Listening Deeply, Empowering Action

Excerpts from Dharma Talk at Smith College
September 2018


I want to offer a poem to begin.  This is called Clearing by Martha Postlewaite.

Do not try to save
the whole world
or do anything grandiose.
Instead, create
a clearing
in the dense forest
of your life
and wait there
patiently,
until the song
that is your life
falls into your own cupped hands
and you recognize and greet it.
Only then will you know
how to give yourself
to this world
so worthy of rescue.

This poem is a reminder to me that we need to listen to ourselves in order to listen to others, and to respond with empowering action. We need to have this clearing in the dense forest of our lives especially when things around us get really dense…It may be that there are those of us who find ourselves in our daily lives in a world that’s getting more dense. The forest of this society may be more dense with hatred, with discrimination, with falsity. Especially when things become more dense in our own personal lives and in our communities we really need to create a clearing to listen to ourselves, to find what is right action in that situation.

I had the chance to sit with a monk, Bhikkhu Anālayo, a Theravada monk and scholar who trained in Sri Lanka but lives in Massachusetts… He shared a story how the Buddha was told that there was a monk who was dying.  A number of monks had died from some kind of disease, this monk had the same symptoms, and he was coming close to the end. So his attendant came to tell the Buddha and asked the Buddha to come visit this monk one last time. The Buddha said, okay, I’ll come, but first he meditated. He sat down, did his practice, and then he went to visit the monk.

I found this story impressive and challenging because my impulse would be to go right away if someone was about to die.  But that would be that sense of urgency, that sense of being pulled.  And the Buddha seems to have resisted that. Perhaps so that he could offer something like this poem is speaking to, and he could be coming from that place when he visited the dying monk.

It’s about settling into ourselves so that whatever comes next has that flavor of stillness, of stopping, of real presence. So it’s not that we’re not going to respond.  It’s not that we’re not going to act. It’s not that the Buddha said, “No, I’m not going to visit him,” but he responded, “let me be my best self to do that.” 

Listening deeply, pausing, reflecting, is the foundation for action. It is the basis for right action, for action empowering to us and empowering to others. We need some time to listen into what that action is.  

What I’m really pointing to is the importance of listening to ourselves, of creating space so that wisdom that’s in us can emerge.  When we think about situations of conflict where there’s hurt on many sides, there’s misunderstanding, there’s blame, there’s judgement. In these situations, listening is key, it is crucial. People need to have their suffering heard in order to move on. Everyone involved needs the opportunity to listen to perspectives different from their own.