There is no doubt that these are stressful times for many of us. A global pandemic, inflation, economic uncertainty, a major war in Europe, attacks on democracy itself here in the United States. Deep breath.
In this time, it is especially important to take time to think about our words. Both among friends and in public situations, our words have the power to sow division and to help foster healing.
Similarly, we must learn to listen with a heart of compassion toward others. Silently judging and hating others is better than shouting harmful things, but it is possible to go a step further.
How we listen and how we speak can both make a profound difference in our own lives and those of everyone around us.
Beauty of Silence
Most spiritual traditions hold a special place for silence. The world itself is loud. Everyone has an opinion. And most people are not shy about sharing it with us, requested or not.
But for spiritual, moral, and often psychological growth, often the most important thing is some silence. For me, this often comes in the early morning, when I wake up before everyone else in my house. It is cool out, there is nothing yet on my to-do list, and I can just sit and reflect.
Finding moments of silence is a gift you can give yourself. It is an opportunity to listen to your own inner voice. That voice is drowned out most of the time by the busyness of life. Slow down. Rest.
In Buddhism, there is a Bodhisattva (or Buddha-to-be) called Avalokiteshvara, which means “one who hears the cries of the world.” He, or sometimes She, as their gender shifts throughout history, is the Bodhisattva of compassion. This embodiment of compassion is manifest in a willingness to listen. Avalokiteshvara is often depicted with 1000 arms, each one reaching out to help another suffering being.
This example of compassion can be reflected back at us. If we wish to either generate or show compassion, we listen.
Letting go of ideas
Listening can also be hard when we quickly shift to “fix it” mode. I remember a friend advising me in my twenties to simply let my girlfriend, “take out the trash,” as she talked about her troubles of the day. My impulse upon hearing one or two was to respond with ideas on how to fix them. But this was not helpful. The point was not to fix each thing. It was just to listen. And for her it was to share and to know I was there for her.
It is all too human to want to fix each new problem as it arises. We survived and populated the world, after all, not by staying in our caves or huts, but by seeking out new territories and new ways of thriving. Each new era of exploration brought challenges. And the early humans who solved them were the ones who passed down their genes. So it’s no wonder that we are solvers of problems at a very gut-level.
And yet, the wisest among us have often been those who didn’t jump to solve the latest problem. The sages and philosophers tend to be those who sit back and wait and listen. Only after great time, after listening deeply, both to others and to their inner voice, do they speak.
We may know people like this. We eagerly anticipate their words because we know they are not chosen lightly. They come with a certain weight. In India, the term guru means “heavy.” These are heavy people in the sense that their very presence puts a sort of moral weight on us. We feel the need to slow down and think things out with them. And even more so, when they speak, their words have weight. Their words are like rocks that do not dissolve in the breeze like the utterances of so many of the rest of us.
The Buddha’s advice on right speech (one factor of the eightfold path to awakening) was to think about four things. First, we must ask if our speech is true. It can often seem easy and beneficial to tell a white lie, but we know that these can easily lead to difficult situations. Honesty clears the air, even if it is difficult at times. And speaking truth also helps us gravitate in life toward people who appreciate truth over lies.
Second, we can ask if our speech is useful. We may have many truths to talk about, but is sharing this or that truth hear and now going to be useful? This can mean useful in the ordinary everyday way, suggesting that it can help get things get done. And it can be useful in a deeper and long-term way, building comradery or offering things for others to think about. It can take time and making some mistakes to learn what words and ideas of ours are useful to others.
Third, we ask if our words are timely. When my wife or I are rushing around the house, getting our toddler ready for school, deep thoughts on the nature of the universe (however true and useful they might ultimately be) are not very timely. In fact, most words won’t be timely then. This is an invitation to listen and “read the room.”
Finally, we look to see if our words are motivated by compassion or loving-kindness. Speaking with kindness can be hard when we think things simply must be said, but this grounding can ensure that we do not cause harm with our speech.
Justin Whitaker, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in Buddhist ethics from the University of London. He has given lectures, and taught Buddhist studies and Philosophy at Oxford University, the University of Hong Kong, the University of Montana, and at Antioch University’s intensive study-abroad program in India. A certified meditation teacher, he is a regular contributor to Patheos.com, and Senior Correspondent for Buddhistdoor Global. Justin is the official blog writer for Sunflower Counseling MT in Missoula, Butte, Kalispell, Billings, and surrounding areas. He lives in Missoula with his family.