hand. It can be extremely frustrating to both speaker and listener for the communication to break down simply because one or both parties can’t hear as well as they think they do. While it can be amusing, as the photo below illustrates, usually communication failure due to hearing problems is far from funny. It’s embarrassing and frustrating and interferes with friendly interactions.

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The second impediment is the increasingly frequent word-finding difficulty most older people experience. We all do this from time to time, and as we get older it happens with greater frequency. Speakers may pause as they search for certain words or familiar phrases, creating gaps in the narrative. A frustrated listener might quickly offer suggestions, and this can be perceived as a failure to respect the speaker’s competency or autonomy.

Another variation on the word-finding phenomenon is the speaker reaching into his or her vast vocabulary database, as it were, and pulling out a similar but incorrect word. image The similarity may be sound (e.g. tractor for factor). It may be the way the word begins or ends (shrimp for sharp), or relate in some other way we cannot fathom as the speaker struggles to get a point across. The listener then wonders what this is supposed to mean and may ask. The annoyed or frustrated response may follow, “You know what I mean!” Perhaps we do, but what if we don’t?

Compassionate listening involves seeing and feeling the struggle that others are experiencing and giving them time and space to find their way. If they grow silent with overwhelm or discouragement, or say, “Forget it!” we might ask, “Want me to try to help you with what you’re trying to say?” If they ask us to suggest a word, we should do so, but with the tentative deference suggesting we leave it to them to confirm or reject our suggestion. I find it helps to offer something like, “I’m having trouble hearing what you’re trying to say. My fault. Would you please try again?”

As we ourselves get older we probably will do the same sometimes. Our compassion for others with these difficulties will help us be compassionate towards ourselves if we fumble to express ourselves so that our listener understands. And if we have developed compassion towards ourselves by practicing Metta, or loving kindness, in our meditation practice as well as our daily interactions, we will naturally feel more compassion as we listen.

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Namasté

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What is Psychotherapy?

 

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My Manhattan office

In New York City where I practiced for over twenty years, it seemed as if everyone knew what psychotherapy is, even if they hadn’t ever experienced it personally. Occasionally I’d meet with an older patient whose primary physician or psychiatrist had referred them to me for treatment, and they’d say something like, “I don’t know why I’m here or what I’m supposed to do.” A discussion would follow, and soon we’d be “doing psychotherapy” every week. But many elderly people are psychotherapy-savvy, a case in point being a ninety year old woman in New York who had undergone a lengthy psychoanalysis fifty years before she came to me to address a current issue.

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The techniques I have employed throughout my career, including the newer ones I’ve learned along the way, offer the individual an opportunity to explore experiences and articulate thoughts and emotions never before expressed or if so only incompletely. When someone opens up aloud, insights and meanings often become more clear. I also use the session time to offer information, often referred to as psychoeducation, about the science and processes at work with emotion, cognition, memory, identity, consciousness, and perception. Sometimes I explain the mechanism by way certain medications work to alleviate symptoms and why sometimes they cause other problems.

Not long ago, I closed my New York office, after several years of careful planning and preparation, and opened an office in the college town of East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. I’m fortunate to work with an excellent psychiatrist who sometime refers patients to me, and I find myself explaining again just what psychotherapy is. In the early days, I devote session time to asking questions about the individual’s history, family of origin, and what brings them in. The answer to the latter often is simply, “The doctor said I should see you, so I’m here.” When someone relates certain problems, I will administer a questionnaire to clarify symptoms and experiences.

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So these days, I’m explaining psychotherapy a little more often, and helping shed a light on experiences that have baffled, frightened, confounded or annoyed my patients. I’m describing how certain medications treat depression and why they aren’t good for people with the mood swings of bipolar disorder. I’m cataloging symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and helping patients gauge how much those symptoms interfere with functioning and their overall quality of life. Sometimes just asking a question about obsessions triggers access to a deeper emotional issue never before spoken to another. As I was psychodynamically trained, I enjoy helping a patient explore a dream for its value in clarifying issues, past and current. I take my role as therapist and guide along this most challenging journey very seriously.

As we prepared to move out of New York, I considered retiring. For about five minutes. I got a late start on my career as a psychologist so there’s a practical, financial incentive to continue, but there’s an even more important reason I am still actively working as a clinical psychologist who provides psychotherapy: I love the work. I enjoy meeting new people and sitting down with them to see what we can do together to alleviate their distress, resolve their conflicts, arrive at healthier alternatives to their problematic habits and behaviors, and find greater and deeper meaning in their lives, both in terms of the past, the present, and into the future.

I find it to be a great blessing helping people traverse very intense points on their path, such as dating, marriage or divorce; pregnancy, miscarriage, or birth; seeking, losing, improving or getting new jobs; illness, accident, treatment, death and grief, and as the late death and dying pioneer Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross taught us, acceptance. Acceptance of what has been and of what is, even when we wish it were different. Acceptance of what we’ve done and who we are, and acceptance of our ability to learn and grow and change despite the past, even though it can be extremely challenging and a lot of hard work.

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I alway end these posts with the Sanskrit word namasté, which basically means, “The goodness in me bows to the goodness in you.” And so it is.

Namasté,

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Blogging as Sonnische: 2015 in review

WordPress is awesome! Easy to use and nice to look at. If you’ve thought about starting a blog of your own, I hope you will try WordPress. They really make blogging a snap. I write most of my posts on my iPad.

I received an email today giving my blog’s statistics, and I thought I’d share them here. Isn’t it curious that my post “The Joy of Aging” was my most well-received?

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WordPress says, “The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.”

