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Listening is mindfulness

Jon Kabat-Zinn is my favorite mindfulness teacher, though I have many. The reason he is my favorite is because he teaches how mindfulness is so useful in everyday life. The below quote is excerpted from the book Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness. It is just one small example of how practicing meditation and mindfulness can make a huge difference in the enjoyment and satisfaction in our lives. Here he talks about being interrupted when speaking with others.—MR

“…Sometimes we can thread our way to clarity and mutual satisfaction in difficult communications with others if we acknowledge and speak to the FEELING coming from the other person, rather than being caught up in and reacting to the cerebral content of the conversation, which is hardly ever what such conversations are about, and thus, at high risk for thinking we are entirely right and the other person entirely wrong, or wrongheaded.

Becoming even a little more mindful of how our conversations and communications unfold, and what kind of skills might be involved in navigating through them with greater awareness of what is really going on, inwardly and outwardly, in ourselves and with others, can be extremely revealing and humbling. To take just one common example, it may put us in touch with how frequently we are interrupted by others in the middle of our saying something, and it may also be able to help us identify effective ways of handling it when we are.

Otherwise, and it is not a good feeling, especially if it becomes a pattern, we can wind up feeling like what we have to say doesn’t count for the other person. We might wind up feeling disrespected, undervalued, overrun, intimidated by certain people either at work or at home, and never effectively representing ourselves and how we see things and feel about things with clarity, conviction, and authenticity. And thus, the person, or family, or working group is potentially deprived of the benefit of our contribution, our creativity, our unique and potentially valuable vantage point. Meanwhile, we feel bad. And disempowered. And disregarded. And often angry…

Ironically, the people who are doing the interrupting are usually completely unaware that they are not letting you finish what you were saying, and that they aren’t really even listening to you. They might be surprised, even affronted, if you suggested that they tend to dominate in conversations, and are very poor listeners. They might soon forget it too, even after you have pointed it out, whether they were surprised by your assertion or not. That is because the habit of interrupting is so unconscious, so ingrained in us, so highly conditioned. To one degree or another, perhaps we have all been socialized to interrupt each other while talking. In a room full of argumentative men, it can sometimes look and feel like nothing less than rituals of virility and power, no matter what the topic up for discussion may be.

For the person who tends to be fairly out of touch with how much he or she interrupts others while they are speaking, which may include most of us at one time or another, it takes a lot of fortitude and presence of mind and openheartedness to take in and absorb such a pointing out of one’s own automatic patterns of conversation, especially since, whether we know it or not, the interrupting is basically a display of self-centeredness and self-absorption that conveys that whatever I am impelled to say is more important, in this moment at least, and therefore can’t wait, than any view or feeling that anybody else might want to express, no matter who they are and how much I care about them.

A moment’s reflection will reveal that such behavior can actually be a form of subtle or not-so-subtle violence, in that it can be harmful both to the individual you are interrupting, and therefore disregarding, and perhaps as well to the integrity of a collective process you are engaged in. It is a mark of character, once such a pattern has become conscious, to then be open to freeing yourself of it. It takes a great deal of mindfulness to accurately monitor your own behavior in the domain Buddhists refer to as right speech.

But if we resent being interrupted by others, and see how much we may also be doing it to others, perhaps we might do well to realize a whole other dimension of interrupting that we are ordinarily even more unaware of—that is, how much we interrupt ourselves. We can more readily catch this happening in our meditation practice. Once we see it there, we are more likely to see it in our daily lives as well.

When we begin watching the unfolding of thoughts in the mind and sensations in the body in formal meditation practice, we rapidly discover that new events arise and distract our attention from what we were thinking or feeling just a moment before. Our experience of the moment is thereby interrupted, and often forgotten in the flight to the next thing that tweaks our hunger for novelty or our hair-trigger emotional reactivity. In this way, we can easily and unwittingly betray one experience, the one we are having, for another, hopefully a “better” one, without allowing the first actually to be held in awareness and complete itself.

This is where the capacity for sustaining attention comes in. Mindfulness practice leads not only to our becoming more aware of this very strong tendency to interrupt ourselves, to distract ourselves and be diverted from what we are attending to in this moment, from what we might call our primary object or focus of attention; as we have seen, it also leads to training our attention to be more stable, more unwavering, less entrained into the interruptive and distracting energies of the thought stream and of transitory emotional states. In that way, over time, we are fashioning the instrument of our attention so that it is well anchored and stable and can, microscope-like, focus and discern what is unfolding beneath the surface of appearances and of our own unawareness at a much higher level of resolution and accuracy.

Without this kind of stability in our awareness, we will continue to succumb to interrupting ourselves and not even know it. And interrupting ourselves is really nothing less that subverting ourselves. It has a huge amount of dissipative energy in it, preventing us, if we are not careful, from ever really mobilizing the full repertoire of our strengths and creativity, and sensibilities. We can blunder along for decades in such patterns, missing what is right before us or within us, because we are always allowing the lenses through which we are looking to fog up. As a consequence, our own authenticity, our own authentic life direction can be missed, and we may wind up feeling truly lost and depleted without any inkling of why.

So, it can be profoundly useful and revealing to put those very instances in which we are diverted from our own greater purpose by our own self-generated interruptions—where we have nobody else we can accuse of doing it but ourselves—to put them center stage in the field of our awareness when they arise, letting them become the object of our meditation practice in those very moments.

This interior process of interrupting ourselves can also be seen at times in our outward behavior patterns, and that too can be a very valuable object of meditation. Perhaps you have noticed the occasions when, in talking with other family members, you don’t let yourself complete a thought or a sentence without coming out with the next thing that comes to mind, even if it is a huge non sequitur, and another instance of not letting yourself complete a thought.

We do the same in conversation with people outside the family. Our mind gets going and we stop attending. It has too much momentum of its own to actually hear even what it is saying, no less what anyone else is saying. That is when we start interrupting them as well as ourselves. A little awareness goes a long way in this regard, but still, these unconscious patterns carve very deep habitual ruts in the psyche, and it requires major intentionality to catch ourselves, to cease and desist. How will we ever know ourselves, be able to listen to ourselves, or understand ourselves if we keep on interrupting ourselves without even knowing it?

And how will we ever be present for someone else if we refuse to listen and we keep finishing other people’s sentences (because we tacitly assume, with considerable arrogance, if you stop and think about it, that we know better than they do what they are trying to say), or if we wind up unconsciously blurting out whatever is dominating in our own mind at the moment, even though it may have no direct relationship to what was just said? The quality of our relationships with others, to say nothing of the quality of our relationship with ourself, can suffer greatly if we do not bring some modicum of awareness to this arena.

October 18th, 2012 | Permalink

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