A to Z Challenge: B is for Bluets

IMG_0291

 

Made with Repix (http://repix.it)

B is for bluets. These bluets are tiny, pale, four-lobed flowers that come up in the spring. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin tells us that these flowers grow in part shade in small patches, as these are. They are perennials, of the madder family, Rubiaceae. The Latin name is Houstonia caerulea, and they are also known as azure bluets and as Quaker ladies (it is thought because of their pale, purplish blue, reminiscent of the color of the hats Quaker ladies were often seen to wear).

Bluets bloom in spring and early summer in the US from Georgia to Maine and in eastern Canada. They can be sown by seed and cultivated, and are often featured in rock gardens. I found these tiny bluets in the grassy verge by the road to our lake in a patch of dappled sun. Their fragile beauty is a reminder of the nature of impermanence to which we are all subject. Savoring moments of joy in our day helps us stay in the now and have gratitude for the life force within us.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I decided to take the A to Z Photo Challenge around my little town of Pocono Pines, Pennsylvania. We’ve had a home here for over 10 years, and taking this challenge is offering me the opportunity to get to know it even better than I have. I hope you will enjoy this photo journey as much as I do!

Being quiet and listening

IMG_0283

Recolor design colored by Shielagh

Good morning! As I savor my morning coffee each day I read the daily quotations curated by Karl Duffy of Mindful Balance. I highly recommend subscribing to Karl’s blog so that you too can start your day with these words of wisdom. Some are from the ancient ones, while some, as is today’s, are modern quotes. All give us a positive thought to augment any practice.

Today’s quote is brief and very much to the point:

Everything that happens to you is your teacher…

the secret is to learn to sit at the feet of your own life and be taught by it.

Polly Berrien Berends, US author

Please click on the link below to read it on Karl’s blog today with the comments added by his many readers and consider subscribing to his blog so you can enjoy it every day.

Source: Being quiet and listening

Daruma or Bodhidharma: Early Zen Master

image

This craggy early Zen Master, known as Daruma in Japan and Bodhidarma elsewhere in the Buddhist world, has been immortalized by Zen scholar Hakuin.

Learn more about the gifted monastic artist who painted Daruma and other Buddhist figures many times during his 15 years of artistic expression in this post at Buddhism Now https://buddhismnow.com/2016/05/01/the-sound-of-one-hand-paintings-and-calligraphy-by-zen-master-hakuin/

In the accompanying video at Buddhism Now and produced by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), curator Rob Singer gives the background and context of the artist Hakuin.

Namasté

IMG_0154

Many Changes, Most Good, Some Hard

do it now

We are relocating, sort of. We are transitioning from Brooklyn, New York part time to northeastern Pennsylvania full time. To say this is a challenge, a monumental adjustment, would be an understatement. This moving is a huge challenge, even though the apartment has been sold furnished, as we strain every muscle, mental as well as physical. Living nearly 25 years in one small city apartment, it would seem a cinch for us to pack up our gear and go. Not so. Stuff hides behind every closet and cupboard door, cubbyhole and forgotten cache spot. We probably put this off too long, but ever since we went into contract we’ve boxed, stuffed, toted, schlepped, donated, discarded and given away a ton of stuff. Nearly all of it carried down three flights of stairs ourselves. Maybe our “never” was we thought we’d never move. Or we thought it would never be this hard, or we never considered the result of bringing new stuff home.

It is really freeing to get rid of excess belongings. The issue was having double of almost everything to make shuttling back and forth the 100 miles or so every week less daunting. So we’ve made at least one and often more trips to the Salvation Army with shoes, clothing, dishes and kitchenware, and other assorted stuff we don’t need. Then there is the quandry of whether or not to keep any winter things. We both elected to keep some winter boots and outerwear, just in case we get surprised by an early snowstorm before heading to our winter snowbird nest, or a late one after we return.

