Listening with compassion and mindfulness

Listening with compassion and mindfulness

The ability to listen with compassion and total presence is one of the most important skills we can bring to our healing practice.  In Buddhism, this skill is so important that its essence is embodied in one of its most beloved bodhisattvas, Avalokiteshvara —“One who hears the cries of the world.”

This bodhisattva vowed not to enter nirvana until all living beings had been liberated from suffering. To accomplish this, Avalokiteshvara travels to all realms of the universe offering his compassionate blessings to all beings.  This bodhisattva is also known in female form as Kwan (Kuan) Yin, or Kannon, and in Tibetan Buddhism as Chenrezig.

In At Hell’s Gate: A Soldier’s Journey from War to Peace, Claude Anshin Thomas has some very helpful things to say about the importance of cultivating the qualities of “one who hears the cries of the world.”  People need to able to talk about trauma and have skillful, compassionate listeners.  Here are some excerpts from his book that I found especially helpful:


“In the book Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist, writes that recovery from combat trauma depends on communalization of that trauma—on sharing it. Sharing it with a community that can be trusted to listen, hold, and retell the story in an honest way.

“When I was first suffering the trauma of the war, I didn’t understand that I needed to tell my story, that I need to talk about the experience, and keep on talking about it, because I had never been encouraged to do this.  Anyone who has experienced trauma needs to talk about it, and we all have experienced trauma of some sort.  I often hear people saying, ‘Oh, I could never talk about those things in my life.  What would people think of me?’  I guess those people are trapped in shame and guilt.  They may feel there is some safety in keeping things hidden, but keeping all the pain to ourselves does not heal anything; instead it fosters abuse, abuse of the self and of all sentient beings around us.

“…The first step, which can be called a step into the unknown, is to being to tell your story.”

“We are for the most part conditioned by our society and culture not to talk about our pain.  But if we don’t talk, if we don’t create a language to express our feelings, healing will not take place. We will just continue to store up and re-create the cycles of suffering.  The first step, which can be called a step into the unknown, is to being to tell your story.  What is helpful and necessary in this process is a safe container such as a community of like-minded people or a therapeutic environment….

“Let’s listen to each other, really listen, without trying to change or fix anything.  As we listen, let’s just offer our openness and companionship.  This is the beginning of the journey toward healing.  Though we may think that we know how to listen, often when other people talk, we don’t manage to really listen.  We tend to judge what’s being said, defend ourselves, react, offer advice, or seek to control the situation in some way.  So a disciplined practice of listening will be helpful…

“…The Buddhist perspective is that we are responsible for our own healing.”

“In emphasizing the value of speaking and listening, I want to point out the importance of realizing that healing doesn’t happen to someone who has suffered trauma.  It happens by someone who has suffered from trauma. In our society, we come to learn that something outside heals us—a physician, a therapist, a preacher, or God, if you will.  The Buddhist perspective is that we are responsible for our own healing….

“There’s a lot of projection that tends to go on when we suffer.  We think that people or things outside ourselves are the causes of our suffering or the source to its relief.  Our mind tells us that if we eliminate the perceived source of the suffering, then it will be gone for good.  In war this process is cultivated and manifested in violence.  Once embarking on this path, we become trapped in it; the violence controls our us, creating a vicious circle that continues unchecked until we stop it by taking responsibility for our pain—by finding the courage to feel it, to enter into it, and not just to pass it on.

“If I don’t look deeply into the nature of suffering, war continues.  I must realize and accept that war has consequences in my life.  I must accept the suffering that war infects me with.  I need to learn how to embrace it so that I may clearly recognize its face as it creeps into the fabric of my life so as not to be controlled by it.  And when it arrives, it is up to me to choose how to act in relation to it.  The decision is mine.  We may not have been able to control the trauma we have experienced, but we can take an active role in its healing.”

Excerpts from At Hells’ Gate: A Soldier’s Journey from War to Piece, pp. 144-147, by Clause Anshin Thomas

About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza


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