Practising Listening with Empathy, by Thich Nhat Hanh

Mustang girl and prayer flags. Photo © Lisa DaixYesterday, Sister True Virtue talked a little bit about the fourth precept concerning speaking and listening. This is a very deep practice. Listening is an art, and many people do not have the capacity for it, especially in the case of listening to the suffering of others. One reason for that is that in the listeners themselves, there is also much pain. The store consciousness is filled with pain and grief, and that is why it is so difficult for such people to listen to others. In order to be able to listen, we need to learn how to transform the suffering in ourselves.

Talking is also an art because if we have many internal formations within us and if we do not know the art of mindful breathing, then while speaking we shall be carried away by our feelings, our anger, and what we say may hurt people deeply. Both speaking and listening must, there­fore, be practised together with mindful breathing and working at transforming the internal forma­tions within us.

During my second dharma talk here, I said that sometimes we can deal directly with our pain by welcoming it into the living room of mindfulness, and sometimes we just let it sleep there quietly in the depths of our consciousness, taking the opportunity to water the seed of happiness within us in order to restore a balance. We have to do both. Psychotherapy believes that if you have pain, you should be able to express it, but because the people around you also have a lot of pain, they are not able to listen to you. Each person is an island. If no one has the capacity to listen to another person, everyone feels very alone. You get sick. No communication is possible. You cannot tell anyone about your pain. That is why psychotherapists have become important in our society. They are supposed to be people who will sit and listen to us. The first task of psychotherapists is to sit quietly and listen; they are not supposed to talk back. If they argue with us, if they talk back, then they are not psychotherapists. We don’t need them and we will not pay them! I need you to sit and listen. I don’t need your advice. I don’t need your condemnation. The psychotherapist should practise listening with empathy. The question here is: Is the psycho­therapist happy or not? If she or he is filled with internal formations, then even if he pretends to sit quietly to listen to you, he will not really be listening and you will not feel relieved. That you can see very well. When someone is truly listening, you feel it; and when someone pretends to listen, you know. Psychotherapists, therefore, are those who have to practise, first. They are supposed to be bodhisattvas helping others, but in order to be able to listen, one should empty oneself; one should be able to transform one’s own internal formations.

Even if you don’t suffer too much, if you sit and listen to four people in a row relating their painful experiences, you will find it difficult to eat your meal after that. You need time in between to practise walking meditation, to play with the children, and so on, in order to re-establish the balance. Then you can eat your meal. The next day you are ready to encounter another person. If psychotherapists, doctors, and healers of any kind, are too busy, if they don’t take the time to re-create themselves, they will not be in a position to help anyone. They will be burned up very quickly. In the helping professions’ retreats, I urge that psychotherapists and doctors arrange their daily schedules so that they have the opportunity to recover, to be fresh again, to be able to listen again, in order to truly serve the people who come to them.

Mustang, Old lady walking. Photo © Lisa DaixIn Buddhist circles, Avalokiteshvara is referred to as a person who knows the art of listening. In fact, his name is translated as ‘the one who listens to the pain of the world’ — listening, contemplating the cries of the world. It is because of that practice that he became fully enlightened. And he continued to listen.

We all know that if we love someone, if we truly want to make someone happy, the first thing we must cultivate is the art of listening, because listening is very healing. If we spend time listening to the pain of the person we love, he or she will be relieved. And listening without judging releases pain. In the evocation of bodhisattva’s name we read this: ‘We evoke your name “Avalokiteshvara”. We aspire to learn your way of listening, in order to help relieve the suffering in the world. You know how to listen in order to understand. We evoke your name in order to practise listening with all our attention and open heartedness. We will sit and listen without any prejudice. We will sit and listen without judging or reacting. We will sit and listen in order to understand. We will sit and listen so attentively that we will be able to hear what the other person is saying and also what the other person is leaving unsaid. We know that, just by listening deeply, we alleviate a great deal of pain and suffering in the other person.’ So, evoking the name of Avalokiteshvara is to practise the art of listening. Then every one of us is the bodhisattva. Each of us has an Avalokiteshvara bodhisattva inside waiting to grow. So, this is not exactly a prayer, but more a kind of mindfulness practice. You evoke the name of the Buddha in order to bring about your capacity for listening, because listening is healing, relieving the suffering of the other person. You know, however, that your power of listening is limited. Therefore, the moment you feel that you cannot continue to listen, you have to tell him or her, ‘I need to do some walking meditation now. We’ll meet next week,’ or something like that. You have to refuel yourself with freshness; you need to practise walking meditation, sitting meditation, drinking tea, going with the children, anything that can bring back your balance, and that is what doctors and psychotherapists have to do.

From a talk given at the Thich Nhat Hanh Retreat September 1991.

First published in the February 1992 Buddhism Now.

5 Responses

  1. Thay’s words on compassionate listening and the blessings of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.

  2. You have to respect the Hahn!

  3. Thich Nhat Hanh’s words are filled with wisdom and compassion. Truly humbling.

  4. Thay’s love for humanity sings through each of his Dharma talks. How I appreciate his innate wisdom.

  5. I pray for long life for Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh . . . that I may be in his presence at some time in this lifetime.

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