By Kellie Schorr
“I want to quit my job, but I need the insurance,” she said.
“I know the economy is bad and I’m lucky to have a job at all, but every morning I wake with a sense of dread so pervasive my coffee is ruined with the salt of my tears. I spent so long going to school, working my way up, sacrificing time with my kids, and now, every damn day, I go to a place that I hate.”
“Well, you know what the Buddha said,” her friend remarks with a wry smile that’s supposed to be comforting and motivational at the same time. “Life is suffering.”
That’s when the singing bowl hit her friend in the head.
Well, at least in my “less-than-buddha-nature” imagination it does. It rings as it crashes against the friend’s thick skull, like a resounding gong screaming “Stop. Stop. Stop.”
“Spiritual bypassing,” as defined by Jon Welwood, refers the phenomena of people using (or misusing) spiritual ideas, platitudes and practices to avoid dealing with helplessness, unresolved issues or painful circumstances. We often think of spiritual bypassing as something we do in our lives and psyches, but all too frequently it becomes something we do to others as well.
We see people with good intentions who genuinely want to show care bypass the pain of loved others every day.
“Keep your chin up.”
“Law of attraction—bring in the good vibes.”
“This too shall pass.”
“Thoughts and prayers.”
Oh my Buddha! So many thoughts and prayers. It’s not that those phrases are bad per se, but when they get tossed into a personal interaction instead of genuine listening, care, and compassion they just add fuel to the wounded person’s mistaken belief that their issues don’t matter, and they should just shut up.
As spiritual practitioners, Buddhists can be unskilled when encountering suffering in someone else while we are still trying to clear up the matter of our own. What can we do to listen responsively with a soft heart and a wise mind?
Don’t Rub Samsara in the Wound.
It’s true the first Noble Truth tells us all life will contain suffering. However, that truth is supposed to be a diagnosis, not a cure. Imagine having a broken leg and going to the doctor who says, “You know, legs break” and walks out of the room. Sounds crazy, but it’s not much different than when we open up about our pain or reality and hear, “Well, samsara” as the response.
While the person sharing may not be asking for a cure, they aren’t wanting to be dismissed or balled up with the rest of humanity and tossed in the hamper. Relying on “everyone suffers” as an answer is dismissive and minimizing.
“I’m sorry you’re going through this. I wish it were not happening to you.”
‘I want you to know you are not alone.”
“I’m glad that you shared this with me.”
Don’t Apply the Bandage of Impermanence
Not long ago I listened to a dharma session from a well-respected teacher. She was talking about how to let go of anger before it eats you alive. She spoke about rage with the most serene, almost unsettling, smile. Then she said, “What it comes down to is this: you don’t have to be angry with that person anymore, because someday they are going to die.”
I’m being regularly discriminated against by my boss and I’m not going to be angry because he’s going to die someday? When? Soon? Is he going to die before my next employment review?
Like the topic of samsara, impermanence is something that is undeniable and absolutely correct. However, that doesn’t make it a good way to relate to people who are alive and hurting right now.
Change—and death—are complex ideas that carry their own heavy bags in our heads. Reminding hurting people that change and death are (possibly) around the next corner doesn’t always bring comfort. In fact, it can sometimes create even more sorrow, grief, stress or heighten the feeling of helplessness. Save the impermanence imperative for other conversations where the situation empowers adventure, not seeks comfort.
“I can see the anger (sadness/fear) you have over this. I’m glad you’re expressing it.
“You’re allowed to leave a situation that is harming you or do whatever it takes so support your needs.”
“I’m sorry you feel trapped in this sudation/emotion. I know that’s not where you want to be.”
Don’t Quote it and Make It Better
Unless you’re the Dalai Lama, your friends or family aren’t sharing with you just to hear what amazing brilliance you will offer or what poetic spiritual truth you’ve been studying. They are trying to get things out. They are trying to let you in.
Telling someone,“It hurts to be left by your girlfriend, but you have to remember that love is just another concept. You should strive for emptiness,” doesn’t make us look like a spiritual guru. It just makes us seem disconnected and inexperienced with eating at the grown-up’s table.
Koans, poems, memes, pithy lines about concepts, emptiness, renunciation, the gateless gate or a lecture on 14thcentury Tibetan teachers may all be wonderful things in a certain time and place, but as responses to everyday life pain they are about as helpful as a bicycle pump in a wildfire.
Nothing says, “I’m not listening” like having a friend tell you they are struggling to get back to regular life after a depressive episode and sending them a meme about how pressure turns coal into diamonds. People don’t need fancy words plastered on fake sunsets. A good, solid, “Wow, that sucks,” will suffice.
“I’ve got car keys, a driver’s license, and time. I’m ready to help. Especially if help means bringing over some lunch and sitting with you for a while.”
“I don’t know what to say other than I love you.”
Of course, the best advice ever given about listening is, “Shut your mouth and listen.”
However, most people still expect (or sometimes want) a response that affirms they were truly heard. Make sure yours is authentic, attentive and connecting.
There’s no ancient secret to being a responsive listener. All you have to be is real.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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