A Difficult Week

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.

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Avalokiteshvara

Statue of Avalokiteshvara at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC

 

We invoke your name, Avalokiteshvara. We aspire to learn your way of listening in order to help relieve the suffering in the world. You know how to listen in order to understand. We invoke your name in order to practice listening with all our attention and open-heartedness. We will sit and listen without any prejudice. We will sit and listen without judging or reacting. We will sit and listen in order to understand. We will sit and listen so attentively that we will be able to hear what the other person is saying and also what is being left unsaid. We know that just by listening deeply we already alleviate a great deal of pain and suffering in the other person.

– Chanting from the Heart, Parallax Press, 2006, p. 30

As mentioned in my last post, I plan on sharing my journal entries and the answers to the three questions I put together for use in our newly formed Bodhisattva Reflection Group. Today marks the end of week one in our five week practice. It never ceases to amaze and delight me how powerful it can be to put even just a small amount of intention into something in particular – whether it’s practice related or otherwise. Simply reading this Bodhisattva verse each day over the last week was enough to spur a number of insights and understandings.

It’s like when you go from never hearing about, say, visiting Yellowstone National Park and then when you start setting your sights on wanting to venture there, you suddenly find yourself encountering mentions of it all over the place. I find most things are like that, and working with the Bodhisattvas is no different.

Now, I didn’t journal every day. I journaled when I felt called to. Here’s what resulted:

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Mindful Speech & Deep Listening, Part 2

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This is part 2 of 2.

Deep listening is the ability to listen without judging or reacting.  To be able to focus our full attention on someone when they are talking is a great gift.  Oftentimes we are only partially listening when someone is talking due to internal or external distractions or waiting to offer our input, experience, or advice.  It is easy to interrupt and talk over others.  Deep listening involves allowing space and slowing down.  Allowing space for the other person to express themselves and to feel heard and understood – slowing down enough to be able to offer our full presence.

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Mindful Speech & Deep Listening, Part 1

Listening

For the last 5 weeks I’ve been teaching a class I call MIndfulness Matters through our adult learning center here in town.  I’ve been teaching these class series for the last 4 years or so.  I focus on a different element of mindfulness each week and this week’s topic is mindful speech and deep listening.  In order to help prepare I thought I would write out some of my thoughts and subject matter here.

The greatest gift we can offer someone is our true and full presence and two of the most important tools that we can cultivate in order to do this are mindful speech and deep listening.  Mindful speech is the use of words that help inspire self-confidence, joy, inclusiveness, and connection.  Deep listening is the ability to listen in such a way where we are free of judgement and a need to react.

If we don’t know how to practice mindful speech and deep listening towards ourselves we will only be so effective when we direct these skill sets towards others.  Many of us have a very negative internal dialogue that is directed at ourselves.  This internal voice is often operating on an unconscious level and can be very active throughout the day.  A few common examples of negative self-talk include statements like, “I can’t believe I just did that, I’m so stupid!” or “I look awful today, I’m so fat.” or “Gosh, what is wrong with me today, I can’t do anything right.”

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Daily Practice – Day 16

Flathead Lake picture taken today from the West Shore State Park

Flathead Lake picture taken today from the West Shore State Park

Day 16 – I did my sitting this morning before I took off up north to the Flathead Lake area with my friend and co-director of our upcoming local mindfulness retreat in early May.  This will be third retreat that I’ve co-directed with her.  Today we went to visit with the staff at the facility we’ll be using for our retreat.  It is a beautiful location, the Flathead Lutheran Bible Camp, and sits right on the western shore of the Flathead Lake.  This will be our second spring using the facility.

Our collective Open Way Montana Sangha (of which we have four practicing groups, in the same Plum Village tradition with teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, in three towns in western Montana) puts together two annual retreats a year – one in the spring and one in the fall.  For one retreat a year we keep one consistent dharma teacher and for the other retreat we rotate through various dharma teachers.  (If ever you’re in the Montana area in the spring or fall and want to join us for a retreat check out http://www.openway.org for retreat info :)

Flathead Lutheran Bible Camp main hall (picture taken today)

Flathead Lutheran Bible Camp main hall (picture taken today)

Tonight was our regular practice night for our Be Here Now Sangha that meets at the Open Way Mindfulness Center in Missoula, Montana.  Our format includes sitting and walking meditation, a reading, sharing circle and then closes with a gratitude and healing circle.  Although tonight we had a little bit different of a format and instead of the walking and reading someone gave a talk on the Fourth Mindfulness Training: Loving Speech and Deep Listening (see below).  For the last 3 years now we’ve been having a mindfulness training talk series where once a month, from January through May, a different practitioner gives a short talk on one of the trainings (of which there are five) and about how they are working with it in their daily lives.  The talks are a nice opportunity to get more insight and understanding about different ways to work more deeply with the trainings as an ongoing practice.

