Starting Where We Are
At the Universalist Recovery Church, we’ve been exploring different aspects of listening. For instance, when we listen deeply to one another, we provide each other a gift. We see, and we are seen; hear and are heard. That, by itself, can be healing.
Listening to ourselves can be just as healing. But many people find it easier to listen to the stories, fears, and hopes of others than to pay attention to their own. When we hear what’s going on inside us, we can feel embarrassed or afraid. How, then, do we listen to ourselves without flinching? Where do we begin?
According to the Buddhist teacher, Pema Chödrön, we start where we are. Don’t wait until “you get it all together and you’re this person you really respect.”  Start with who you are, in this moment.
Listening without Judgment
On one level, that seems pretty obvious. Where else would we start?
But if we think about it, we realize that starting where we are is not so easy. To start where we are means we don’t pretend to be someone we’re not, some great person with lofty thoughts and generous tendencies, unless, of course, that’s really who we are. Listening to ourselves, which meditation can help us do, is about seeing our true essence and being honest about it. To start where we are, we can’t be looking at the person we were a year ago or the one we hope to be tomorrow or the one we convince ourselves we are because we can’t bear to be anyone else.
To find healing from our listening, we must face the parts of ourselves we don’t like. We must look at our true nature.
But it’s not only that. To start where we are, we must not only see and listen, but see and listen without judgment. As soon as the judgment arises, as soon as the twinge of shame or embarrassment pricks us, or we wonder how we could be so petty, we have stopped seeing what is truly there. Even if our judgments are nice ones, they get in the way. Maybe we think we’re smart, or we’re complimenting ourselves on our wit or our wokeness. That feels good, but it’s not seeing. It’s not listening.
When we judge, we lose sight of who we are. In the judgment, all we can see are our emotions, thoughts, and interpretations about reality. Judgments have very little to do with reality itself. They say more about who we are than about what is happening now.
The Radical Acceptance of Non-Judgment
Which is okay. Judging is part of who we are, as well. Even our judgments aren’t good or bad in and of themselves. So the task with meditation, or mindfulness, or inner listening, is to observe, to witness who we are and what arises, to notice how we criticize ourselves. Then we need to be gentle with our niggling thoughts, our frustrated feelings. We need to listen to what arises, allow it to be what it is, and let it go.
That’s what it means to start where we are.
If this is hard for us, it may be because we don’t like who we are. We want to be someone kinder or more patient, more organized or more creative. We want to be someone else. So we start meditating because we think it will make us better people.
But, as Chödrön explains, meditating won’t transform our irascible nature into a gentle one or help us get to work on time or remove our fears. Meditating won’t turn us into someone we’re not. If that’s what we want from meditation, it helps to remember that, as Chödrön writes, “the desire to change is fundamentally a form of aggression toward yourself.” 
In other words, if we long to change our basic nature, we must think we’re not okay to begin with, that there’s a part of us that is shameful. To enter into a meditation practice with the intention of improving our basic nature, is like a betrayal. After all, meditation is a form of listening. When we listen, we invite honesty and vulnerability. Then, if we judge what we hear, it’s like we’ve slapped ourselves. It is not gentle, nor is it kind, and honest, deep listening must be kind and gentle, or it will harm rather than heal.
Finding the Gift in Our Foibles
There’s another reason Chödrön encourages us to start where we are and observe without judgment. Everything we dislike about ourselves contains the seeds of our greatest gifts. Along with anger comes energy and a power to move mountains. The shy person often observes the most. The person who is disorganized and chronically late is often creative. The ebullient talker not only entertains, but can help the confused, lonely, or frightened person feel more comfortable.
So our task is not to rid ourselves of anger, shyness, or disorganization, or a forceful personality, but to “make friends” with who we are.  If we can be gentle with the parts of us that make us squirm – our scorn, our resentment, our envy, our feelings of disgust, or whatever it is we were taught we should never think or feel – if we can observe such qualities within ourselves with gentleness and generosity rather than with criticism, we may find it becomes easier to either let them go and make use of them.
After all, if our negative qualities are gifts, then we could channel even our resentments into something of worth and value. Within that resentment, we might find a kernel of understanding that can grow into forgiveness. Then we wouldn’t feel the need to seek revenge or write scalding text messages. But we can’t do so unless we look, watch, and listen without judgment.
Feelings and thoughts are not destiny. They need not dictate our behaviors. Only when we don’t listen to ourselves do we get lost in reactivity. The simple act of listening allows us to choose what we wish to do. The more we listen, the better we become at choosing how we will behave. Over time, even if this is not the goal, our nature will change. Not because we shamed ourselves into submission or tried to be someone else, but because we loved ourselves and made friends with our shadow side.
Running from Ourselves
It’s not easy to be honest with ourselves. Looking deeply and seeing what is there, paying attention to our rising and shifting thoughts, observing our sensations, listening to the depths of our hearts, can make us uncomfortable. We see things we don’t want to see.
Maybe we have memories we’d rather forget or aspects of our personality we were taught to extinguish, and seeing them make us squirm. As we sit and pay attention, physical discomforts may distract us. Heartache may disturb us. Paying attention to our inner being can feel almost like a punishment.