925bundlesku

Earlier this year–or was it late last year?–I ordered an assortment of heirloom seeds from the Grommet, produced by the Hudson Valley Seed Library, a small business devoted to preserving and proliferating the wonderful, flavorful heirloom plants as they were before hybridization and genetic modification “improved” them for us. They are awesome seeds, and I can’t wait to see what they yield for me, a gardener who has relied on garden store seedlings for years. I bought seeds for Cherokee Purple Heirloom Tomato, Swiss Chard, Italian Parsley, Basil and Scallions. I planted them last weekend in my 4′ x 8′ raised bed plot in our community garden. I also planted a couple of big tomato plants from the nursery near us to get a start on this process. There’s nothing tastier than homegrown tomatoes!

Made with Repix (http://repix.it)

Made with Repix (http://repix.it)

I am opening a new, spacious psychotherapy office next month in the college town of East Stroudsburg, with Pocono Psychiatric Associates. I plan to offer groups once I get settled. This is awesome and very exciting for me,  especially as one who has paid an arm and a leg and another arm for a very small, high-floor Manhattan office that could barely fit me, a client and one other person. The people there are wonderful and I welcome this new phase of my career. Challenges are terminating with clients I will sorely miss, getting my Medicare provider credentials set up for Pennsylvania, changing my address with a myriad of business and personal correspondence entities, and dealing with people who don’t handle change very well. Even if it is wonderful and exciting.Talking to myself here, too.

unknown-1

 

On a brighter note, our local seasonal local ice cream stand has dairy-free vanilla soft-serve this year! How cool is that? I had my first dipped vanilla cone in over 5 years last weekend. I’ve been vegan at least that long, imperfect but sincere. And they offer some 24 different flavors that can be added to it. I can see have some tasty work ahead of me!

So out goes the old, mingled with the newer, in with the fresh, and learning new things every single day! Today it was figuring out how to send a fax from home, not an intuitive effort when the phone line is part of the cable package. It’s raining like cats and dogs, as per usual at this time of year. For the second year in a row, the opening events of the tennis season here have been postponed, leaving game-hungry tennis bums thoroughly bummed.

So just one more challenging change. Blue highlights!

IMG_0011 (Edited)

 

Namasté

IMG_0154

They are Everywhere

UPDATE: I just reread this post after more than two years. It merits sharing again, especially in this new, frightening climate of political extremism and the threat of diminishing entitlements for those who need them most. — Shielagh 2/23/17

They are everywhere. 

The Four Noble Truths: – The truth of suffering – The truth of the origin of suffering – The truth of the end of suffering – The truth of the path to the end of suffering

 

I cannot help but see how they suffer. I am not sure what the blessing is in suffering through homelessness and hopelessness. I see them on the subway, asking for money, food, Metrocards, help, hope. I see them sleeping in corners and in doorways, laid out awkwardly across subway platform benches that are uncomfortably partitioned for four. I see them at the end of subway cars, sleeping or pretending to sleep, surrounded by bulging bags of their things, some with a plastic hospital bracelet on one wrist. Flip flops in winter, dirty feet in slippers or worn-out shoes, sometimes in wooden surgical boots. Reddened, swollen ankles blotched and shiny with edema. Often and more now than before, I see well-groomed men sitting behind polite cardboard signs asking for compassion, for a hand up, bus fare home, a meal, as they read a book or magazine, avoiding eye contact. Groups of grimy kids sleeping on cardboard with dogs or cats, their cardboard signs asking for money for food or a hotel room before the next storm hits. I see the long, matted blond dreadlocks about begrimed, drawn faces of kids young enough to be my grandchildren, skateboards under arms and sleeping bags and backpacks weighing them down as they move from place to place, rousted by police or in search of something much needed right then. I see the African hair, wild and long, grizzled into shaggy beards framing dark, dusty faces. I’ve seen men and women, in couples and alone, sleeping against buildings in midmorning in mummy bags or bedrolls, their things in bags about them, the smell of old urine strong by the nearby broken payphone enclosure. Once I looked up from my own thoughts to see an old woman defecating into a plastic bag between the bike rack and the litter can by a busy intersection downtown. I didn’t want to see. I felt her suffering, a reality that seemed to say, there is nowhere else for me to go.