The Fourth Mindfulness Training: Loving Speech and Deep Listening
Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and compassionate listening in order to relieve suffering and to promote reconciliation and peace in myself and among other people, ethnic and religious groups, and nations. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am committed to speaking truthfully using words that inspire confidence, joy, and hope. When anger is manifesting in me, I am determined not to speak. I will practice mindful breathing and walking in order to recognize and to look deeply into my anger. I know that the roots of anger can be found in my wrong perceptions and lack of understanding of the suffering in myself and in the other person. I will speak and listen in a way that can help myself and the other person to transform suffering and see the way out of difficult situations. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to utter words that can cause division or discord. I will practice Right Diligence to nourish my capacity for understanding, love, joy, and inclusiveness, and gradually transform anger, violence, and fear that lie deep in my consciousness.

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Flathead Lake picture taken today from the West Shore State Park

Originally the Five Precepts (now called: Mindfulness Trainings) were very short, one line sentences that the buddha offered as his only official teaching that he offered to lay people (people that were not monks & nuns).  They were as follows (as taken from the literal translation from the Pali language):

1. I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking life.
2. I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given.
3. I undertake the training rule to abstain from sexual misconduct.
4. I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech.
5. I undertake the training rule to abstain from fermented drink that causes heedlessness.

The fourth mindfulness training, as included above, entitled: Loving Speech and Deep Listening is part of an expanded version of the original five trainings as offered by Thich Nhat Hanh and the Order of Interbeing.  As you can see, the fourth training, just like the others, has been brought into the 21st century and modernized to include more support and detail for those of us looking to lead a fuller, more mindful and deeper connected life.  The trainings represent a vision for a more engaged spirituality and ethical values.  They can help us wake up to ourselves, our surroundings, and to our relationship with the present moment.

I deeply appreciate working with these trainings and having them available as ongoing teachings.  They are not designed as have to’s or supposed to’s and I also appreciate that about them as well.  They are set up as a guiding light on the path of understanding and love.  In the west especially I think it’s easy to read the new expanded version and think, “I have to do these perfectly!” and then use them to beat ourselves up with.  So it is important to note that perfection is a dangerous illusion, a trap that we can get stuck in all too often.  If you use the trainings as a practice in your daily life please embrace them with openness, lightness, diligence, and ease.

Daily Practice, Day 3

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Day 3 – I’m finding that blogging each day has been helpful in keeping me accountable to my intention to sit everyday.  My hope is that over time I will be able to transform my need to be accountable in order to sit and have it become part of my daily routine.  I am confident that it will happen if I continue to be diligent in this early stage.

After my sit this morning I read: Invoking the Bodhisattvas Names, the first 6 of the 14 Mindfulness Trainings and another passage in the Discourse on Knowing the Better Way to Catch a Snake.  Here’s a passage from Invoking the Bodhisattvas Names:

“We invoke your name, Manjushri, We aspire to learn your way, which is to be still and to look deeply into the heart of things and into the hearts of people.  We will look with all our attention and open-heartedness.  We will look with unprejudiced eyes.  We will look without judging or reacting.  We will look deeply so that we will be able to see and understand the roots of suffering, through the impermanent and selfless nature of all that is.  We will practice your way of using the sword of understanding to cut through the bonds of suffering, thus freeing ourselves and other species.”

The last sentence spoke to me.  In thinking about using the sword of understanding to cut through the bonds of suffering I see clearly how often we cause ourselves to suffer based on a simple misunderstanding.  It is easy to think that our perceptions are accurate and true – and not only that, but real and concrete, something permanent.  Seldom do we clearly see things as they are, people as they are.  And without clear sight we cannot have understanding.  And without understanding compassion cannot be born.

Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) teaches us to ask ourselves, “Am I Sure?”  When I encounter someone who is being rude to me and I immediately think of what a jerk that person is, am I sure that I know what is actually going on for that person?  When we can stop and ask ourselves, “Am I Sure?” our situation has the power to change right away.  Looking deeply I can see that I cannot possibly know what is going of for another person on every level.  When I get in touch with the nature of interbeing it is easy to see that we are each a lifetime of experiences, relationships and emotions.  Much life have we each led that has created this moment in time.  It is a deep practice to not be so sure.

sure