Engaging in Deep Listening

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

I hope you are all well and warm on this winter morning.

joanne-Thay11I know that with all of the hatred, anger and violence that is manifesting in our world, we are all looking deeply at how to engage effectively so that we can be of some help.  I would like to offer a recent experience to add to the possibilities that others have shared.

I  am a member of the Chaplain’s Association at a local university. We had a meeting after the publicized incidents of police violence against people of color in our country. A Sangha sister and I had offered a workshop on Deep Listening several years ago where a panel of two Israelis and two Palestinians shared their experiences  with, and views about the situation in the Middle East. It was very fruitful, so I shared with the other Chaplain’s that we might offer a similar workshop on the topic of racism.

At the University, they observe an annual Martin Luther King Week, when students return from their holiday break. So the Chaplain’s sponsored a Deep Listening Workshop as part of that week. We invited three students of color to speak for ten minutes about  their experiences and views about racism and discrimination. The students we invited were very enthusiastic about doing this.

I offered instruction on deep listening to the audience that gathered and described deep listening, as listening simply to truly understand the person who was speaking. I shared that in our daily life we often think that listening is just being quiet while another is speaking. We have often been conditioned to listen from a place of comparing what is being said, to what we think we already know. We fall into a dualistic type of thinking – I agree, I don’t agree, that’s right, that’s wrong, that’s good, that’s bad, etc. Thay always reminds us that when we listen in that way, we are not open to learning anything.

The audience was reminded to watch their minds to notice if they fell into that pattern.

Another obstacle to truly listening is that we are often thinking about how we will respond when the speaker is finished. They were asked to notice and set aside any of these thoughts, because there would be no opportunity for debate or discussion about the content of what the panelists offered, but only about their own experiences of listening….what they noticed about their habits of mind, any insights that they had, etc. It was also suggested that if, while listening, they noticed strong emotions arising, they needed to stop and take three deep breaths to their bellies to help themselves remain calm enough to listen.

The students on the panel did a wonderful job of sharing heartfelt experiences. Then the audience responded in ways that indicated that they had been observing their minds and several were very surprised by what they noticed. They became aware of patterns of judging and comparing, feeling the need to have an opinion,  and one mentioned that he noticed how difficult it was to keep his mind focused, even when he was very interested in what was being said.

I then asked the panelists if they would be willing to share what it was like for them to be listened to.

They all said that they were so moved by the true presence of those who were listening and how good it felt to know they were being heard. One said that he was usually very self conscious when speaking in public and was very careful about saying the right thing. He shared that he felt so much love in the group that had gathered, he felt safe to share whatever came into his heart. He later wrote me a note that he hoped we would do more of these so he could be in the audience and practice listening!

All in all, it was a very moving evening. Since then, because of the killing of Muslim students in North Carolina and some hateful graffiti defacing a Muslim school in RI. The Muslim chaplain has invited me to work with him to off another Deep Listening workshop for the Muslim students to be heard.

If anyone is interested in offering such a workshop, I would offer one word of caution.  The facilitator needs to be able to be very assertive. That was not necessary at the gathering on racism…but after the workshop on the Middle East, because we had people with very different views, there was more emotion and the first person to speak after the panelists were done, offered an opinion about what had been said. I needed to stop her and be very clear that although such a discussion could be very interesting, at this particular workshop we were simply going to focus on our experience of listening. From then on, folks followed the guidelines and we had a very fruitful sharing.

I deeply appreciate all that others have shared about the countless ways there are to take our practices to the wider world.

With much love and deepest gratitude for Thay, who has offered us these beautiful practices,

Your sister,


Chan Lac Thi

True Joy of Giving

[Editor’s note: Joanne Friday is a dharma teacher in the lineage of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay). I’m happy to reproduce this fine lesson on deep listening which I received on Wednesday.


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