Made with Repix (http://repix.it)

Homeless man on the F train

I see the bloody socks, the bandaged hands, the haunted faces, the vacant eyes. I see the plastic rosary beads around scrawny necks, the cigarettes, the brown-bagged cans and bottles, the battered paper coffee cups hopeful for change. I hear the  guitarist on the subway platform singing a Neil Young song as tenderly and tunefully as Neil himself. I watch as passersby waiting for their train or heading towards the stairs drop a dollar into the guitar case, or hurry by unaware of the fragile life of the man behind the instrument. I have seen him for at least ten years now. He no longer has teeth. I have given many dollar bills over those years. Once he stood near the stairs crying and asking if anyone could help him get new guitar strings before the music store closed, saying someone had damaged his guitar at the hospital. I gave him a five and told another woman who stopped, looking worried, that he sings as beautifully as Neil Young. He was too upset to respond and kept weeping. There is something very broken in him now, because between his haunting songs he sometime yells and screams at no one in particular about world injustices, thoughtless people, all the “motherfuckers” and “assholes,” whoever and wherever they may be. I am sure he suffers greatly.

I hear the crazy rants, the anger, the fear, the hopelessness, and see the dirt, the empty eyes, the pathos written all over the faces. I used to tell myself they were students in a sociology class, running experiments to see how others react to homelessness, poverty, need and hopelessness.  It’s been a very long time since I comforted myself with that fantasy. I know there are police patrols and pairs of homeless workers who travel these streets to see who needs help, but many withdraw from them and are not seen. When winter comes and rough weather prevails, vans traverse our streets with workers trying to get homeless men and women into shelters for the night. Places they’d rather die than go, mostly. Addictions, experiences being robbed, histories of abuse, compounded fear and layers of hopelessness scare them away from shelter and often from helping hands up and out of their despair. Such suffering.

I hear the pleas on the subway cars as we rattle between Manhattan and Brooklyn, from the tall man in fatigues asking, “Can you help a homeless Veteran?” From a small dark-eyed woman with a large child on her hip, both with doleful expressions, who stands in front of each passenger holding a sign that says, “I am deaf and mute. We need food. Can you help us?” And the young woman with several children in tow, repeating the length of the car, “My house burned down, we have nothing. My children and I are homeless, can you help?” Sometimes while the person is traversing the car, an announcement comes over the loudspeaker reminding us that it is against the law to solicit on the subway. “Ladies and gentlemen soliciting money in the subway is illegal,” it drones. Ignore the suffering, it suggests. Others will see to it.

I don’t always, but I’ve offered what I can, a Metrocard with a few trips left on it, a little money, a protein bar, a sandwich, dog or cat food for a homeless person’s animal companion. And when money or food or something else is offered, they nod and sometimes say, “Thank you.” “God bless you.” “You are very kind.” And when nothing is offered and they stand at the doors as the train comes to a stop, I’ve heard, “You folks have a good day now.” “Hope you never know how hard this is,” and “God bless you.”  And then there was the weather-beaten old woman I once offered a plastic container of holiday cookies that I’d planned to share at the office. She screamed at me incomprehensibly and batted away my offering with as much force and rage as if I’d pulled a knife.

They tear at my heartstrings, and their suffering fills me with fear from depths unknown, fear of destitution and homelessness, fear of extreme isolation and loneliness, fear of rejection, fear of untreated mental illness, fear of surrender to hopelessness, fear of losing faith in my ability to manage, fear of losing the belief I will be taken care of if ever I cannot take care of myself, fear of giving up and giving in to addiction, fear of illness and parasites and dirt. Fear of growing into very old age alone and defenseless, of outliving savings. And my practice has taught me that it is out of fear that aversion grows. Every day I aspire to be free from aversion, attachment and indifference. I am learning to see past fear and into fellow beings, beings whose lives are as transitory as my own, to see their suffering, to have compassion, and to remember that within each of them learning and growing and karma are also taking place.

So I read every single day, and recite aloud most days, the Buddhist text of the Metta Sutta. I often read it in the morning during my subway ride. My version says, “Let none deceive another or despise any being in any state,” to despise no beings–none, to have loving kindness for all, no matter how small or great, no matter the circumstances. To love each being, human and otherwise, “freed from hatred and ill-will,” to love them all dearly, as a mother loves her only child. How difficult this is to do, and yet how important it is to try.

And today this is my practice.

