just be it It’s about the work involved in establishing a dedicated practice to feelings of a bigger belonging through practices aimed at increasing feelings of compassion, gratitude and forgiveness
January, 2017

Moving from Monologue to Dialogue

Monday, January 23rd, 2017

I have studied the communication process for the past forty-five years. I’ve taken graduate courses in psychology, linguistics, interpersonal communication, comparative religions and communication disorders. I’ve taught these courses in college and have worked on them over and over. So why do I feel like I’m still a novice? Why is everything I’ve learned so extremely difficult to apply? I’ve recently been reviewing some wisdom imparted from Byakuren Judith Ragir, a well respected female Zen priest, outlining teachings from the Buddha on Right Speech. Some things need to happen before we can move to dialogue and a more whole communication: 1. Is it kind? 2. Is it necessary? 3. Is it true? 4 Is it helpful? These questions must be asked before we move to the next questions to answer before speaking: 1. If it’s untrue, incorrect and unbeneficial, unwelcome and disagrreable to others – don’t say it 2. If it’s true, correct but unbeneficial which is also unwelcome and disagreeable to others – don’t say it 3. If it’s true, correct, beneficial but which is unwelcome and disagreeable to others – the one skilled in Right Speech knows the time to use such speech 4. If it’s untrue, incorrect and unbeneficial, but which is welcome and agreeable to others – don’t say it 5. If it’s true, correct but unbeneficial and is welcome and agreeable to others, don’t say it and finally, 6. If it’s true, correct, beneficial and is welcome and agreeable to others, the one skilled in Right Speech knows the time to use such speech. So what is ‘timing’? The right time to deliver your message skillfully is when you and the other person are both upright and non-reactive. Are you both grounded and alert? Can the other person hear what you want to say? If it is a difficult truth, is it a time when people can handle being uncomfortable. Real dialogue with those we differ from is like walking a razor’s edge. It takes tremendous courage, balance and rhythm. Not only are we witnessing our semantic reactions to the words said, but we have to be reading our partner for their semantic reactions, fully understanding how language is made of arbitrary symbols and ‘meaning is in the person, not the word’.

This process has become dramatically apparent as we’ve suffered through another political campaign cycle filled with hurtful, malicious speech, idle chatter, gossip, rumor and needless speculation. This kind of speech leads us further into an illusion that we’re separate and alienated from others. As various groups vie for our approval and support, we’re further drawn into the realm of opinion and judgment, speculating on the underlying viewpoints of those we fear may threaten us. We can then demonize them in ‘us vs them’ battle carrying the illusion that somehow ‘we know’ and ‘they don’t know’. Dr. Martin Luther King recognized the poison of this kind of speech when he wrote, “We lose our persuasive power when the other can smell our contempt for them.” Isn’t it interesting that he stresses the nonverbal element of face to face communication? We’ve regressed to our electronic, non face to face communications, giving up over 70% of the information necessary for accurately reading another’s meaning. We can take a Tweet, email, social media post or text and apply just about any meaning to it we’d like for fitting our view of the world. And off we go spinning into the stratosphere, promoting our message to those who would listen. As we do this we polarize further from each other. We gravitate to a mono-diet of the news that fits our sense of ‘rightness’.

Brother David Steindl Rast, a Benedictine monk, once advised me on the following before speaking: 1. Always examine what the intent of your speech is and always come from compassion for the listener. Bottom line, “What do you mean?”, 2. “How do you know?” Is it second or third hand information? This is especially true in today’s rapidly changing media world where news standards have been sacrificed for increased audience. Brother David suggested it wise to hold silence unless what you’re speaking comes from first hand direct experience, and 3. “And if you clearly know what you mean and it’s from direct experience, so what?” This is especially challenging because so much of what we say is directed to seeking approval from others or narcissistic monologue. A compassionate communicator is forever cultivating sensitivity to the listener’s stability, grounding and curiosity, always assessing the potential value in what’s being opened up.

