Last week, I attended our local fall retreat up on the Flathead Lake. (This “peace is every step” pumpkin was a pic I took at said retreat.) Part of me wants to offer my typical post-retreat accounting here on this blog. But a bigger part of me has little interest in doing so. And part of me wants to tell you why I don’t have interest in relaying my retreat field notes and part of me doesn’t.
Instead, I think I’ll say this: it’s been a hard week. The hardest I’ve had in a very long time.
Over the last few days, it’s been interesting relaying this truth to people who have casually asked: how’s it going? I am someone who is interested in not answering on auto pilot with such empty responses such as: fine and good when confronted with that how are you question. However, I’m also interested in being brief. It’s a challenge, to say the least. On the best of weeks I am at a loss for how best to answer this question in such a way that is honest and also quick and to the point.
When I’ve told people: this week has been hard or I am being really challenged this week it solicited a range of responses I did not care for being on the receiving end of. It puts me in touch with how poorly skilled we are as a human collective to listen deeply and to respond in the spirit of interbeing.
In the responses I’ve gotten this past week, I’ve then been put in the position of either needing to better educate and inform people, caretake for them because they now feel bad for me (not helpful), assert my boundaries, or in two different cases wield my sword of power and say: no, you will not talk to me that way and in another say: I did not ask for your advice and critique and I do not appreciate your offering it without my consent.
It’s worth mentioning that sometimes I managed to avoid answering the how are you question all together and unfortunately I found that preferred. People would ask and then since they wouldn’t really be asking to know the answer anyway, and it was in a social context with other people around, they didn’t even notice I never answered.
Personally, I try my best not to ask the how are you question unless I have genuine interest and also the time and space to really hear the other person’s honest answer. I also try my best not to offer advice unless people specifically ask for it.
There is a line in a verse entitled Invoking the Bodhisattvas’ Names in our Plum Village tradition that states: We know that just by listening deeply we already alleviate a great deal of pain and suffering in the other person. (This is in reference to the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.) This line is a teaching I try to keep a close relationship with. The ability to listen without judging or reacting, without tossing out advice, without needing to offer meaningless platitudes, is a great and powerful gift that we have the ability to offer another person – but only when we are aware and skillful enough to tune into what’s really going on.
In my view, if we are people who aspire to show up kindfully and skillfully in the world, it is crucial that we learn how to differentiate between intention and impact. There are a lot of well-meaning folks out there who are causing more harm than help based on their words and actions. Just because we may mean well when we give unasked for advice to a friend who is struggling doesn’t mean we aren’t causing a harmful impact on that person by giving them our unsolicited two cents.
Even from people who I thought knew me fairly well, I was given unhelpful responses in reference to my telling them it’s been a hard week. I then assured them: Yes, it’s been and is a hard week AND I have the practice and tools to handle it. I am challenged and angry and sad AND I am also well. Wellness and difficulty are not mutually exclusive, both can – and often do – happen simultaneously. That was my way of saying: I want to be honest with where I’m at. I don’t need or want your platitudes or advice or sympathy. I am not falling apart here. I’ve got this. I don’t need fixing. What I would appreciate is being seen and heard for right where I’m at.