Seeing Beyond the Surface
The past several weeks have been, to say the least, difficult. I’ve watched people I’ve known for years, decades even, alternately rise up in defense of deeply held values and devolve into behaviors more characteristic of the most dysfunctional reality television stars. As the emotional intensity of the events has waxed and waned, I have seen both of these in myself and find it unsettling.
Righteous indignation is a seductive thing to feel. Believing we have been wronged prompts the ignition of an immediate fire. Instead of putting it out, we nurture and fan it. Being the aggrieved, the victim, offers up something too tempting for us to ignore–motivation to fight back and fighting feels so very good. Fighting requires an opponent, however. In social psychology it has been demonstrated time and again that, when we feel harmed by another, it is our tendency to simplify our image of the victimizer as purely to blame and ourselves as purely blameless. Doing so preserves our precious but fragile egos and frees us to be mindlessly brutal in defending ourselves.
Being aware of this pattern has not provided me much protection from falling into the trap. The trap, because it is a trap, creates separation or more accurately the illusion of separation. The result is losing the ability to see the full humanness of those we have classified as other.When that happens, fights are ugly and oriented toward winning rather than dealing with the real issues that sparked disagreement in the first place. How do we break this cycle?
The seventh of Jampolsky’s Principles of Attitudinal Healing is that “we can become love-finders rather than fault-finders. Regardless of what another person’s behavior may be, we can always choose to see only the light of love in that person” (Jampolsky, 2000, p. 129). I’ll be honest, when I’m in the middle of a situation where I need to stand my ground, I’m not looking for goodness in others. I’m looking for weapons aimed in my direction. Eventually this doesn’t feel good. It feels isolating and induces fear.
Breaking the cycle requires, among other things, learning to listen. I remember once telling a friend that she wasn’t hearing what others were trying to say because there was too much chatter going on in her own head for her to listen. Hearing requires being silent. When I’m in fight mode, being silent is hard to do.
One of my favorite writers is Tara Brach. In one of her posts, she wrote about practicing deep listening in order to improve relationships and heal wounds. As she puts it, “[l]earning to listen involves stepping out of our incessant inner dialogue, and using what St. Benedict called the ‘ear of the heart'” (Ear of the heart, 2013, para. 2). The incessant inner dialogue includes starting your counter offensive arguments or planning your next statement while the other person is still talking. Stopping this is by no means easy.
After reading Brach’s description, I have been trying to listen without judgement and resistance more often. In one case, my teenager was in the passenger seat of my truck and apparently needed to vent about her teachers. While she talked, I caught myself developing bullet points for use in responding. I stopped immediately and forced myself to simply listen. What I heard was a kid who was stressed out and worried rather than a snarky, selfish adolescent who was being unfairly critical of adults doing a job she doesn’t understand. When she finished her rant I asked her if it helped to do that. She let out a huge breath but wasn’t sure it had. What was clear, was that had I argued points with her, the conversation would have become a useless and angry interchange of no benefit to anyone.
Deep listening is both inner and outer directed. I have to hear my own reactions (feelings of tension, resistance, hostility, or disappointment which are automatic and chronically accessible) and allow them to be there without judgement (Ear of the heart, 2013, para. 10). I also have to allow the other person in the conversation the space to be heard. As Brach describes it, doing so allows the “heart to soften with care” (Ear of the heart, 2013, para. 13).
Still, what do we do when we believe we are in fact being attacked or lied to or manipulated? Sharon Salzberg, in a blog post entitled Fierce Compassion, argues that “[i]t is indeed natural to be outraged in the face of injustice or cruelty. But when anger becomes a steady presence, it narrows our options, perceptions and possibilities. It burns us up. Unfortunately, many of us are taught to see non-aggression, and the resistance to us-vs.-them thinking, as passivity, weakness, or [as]delusional. In fact, it is an act of courage to step outside our familiar reaction patterns to discover approaches that can shift the dynamic we face” (Fierce compassion, 2012, para. 5). The exercise of fierce compassion means “redefining strength, deconstructing isolation and renewing a sense of community, practicing letting go of rigid us-vs.-them thinking — while cultivating power and clarity in response to difficult situations” (Fierce compassion, 2012, para. 6).
In an earlier post (Working with Your Enemies), Salzberg does not suggest being passive in the face of those who wish to harm us. She acknowledges that there are those who cause pain and we shouldn’t remain defenseless (Working with your enemies, 2008). Instead, Salzberg argues that what is required is “a readiness to step into new terrain, to be right at the edge between those we include, care about, feel responsive to, and those whom we wall off, exclude, automatically reject. It means taking an honest look at what really constitutes power and strength” (Working with your enemies, 2008, para. 6). I suppose one step in working with “my enemies” is not labeling them enemies any more. No more comfort and safety in us-and-them. As Salzberg states:
Imagine if we dropped our rigid need to be right, our easy perpetuation of what we are used to, our compulsion to take the easy way and just be like other people, and actually tried to practice what the Buddha taught: “Hatred will never cease by hatred, it will only cease by love.” It would be a whole new way of living: vibrant, creative, and perhaps quite surprisingly effective. (Working with your enemies, 2008, para. 9)
I hope I’m up to the task.