Namaste

 IMG_0154

The Heart Sutra

 

 

 

 

 

 

We can invite the right spiritual energy into our lives and our being by beginning each day with reading the Heart Sutra (formally called The Perfect Wisdom of the Heart Sutra) or by chanting the brief mantra associated with it. This sutra reminds us that all aspects of life as we live it now as mortal beings are transitory. Form, sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness are all emptiness. It means, as this Buddhist psychologist attempts to comprehend it, that we are free, if we are willing to exercise that freedom, to disregard and stop worrying about appearance, the ageing process, and death. Appearance will fade, ageing will occur, and death will come. To every living thing.

The Perfect Wisdom of the Heart Sutra*

When Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara was practicing the profound Prajna Paramita,
he illuminated the Five Skandhas and saw that they are all empty,
and he crossed beyond all suffering and difficulty.

Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness;
emptiness does not differ from form.
Form itself is emptiness; emptiness itself is form.
So too are feeling, cognition, formation, and consciousness.

Shariputra, all Dharmas are empty of characteristics.
They are not produced, not destroyed, not defiled, not pure;
and they neither increase nor diminish.
Therefore, in emptiness there is no form, feeling, cognition, formation, or consciousness;
no eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, or mind;
no sights, sounds, smells, tastes, objects of touch, or Dharmas;
no field of the eyes up to and including no field of mind consciousness;
and no ignorance or ending of ignorance,
up to and including no old age and death or ending of old age and death.
There is no suffering, no accumulating, no extinction, and no Way,
and no understanding and no attaining.

Because nothing is attained,
the Bodhisattva through reliance on Prajna Paramita is unimpeded in his mind.
Because there is no impediment, he is not afraid,
and he leaves distorted dream-thinking far behind.
Ultimately Nirvana!
All Buddhas of the three periods of time attain Anuttara-samyak-sambodhi
through reliance on Prajna Paramita.
Therefore know that Prajna Paramita is a Great Spiritual Mantra,
a Great Bright Mantra, a Supreme Mantra, an Unequalled Mantra.
It can remove all suffering; it is genuine and not false.
That is why the Mantra of Prajna Paramita was spoken. Recite it like this:

Gaté Gaté Paragaté Parasamgaté

Bodhi Svaha!

End of The Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra

* translation attributed to the Buddhist Text Society, and available online here: http://www.dharmabliss.org/audio/heartsutra-engtext.htm

 

———-o0o———-

If you would like to hear this sutra recited as it is done in some Buddhist sanghas, intoned rhythmically, the video below will provide it.  It is also helpful if you wish to know how to pronounce the mantra. As the esteemed Buddhist nun Pema Chodron has said, one translation of the mantra is,

Om

Gone, Gone, Gone Beyond

Gone Completely Beyond

Awake, So Be It!

 

Reading or reciting the Heart Sutra daily can do wonders for our perspective on our lives. We can use it during our meditation or at any other time when we can take a moment to read or recite it. I put it into my iPhone as a PDF and read it from iBooks while riding the subway each morning, a wonderful way to jump-start a busy workday.  The Heart Sutra reminds us how fleeting are our characteristics of form, sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness, and this practice redirects our attention to more salient matters.

Namaste

IMG_0154

Ending Suffering

image

All sentient beings–human beings, and all beings large and small in the animal kingdom, seek to avoid suffering. It is the natural way. Libido, according to Freud, is the life force, the very energy which makes us gulp air even when trying to hold our breath. We associate libido with sexual intention and it does guarantee procreation for the perpetuation of life, but it is far more general than that. Libido drives creativity and interconnectedness, and many in the religious life find that in denying the sexual, they transcend the baser urges into altruism and selfless love. Thanatos, or the death force, is far less known and runs deep underground in most beings. It can be activated when suffering becomes too great.

All sentient beings–human beings, and all beings from the largest to the infinitessimally small in the animal kingdom, seek to avoid suffering. It is the natural way, or so it seems.  Instead, many humans seek suffering through self-harming behaviors and often have difficulty giving them up, so powerful is the addiction to certain very painful experiences. Humans often perpetuate suffering for themselves, and many more who would avoid their own suffering at all costs willfully inflict suffering on their fellow humans, and even more routinely on the animal kingdom. Ironically, by routinely condemning to misery and painful death the 100 or so animals each meat eater consumes yearly, the human hand contributing to this misery by virtue of paying for it, even at a distance, pulls in secondary traumatic experience and, as some believe, bad karma. This is guaranteeing ongoing human suffering. Psychology Today recently published an article on the phenomenon of loving dogs, cats and horses but consigning other animals such as cows, chickens, turkeys, and pigs, and their newborn offspring, to unimaginable terror and suffering without a second thought. Please read it for some interesting political revelations.

