Sunday, September 17, 2017

So Difficult, So Simple

Why is something as essential and frequent as communicating with others so rife with potential disaster? It's one of the human mysteries. In The Art of Communicating, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh explores that mystery and reveals the tools for improvement.

Beginning with a gentle insistence that our electronic devices interfere with communication rather than enhancing it, Nhat Hanh encourages us to take time away from the hustle and bustle of life to "water the flowers" of our own awareness and show love and caring to those around us. Using simple words and examples from nature to explain deep concepts is Nhat Hanh's forte. That talent is very much on display here. As the reader's awareness is fine-tuned, what seems to be a text of oversimplification reveals itself as a book of wisdom.

Returning to the breath and our own awareness forms the bedrock of Nhat Hanh's communication art. Being gentle with ourselves -- not excusing feelings, but not condemning them, either -- leads to being gentle with others. When we are calm and centered, we are able to look on others with compassion and speak to them with love. And that leads to the heartfelt use of the mantras of communication. I write them here as a touchstone, although the book itself contains the full exposition that gives them their power:

1. I am here for you.
2. I know you are there, and I am very happy (because we have the chance to communicate).
3. I know you suffer, and that is why I am here for you.
4. I suffer, please help (or more specifically: I suffer and I want you to know. I am doing my best. Please help.).
5. This is a happy moment (because we are alive together and have the opportunity to understand each other).  
6. You are partly right (because all people are a combination of qualities, neither criticism or praise is the entire story).

Deceptively simple, I know. Nhat Hanh makes no promise for instant success, only that with practicing these mantras, we can become more skilled in communication. Once the conversation is initiated with these words, attentive listening, staying calm within oneself, not being caught up in pride, and other techniques keep the communication moving toward understanding and reconciliation.

It's a little difficult to imagine saying these words to someone who is actively hostile and angry. But imagine these words being said with kindness and genuine concern, by someone beloved or by another, such as a coworker. Whose cold and stony heart would not melt and open enough to allow communication to begin?


If we wait for the other person to change, we may spend all our time waiting. So it's better that you change yourself. Don't try to force the other person to change. Even if it takes a long time, you will feel better when you are master of yourself and you are doing your best.

Sometimes when you see your partner behaving in a way that irritates you, you might want to reproach him or her. If you immediately try to correct him, he may get irritated, and then you both are irritated and become unkind. It is as if the blue sky disappears, the green trees disappear, and you are two blocks of suffering bumping against each other. This is the escalation of war, the escalation of unhappiness. You have to disentangle yourself from the unhappiness and go back to yourself, back to your peace, until you know how to handle the situation in a loving way.

Note: This book counts toward the 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge

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