Listening deeply and accessing innate compassion is a skill it can take a lifetime to cultivate. But now may be the perfect time to start… That’s why this newsletter is on the topic of how to listen deeply and access innate compassion.
“How to Listen Deeply and Access Innate Compassion”
Compassionate listening is at the heart of Karuna’s approach to Contemplative Psychology. The core of Karuna Training is learning to listen openly and non-defensively in order not to solidify an interpretation about others. The inseparability of you and me, them and us, is the seed of compassion.
That we can feel another’s pain is our saving grace as humans, and the portal to our heart, but that seed can not come to fruition without the nuanced sensitivity to hear what is actually being communicated. This is where training comes in: training both softens and sharpens us, and makes deeper understanding and communication possible.
To train takes time because our listening skills are directly tied to our mental conditioning. The mental habits we bring into any conversation guarantee that unconscious biases, deeply ingrained emotional habits, and well-honed intelligent skills of self protection are at play.
For instance, when someone tells me that their dog has been hit by a car, I unconsciously recall memories of that event which occurred in my life. It was a significant trauma and that memory is at play suddenly, conscious or not, in the conversation. My own personal conditioning and experience come into play, and add weight to another’s story.
Listening Deeply To The Pain Of BIPOC People In America
Karuna Training focuses on compassionate listening to individuals. And yet, this moment in history is calling me towards an even deeper systemic kind of listening.
The video of George Floyd dying at the knee of a police officer has set off a spark that has reignited many, including myself, to look more deeply into the racial disparities that take place in our country. It becomes impossible not to feel pain if we dare to watch it, unless we are fighting against the truth of the suffering. For myself, it is no longer possible to see a white officer pulling over a Black person and not tense up. It's not possible to ignore the plight of inequality and disparities in health care and health outcomes with COVID. It's not possible to ignore the unemployment disparities of COVID either. It's not possible to ignore the pain.
For those just waking up to this reality, and those who have been living with this knowledge for a long time, the question is what do we do with this awareness?
For myself, as a white person in this moment in history, I hear a united voice asking those of us who are white -- to look deeply at our whiteness; to listen in a way that will allow us to access and understand the pain of BIPOC people in America. They are crying out “enough is enough”! For white people, like myself, time to listen with our hearts to the truth of the suffering, and to open to and hear the pain that is arising all around us.
The most compassionate thing we can do is to feel the pain of others; to learn to bear witness to the pain of others. It also feels incumbent on us to acknowledge what we actively do that perpetuates that pain.
And for all of us, whatever our race, there can be big challenges in staying compassionately present with the horrific stories we hear about how BIPOC people are being treated.
Learning how to listen and feel into this is new territory for me in the exercise of compassionate listening. I’m someone who has trained others in compassionate listening for 30+ years. Although the call to look at systemic racism has long been obvious in some way—even blatant—it has been ‘white washed’ too, and thus, my ignorance has prevailed. I’m waking up like many others to the cries for justice, and I feel the reckoning and collective pain. And enough is enough!
Working With Biases and Conditioning
To hear through our mental conditioning and biases is the heart of training in Karuna, however there is an even deeper capacity to listen, hear and feel reality: the always-present aspect of time. We carry with us our past history, both remembered information and embodied experiences. That historical information and suffering is also transmitted and available, if we learn to listen systemically.
In Karuna Training, in the first opening circle of a cohort that has signed on to work together for the next two years, I’ve often said this: every relationship you’ve ever had is in the room, because you are in the room, and you carry those relationships (if they were meaningful) everywhere you go.
What I understand of this moment that we are all traversing is that there is a bigger history that we carry: beyond our personal history is a history of our society that has to be understood deeply. We carry not just our personal past relationships but society’s past relationships into the moment with us, including systemic racist constructs. To face and feel this is such a profound opportunity for us all, though it is daunting, too.
We are being called to develop a skill that is beyond our individual capacity to listen and hear, the capacity to systematically listen and hear for society. To hear and feel for society is to directly hear and feel the impact of our institutional racism. Everyone has this interdependent capacity for listening, when we are willing to open to the pain.
Learning to Listen Fully
We may need to start at the beginning to just awaken the skills of listening. We all think we know how to listen and hear; but most of us listen half-heartedly all the time. We have trained ourselves to do so. When one listens to the news on the way to work, it's time for our half listening to kick in: half listening, a quarter driving, a quarter thinking about what we have to do today at work. This half listening continues at work for some of us, through meetings, phone calls and tasks. We notice the same person is making the same point again, and we hear them but we don’t hear what is underneath their drone, and thus we miss their frustration and pain.
So learning to listen fully can be a good starting place, but when we do listen fully it can be dangerous. I remember while commuting home one day I heard a radio piece about the plight of the 276 schoolgirls kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram. This hit me deeply—perhaps at a vulnerable moment—and my own conditioning on the topic kicked in. The thought of all those girls being seized in the middle of the night made me literally sick. I had to pull off the highway to vomit. I found myself sobbing all the rest of the way home after I turned off the news. I was triggered -that is- what I heard tapped my compassion, but it also triggered my own trauma.
Learning to listen with equanimity is an important skill when it comes to hearing the pain of others. Compassion is innate but it often stimulates reactions that arise from our conditioning that have nothing to do with the person suffering. The heart of contemplative psychology is learning to listen openly and with both compassion and equanimity.
Learning to listen in this way takes courage, stability and strength of mind. It requires we be open to pain, and that we understand that feeling the pain of others makes us wiser. Often we feel guilty if others are in pain, especially if we are in any way connected with the situation.
Becoming an Embodied, Selfless Listener
When we aspire to listen compassionately, we learn to listen through all our sense faculties. Hearing through all our senses synchronizes us into an embodied listener. Learning to listen through one’s body can move us away from the mental stories that entrap us in interpretations. Embodied listening goes straight to the heart. We learn to be with the pain.
That is the birth of compassion, but there is another ingredient in contemplative listening: selflessness.
There is a difference between listening to everything with an ear of “what about me”, and listening with an openness of just gleaning information about another. Hearing the truth and not making it personal takes a lot of training. That is what Karuna Training is dedicated toward - compassionate listening with selfless openness. It is a life path.
The deep work in front of us all is to listen with compassion and equanimity. This interdependent, societal, embodied hearing has occurred before; it is how human society wakes up and evolves. Simply hearing others’ truth is the ground upon which we understand that which we have ignored due to our conditioning; it underlies changes in social structures: the abolition of slavery, womens’ sufferage, disabled persons’ rights.
I propose we learn to listen some more, to pause, to open, and to listen even more deeply and possibly we may wake up to the suffering of others. When we are able to fully digest and integrate the messages of the world, when they penetrate our defense mechanisms in a meaningful way, then we can let those messages grow our hearts further.
A conversation with a family member who is suffering, or a co-worker. A distant news report of a weather tragedy. The constant anguished cries of Black Lives Matter protesters who do not give up in the face of Federal push back. It is heart-strengthening to feel into all of those things and to grow our hearts. And it is the ground of action.
In Karuna we learn to exchange with the pain and the beauty in the world, to awaken our hearts. We are hardwired to hear with our hearts full potency. In this moment of reckoning in America it is our heart connection that is most valuable. Right now we need to open our hearts and hear!