Without Prejudice

The Meat Paradox: Loving but Exploiting Animals

Unpacking stereotypes, bias, and discrimination
image
image
And today this is my practice.
Namaste
IMG_0154

Overcoming Obstacles to Meditation

Image courtesy of Kelledia's Garden

Image courtesy of Kelledia’s Garden

Meditation is so important to me. I often share my commitment to meditation with friends, family and sometimes psychotherapy patients and guidance clients. It is my hope to spark sufficient interest in the practice that others might try meditation for themselves and find the many blessings from the practice that I have received. Some tell me they already have a practice, and this nourishes my happiness. Others express a willingness to meditate and I suggest how they can begin. Others still give me reasons why meditation is no good for them, tell me how they tried and they could not do it, or give a critical take on the practice from afar. I decided to address these obstacles to embracing the practice of meditation. Perhaps you have heard these reasons from others or said them yourself. Let’s see what we can do with them here.

FAQs

Meditation is too passive for me. I’m a action person. Why should I  sit there doing nothing?

Meditation actually is very active. We sit and in doing so we engage various muscles throughout the body to help ourselves remain upright. Some of us even find that our bodies sway as we sit deep in our practice. There are many postures adopted by people who meditate: Lotus position, Half-Lotus position, Burmese posture, sitting or kneeling with a seiza (meditation bench), sitting on a zabuton (meditation mat) with or without a zafu (round cushion), chair sitting, and what Thich Nhat Hanh calls the Chrysanthemum Pose (any position that is comfortable for you). I urge anyone who is curious about these poses and the words that describe them to research them. Images and descriptions abound online.

We sit and we breathe in and out, perhaps with a mantra, and let our thoughts drift. Our goal is to notice our thoughts but not engage them. Naturally we find ourselves distracted by our thoughts and engaging them without realizing we are doing so. When we become aware we are doing this, we return to our breath or our mantra. When we manage to begin to sit for 15 or 20 minutes, and especially if we sit longer, when we get back to our feet our muscles will tell us that we have been engaged in an activity.

There’s nowhere in my place where I can have peace and quiet. I can hear the TV and people talking, and I find myself listening to the words and not meditating. How do I meditate with noise around me?

It is a myth that in order to meditate we need complete silence. If we are distractible, and many of us are, we can mask the distracting sounds with white noise or other sounds that can enhance meditation. I often use music such as Zen flute songs, chanting, New Age sounds, and Tibetan singing bowls from an iTunes meditation playlist I’ve developed over time. I also use nature sounds such as surf, waterfall, wind chimes, or crackling fire as white noise, or a combination of two of these. I recommend the Tune In Radio and Calm Radio apps for this purpose, although some selections involve intermittent interruptions inviting paid subscriptions, which can be worth it if it helps you. I find these work well to create an island of serene sound in which to meditate.

My thoughts race and next thing I know I’m all worried about something, no matter how hard I try to focus on my breathing or mantra. I’m no good at meditation. I just can’t do it. Why should I try again?

You are meditating even when you become distracted. Meditation is not about reaching a state of mindless bliss where nothing happens in your head. Meditation is about being mindful of your thoughts and staying above the fray where you don’t engage them. However, since we all do it in meditation, the key is not to react with shame or a sense of hopelessness, but to respond with awareness of having strayed from the focal point of breath or mantra and return to it. We will do this many times in our meditation sessions. The key is to come back to the process of meditating. Just keep doing it and know you are doing it.

You don’t understand. I sit down, set the intention to meditate for 5 minutes, maybe even set a timer. Next thing I know I’m in the kitchen making a cup of tea. If I hear the bell of the timer, I am clueless. I have totally forgotten I was trying to meditate. I feel that I’m a failure at meditation. What’s wrong with me?