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,600 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 27 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

The Joy of Aging

I’m not sure when it happened, but I have come to realize:

a) I’m not going to live forever

b) Getting older is okay, despite the obvious changes and challenges

c) I am starting to look like my mother when she got older, and earlier than she did

d) The sixties are definitely NOT the new forties, despite what we hear in the media

e) People don’t like to see you get older, especially your adult children

f) You really ARE what you eat, so choose it carefully (she wrote, scarfing down a vegan scone from Whole Foods)

So for a):

The Five Remembrances of the Buddha*

I am of the nature to grow old.
There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill-health.
There is no way to escape having ill-health.

I am of the nature to die.
There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love
are of the nature to change.
There is no way to escape being separated from them.

My actions are my only true belongings.
I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.
My actions are the ground on which I stand.

The Five Remembrances text comes from The Upajjhatthana Sutta (“Subjects for Contemplation”), the word for discourse in Pali is sutta, and in sanskrit is sutra) and this version has been offered by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. He elaborates on it in the Mindfulness Bell.
For b) I am becoming increasingly accepting that there are physical, cognitive, emotional and even spiritual implications to my growing old. Among other things, these are appearance, flexibility and mobility, various thought processes, access to memories and learned facts, patience, frustrations, insights and awareness, and on and on.

For c) I look more as my mom did when she was many years older than I am now. She’d had work done, plus she only stopped coloring her hair at 80. I wear a ring she wore all my life until the day she died, and when I look at my hand, I see her hand with its lines, spots, scars and arthritic knuckles, all of which I now have myself.

For d) The sixties are the sixties, not the forties, no matter how we wish it so, and with them, despite heroic efforts to prevent them, come sagging, stiffness and pain, slower movement, delayed reactions and recollections, arthritis and pinched nerves, cataracts and thinning retinas, and on and on. True, we can color our gray hair and have all sorts of work done, but these interventions are temporary at best and usually obvious to the discerning eye. The plumped lips, to me, are grotesque, and I will not opt for them or any other kind of work.

Which do you see here? A young, fashionable and confident girl or an old, gnarled crone? The eye truly is in the beholder! And if we see old when we are young that’s distortion. And when we see young when we are truly old, that’s distortion too. And when we feel pathetic but we are still alive, living and loving and struggling, that too is a distortion. We are still here!

For e) Our loved ones, clients and friends may have issues with us discussing our age or, worse, showing it. When we stop covering our gray hair, it may freak out our children, as it did mine. Using a cane will create alarm in almost everyone you run into when you’re using it. Going without makeup for a quick trip to the post office and running into a well-turned-out friend can be a source of alarm for both of you.

For f) We really are what we eat. What we put in any machine affects how it runs, just as when we put the right fuel in the car or truck, we get the best performance out of its engine. If we feed our machine refined and highly processed foods, it won’t run as well as if we feed it plenty of whole fruits and vegetables (especially the dark green, leafy ones), whole grains and foods made from them, beans (especially black beans), and nuts; and the research shows that people who eat meats five times a month or less live longest).

Some research into longevity in the Blue Zones (places in the world with the greatest longevity) offers us some wisdom we can use, so I hope you’ll click on the link to read about it.

Yes, there are joys to aging. I’m game. Are you? We can do this!

Brothers and sisters in suffering, old age, sickness and death, by Ajahn Sumedho

This piece by Ajahn Sumedho resonated with me just as Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh remains in a French hospital having suffered a brain hemorrhage. Suffering, old age, sickness and death are unavoidable, but joy and mindfulness and wisdom are still there for us. Letting go of the fear of these things is very liberating when we are able to accomplish it. And this for me is as impermanent as is all else. Therefore a daily practice is the only way I have a shot at it!

May all beings be free from suffering, and may all beings be at ease. And may our beloved Thay continue to regain health and strength.

Buddhism now

Buddha image. British MuseumThe Buddha pointed to an existential truth. It’s about existence. Suffering (dukkha) is about our human existence. And the actual meaning of `exist’ is to `stand forth’. What stands forth for us in our lives is suffering, isn’t it? We suffer a lot. We have a lot of existential suffering on this journey that we’re involved in from birth to death. And this suffering is common to every human being. It’s not just certain ones — it’s not just the poor, or just men or just women, or just Europeans or Africans or Asians — it’s everyone from the beginning of the human race, and will be to the end of it. As long as there’s ignorance, there’s going to be suffering. So this is a common experience we all share. When we talk about suffering, we don’t say, `I believe in it,’ or `I don’t believe…

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We need to put ourselves into perspective, by Ajahn Sumedho

It is so interesting to me that just when I am struggling with something, someone or something brings me the opportunity for insight I seek. Such it was when I read this post by Ajahn Sumedho. I have such gratitude that I can simply accept the process that I am experiencing in this transitory human life, without judgment, without urgency or anxiety. This life is difficult, and seemingly more so for some than for others. But it ends the same for us all eventually. Namaste.

Buddhism now

Photo by Lisa Daix mustang 2011We can use our thoughts — not in order to make decisions, or to take positions, but in order to bring into consciousness the way things are, the way of our own existence on planet Earth as human beings. Using thoughtful reflection helps us to be intuitive, to observe and to accept. If we don’t develop this ability, we end up making very harsh value judgements about ourselves and the world. This makes us insensitive and harsh, and we become unable to understand things. We get the feeling that there’s nothing we can do, and we feel depressed and helpless.

In the modern Western world, we seem to have developed to a very high level this ability to see what is wrong. And it’s turning against us. We are destroying ourselves. We are unable to enjoy our lives, or experience joy. From reading the newspapers, one gets the impression that…

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