So let’s look at the use of language in our mind. Essentially, we’re of human nature to have restless minds. In the present moment, a thought or feeling will arise. We can elaborate on it and then we have a choice to attach to the thought/feeling and grow it, or we can let it go. The degree to which we attach to it (or the degree to which we seem to let it attach to us) determines how much we suffer. A thought can bubble up, we can expand on it, then attach to it, and ultimately come to that point where we’ll fight for it. This has been the cause for over five thousand wars, it’s killed millions of people, and now has us embattled in a dangerous world of polarized thinking. It’s not out of the question to say our very existence is threatened by our immature communication skills. Perhaps the best use of communication skills came when President Kennedy gave his speech at the American University:

All this is not unrelated to world peace. “When a man’s ways please the Lord,” the Scriptures tell us, “he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him.” And is not peace, in the last analysis, basically a matter of human rights–the right to live out our lives without fear of devastation–the right to breathe air as nature provided it–the right of future generations to a healthy existence?

Kennedy had impeccable timing with this speech and later Kruchev credited this speech as a major reason for their relaxation in pursuing a major war. He met the Soviet’s with compassion. In his eighties, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara stressed his military lessons over decades of service. First on the list was, “Empathize with your enemy.” So how do we begin?

A balanced, grounded mind comes from silence. Love, faith and hope come from the courage to set our fixed notions of ‘knowing everything’ aside. It’s my greatest desire that whenever we meet we aim to not cause harm, to recognize our humanity, and to breath together in silence and stillness. When we can settle into stillness we’re now making not only ourselves ready for dialogue, but we’re respecting the process and honing our skills at reading whether the person we’re meeting can receive our words as kind, necessary, true and helpful. These are some traits of speech I think we need today:

1. Gentle speech, causing all beings to be calm
2. Sweet elixir speech, causing all beings to be clear and cool.
3. Nondeceptive speech, everything they say being true
4. Truthful speech, not lying even in dreams
5. Great speech, being honored by the divine;
6. Profound speech, revealing the essence of things
7. Steadfast speech, expounding truth inexhaustibly
8. Straightforward speech, their statements being easy to understand
9. Various speech being spoken according to the occasion
10. Speech enlightening all beings, enabling us to understand according to our inclinations

After the record breaking Women’s March this past Saturday I was taken with how hungry the media was for ‘what’s next?’ No doubt, there was a lot of fear and anger that drove the attendance. Immediate threat is usually what wakes us from our slumber. Yet, it’s my intention and hope to move from dogmatic belief to a deeper curiosity as we sit in stillness with one another, aiming for a deeper compassion and stewardship for one another’s welfare. Our Declaration of Independence calls this a reliance upon divine providence.

Aitken Roshi:
To respond is to come forth from a place of peace
To react is just to bat the nasty ball right back.

Deep listening demands a stilled mind, a curiosity that’s open to receive what’s presented without semantic reaction. Most of the time, when we think we’re listening we’re really reacting and rehearsing our turn at an expressive response. Someone says something, it triggers a meaning from our experience, and away we go. Yet, the curious mind, seeking to understand, will hold the reactive mind at bay. It holds respect to the difficulties involved in communication and dedicates attention to understanding the speaker. This requires tremendous skill, a dedicated practice, and a clear intention to understand better the meaning the speaker is trying to convey.

It is a rare treat when someone holds their response and affirms their attention with a nod of the head or a vocalization affirming their continued attention. Certainly, eye contact is a big bonus along with several other nonverbal cues suggesting continued intention to listen. Yet, without a dedicated awareness/stillness training, that kind person is still assuming they understand without demonstrating clarification. When is the last time someone attempted to demonstrate their understanding with a paraphrase? How about a, “Tell me more, please.” We all have something to say, something to explore. The human communicative experience is testimony to our need to be face to face with one another as we seek understanding, the capacity to move closer to being in the shoes of the other.

So just because we’re not talking doesn’t mean we’re listening. We’re busy with our thought triggers, we’re reacting, we’re planning our response, etc. Yet, if we really want to see into each other (intimacy), moving past the superficial layers of communication, the quieted mind is an essential component. We must lay down the conversation in our mind to hear what the other is saying. This is real compassion, the syrup of love. This is full wholehearted attention.