When this happens, you may be dissociating. It’s possible that sitting in this way triggers a sense of vulnerability and then anxiety, and for some people that’s all it takes to switch their attention from the “meditation channel” to something else. If that happens to you, I suggest putting a Post-It note somewhere you’re sure to notice it near where you intend to sit to meditate. On the note you can write something like, “At 2:10 p.m. I am sitting to meditate for 10 minutes.” When you “come to” with no clue, this can reorient you back into the intention. You can re-enter your meditation if you wish, or you can leave it for a later time. People with chronic dissociative symptoms often have difficulty with meditation until they reach some consensus within that this activity is both safe and desirable. Many people who suffer from extreme dissociation find that addressing this in therapy is helpful. Until you feel more at ease meditating, I consider every attempt, however brief and after however long a hiatus, to be a goal reached successfully. Celebrate it!

Meditation isn’t for me. It’s for monks and New-Agey, hippie, punk people, not for me. I don’t care about enlightenment. I just want to reduce my stress. The trouble is, I don’t want to take drugs to do that. I wish there were something natural I could do to reduce my stress. What can I do?

Good news! While some meditation is overtly spiritual in nature and many enjoy it as such, there is a secular form of meditation that can be very effective in reducing disturbing feelings such as stress and certain health issues related to stress. In fact, this technique is called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction or MBSR. Watch the video and see what you think:

Want to know more? Check out this MBSR Workbook. Or search online for more information. A friend began meditating after learning MBSR at a clinic where she was being treated for health issues  exacerbated by stress. She found MBSR very helpful. She has since begun Buddhist meditation, saying she felt she needed a more spiritual form of meditation.

How can I motivate myself to meditate? I want to make meditation a regular part of my life, but I get so discouraged when days go by and I am either too busy, too lazy or too unwilling to take the time to sit and do it.

 Graphic by DannaRay on Etsy


Graphic by Danna Ray on Etsy

Most of us need some encouragement to start a habit. By the way, it only takes from 14 to 21 days of doing something for consecutive days to establish a habit. Why not try to establish the habit of meditating? Then you will be more inclined to make the effort. But about getting motivated,  here are some ways you can do that:

  1. Ask a friend who meditates to encourage you, and then perhaps arrange to call, text or email him or her that you are going to sit, and then call or send another message after you’ve done it. Some call this “book-ending” and it can really help us do things we seem to have an aversion to doing, even when we have a desire to do it.
  2. Start a journal, on paper, on your computer or mobile device, or online. I have used the Insight Timer app with its great journal function for years. It’s a wonderful tool and at the end of every session you complete using its timer, it offers you the option of writing in its journal, which remains private on your device. There is also a robust online community on the app with many fellow meditators around the world joining you when you sit. Periodically you will receive notifications that you’ve meditated for so many days, weeks, months or years, and get colored stars. That can be a great motivator for some people.
  3. Read a good book about meditation. I recommend Making Space: Creating a Home Meditation Practice, by Thich Nhat Hanh. There are concise, simple directions on how to start meditating. Depending on your goals, there are a number of ways suggested in the book, and any of them can help you get going.
Making Space: Creating a Home Meditation Practice by Thich Nhat Hanh

Making Space: Creating a Home Meditation Practice by Thich Nhat Hanh

However you begin to meditate, I hope you will try it for yourself. I have found great peace of mind every day from my personal practice. I hope you will too. Just face those obstacles head-on and have a seat!

Namaste

IMG_0154

Mountain Mindfulness and Metta

Snowy Woods

My practice today:

Sitting before my window to meditate today, my eyes rest on the changing winter scene outside. My heart is full with gratitude for returning health after illness, calm after concern, ease after stress. I begin with mindful breathing.

Breathing in I am calm, breathing out I smile.

Breathing in I see the blue sky, breathing out I see the trees.

Breathing in I feel the sun, breathing out I see the shadows.

Breathing in I am calm, breathing out I smile.

Breathing in I see the clouds, breathing out I hear the wind.

Breathing in I see the branches, breathing out I see old leaves.

Breathing in I see green fir boughs, breathing out I see white snow.

Breathing in I see the rocks, breathing out I see the bark.

Breathing in I feel the sun, breathing out I feel solid.

Breathing in I feel peace, breathing out I smile.

Breathing in I feel soft paws on my back, breathing out I greet my cat.

Breathing in we see the trees, breathing out we watch the leaves.

Breathing in I have love, breathing out I am at peace.

After continuing in this manner for many minutes, I began my customary Metta (loving kindness) practice, aspiring first for myself. Then I aspired for specific loved ones in need, for all loved ones, for family and extended family, for friends, for neighbors, and for clients. Next I aspired for those with whom I have or have had conflict. Lastly I aspired for all beings near and far, in this universe and all other universes, to the north and the south, to the east and the west, above me and below me,  in the earth, in the air, in the seas and in the rivers and lakes, living and not yet living,  human and non-human, male and female, young and old, known to me and unknown to me, and those who know me and those who do not.

And today this is my practice.

Koi_Zen_Garden,_Tokyo

Namaste

IMG_0154

Compassionate Listening

listen

Compassionate listening is an important tool in my toolbox, one that needs to be kept sharpened and ready at all times. When it’s allowed to get dull, I can’t be very effective.

In my work as a psychologist, one of the topics that come up most often is that of communication problems in our relationships. Sometimes it is a wife complaining that her husband misconstrues what she says. Or it’s a daughter feeling manipulated when her mother tells her, or doesn’t tell her, family news. At other times it is a woman in the hospital for a serious health problem complaining that her attempts to make herself understood and to ask for what she needs is seen as her being a difficult patient.

We can fail to get our point across, we can be misunderstood, and our motives for what we say can be criticized by those with whom we attempt to communicate. Naturally these ruptures in a true meeting of minds can be painful and frustrating, and sometimes they can trigger anger responses. Similarly, our loved ones, friends and others with whom we interact experience the same frustrations with us at times. It’s just the way it is. Interpersonal communications are often difficult and stressful, partly because we don’t always speak the same language, metaphorically. We “hear” different things than the other person is trying to say.

If we practice meditation, and if we focus on loving kindness, or Metta, towards and for ourselves as well as for others, we become better able to sit and hear what our loved one is saying to us. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has suggested that we say something to a loved one such as, “My darling, I am here for you.”  You may wish to say it another way, but the point is to be able to invite communication from our loved one and listen as he or she speaks to us. We may be very tempted to reply to something that is said, to defend ourselves, to correct the other person, to fight back against a statement that feels harsh with harsh words of our own. But with compassionate listening, we simply hear, listen and stay aware of what we are hearing.

Later on, we may wish to correct something we heard, but during the practice of compassionate listening, we are fully present to listen and listen only. We may be quite surprised, and often pleasantly so, by what we hear. And even when the thing we hear is not so pleasant, it may be that we need to hear it, let it percolate into our being so that we might reflect upon it, and if it is true, to use the opportunity for growth and healing within ourselves.

To work on our compassionate listening skills, this sourcebook by Gene Knudsen Hoffman, Cynthia Monroe and Leah Green offers many useful exercises to help us do it.

Compassionate Listening Sourcebook

The following from Thich Nhat Hanh offers rich food for thought on this topic as well for those who wish to delve deeper:

Deep Listening and Loving Speech, Thich Nhat Hanh

UPDATE: In the two years since I first published this post, I have encountered two more potential impediments to compassionate listening and both relate to aging 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 sensitive work at hand. It can be extremely frustrating to both speaker and listener for the communicatin to break down simply because one or both parties can’t hear as well as they think they do.

The second impediment is the more frequent word-finding difficulty most older people experience. We all do this from time to time, and as we get older it happens with getter frequency. They may pause as they search for a certain word or familiar phrase, creating a gap in the narrative. A frustrated listener might quickly offer suggestions, and this is can be perceived as a failure to respect the speaker’s competency or autonomy. Another 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. The listener then wonders what this is supposed to mean and may ask. The 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 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 will do the same sometimes. Our compassion for others with these difficulties will help us be compassionate towards ourselves as we fumble to express ourselves so that our listener understands. And if we have developed compassion towards ourselves by practicing Metta, or loving kindness, we will naturally feel compassion as we listen.

 

keep-calm-and-thank-you-for-listening-32

Namaste

IMG_0154