After all, most of us spend the bulk of our days trying to run from the parts of ourselves we don’t like. We relegate them to the shadows. We project them onto others so we don’t have to own them. If that doesn’t work, we distract ourselves with busyness, entertainment, addictions. These are great ways to avoid seeing what we’ve hidden within our psyche.
But that doesn’t work forever. Eventually, even if we aren’t trying to listen to our inner being, something we don’t like will bubble up into our awareness.
Then we have a choice. We can watch, listen, observe without judgment, and make friends with our shadow. Or we can label ourselves and our experience. Labeling is a problem, whether the label is critical or laudatory.
The Problem with Praise
We might think it’s a good thing to tell ourselves how great we are, how pious or smart or sexy, but when we put a label on a way of being, we judge it. Either we are good or we are bad. If we are bad, of course we feel ashamed of ourselves. But if we are good, what happens when we mess up? All of us can be pious sometimes, but we all have moments when we get angry and maybe swear at God. We can be smart and still act without thinking. And none of us can look sexy all the time.
To build ourselves up with praise and pride is not self-acceptance. It is not self-love. It is judgment, and all judgments contain within them the seeds of condemnation. To brag about our strengths, to regale others with our accomplishments, may feel good while we’re doing it, but usually we know it’s a lie. We’re pretending to be infallible. Eventually, we will fail, and if we live in a world of good and bad, that failure will seem intolerable. Accolades and compliments may feel good when we hear them, but they put us on tenuous ground.
That doesn’t mean we should condemn ourselves. Nor does it mean we should never point out the strengths we see in others or the gifts we notice. But there’s a difference between doing this and tossing around indiscriminate praise.
Indiscriminate Versus Helpful Praise
Indiscriminate praise might look like this: “What do you mean you’re worried about your presentation? You’re so good at public speaking, you’re going to do great.”
The first thing you might notice is that the speaker didn’t pay attention to her friend’s concerns. In fact, she dismissed them. She discounted her friend’s feelings, basically telling him he didn’t know what he was talking about. When you come right down to it, her reaction was harsh. It certainly wasn’t about listening.
If we’re offering helpful praise, on the other hand, we might start by acknowledging how our friend is feeling. “Can you tell me more about your worries? Yeah, I can see why that would be scary. You’ve got a lot riding on this.”
Then we might point out some strengths we’ve seen in the person’s presentations, such as, “When you speak in public, I notice you connect with your audience through eye contact, and when you start telling a story up there, I’ve seen the audience start to relax.”
This doesn’t promise the speaker he will do well this time. How do we know? However, such words do remind him that he’s done well in the past and has skills he can draw on.
But before we comment, we listen. Sometimes listening is all it takes. When a person feels heard, she can often figure out the answer to her problem by herself. Or not by herself entirely. We, the listener, do a lot just by witnessing.
Telling Ourselves Stories
To witness for ourselves is important, too. Yet we can’t do that if we judge, at least not if we believe our judgments, and we don’t want to do that, judgments are just stories we tell ourselves.
My first spiritual director taught me about “stories.” These aren’t the fairy tales and myths we weave to entertain and educate. The kinds of stories she was talking about are the rationalizations we make to justify our actions, the rationales we develop to prove ourselves right, the interpretations we make about what we see.
I didn’t have any choice, or That was so rude of her, or He made me do it, or Anyone would be furious about what she did.
Thoughts and feelings arise on their own, and stories are a kind of thought. We can’t keep ourselves from having them, but we can choose whether to feed them or not. If we cling to them and rehearse them, our stories will get stronger. In this way, people have talked themselves into all manner of horrible actions, including torture and murder.
Letting Go of Stories
Yet stories aren’t true. They don’t represent reality. The reality of the story, He made me do it, might be an event in which a woman’s husband comes home later than she expected without letting her know. As soon as he walks in the door, she screams at him. He shoves her, and she stumbles onto the couch. He starts walking into the other room. She collects herself and chases after him, kicking him in the back of the knee, which is the action she’s talking about when she says, “He made me do it.”
That’s a description of what happened. We could add things like smells, sounds, physical sensations, even emotions. As long as we stick to a straight description of the event, we are, to a greater or lesser degree, sticking with what is real. Obviously, we each have different viewpoints, and we choose what facts to highlight and which to ignore.
Nonetheless, there’s not a lot of “story” in this tale.
Yet most people will add opinions, judgments, assumptions, and interpretations to a tale like this. “He knew I’d be worried,” or “Every time I come home, she yells at me,” or “I knew he didn’t care about me,” or “He probably has a girlfriend on the side.”
If we believe these stories, we will get lost in our emotions. But if we can remember that stories aren’t reality, that they are our interpretations about reality, we can begin to let them go. Because no matter how complex they are, stories are just another kind of thought. When they show up, we can greet them, which by itself takes away some of their power.
Buddha and Mara
It is said that when the Buddha sat beneath the Bodhi tree, the tempter, Mara, beset him. On Buddha’s last night meditating, Mara tried to get him to return to his life as Siddhartha, a life of wealth and power, privilege and ease.
Of course, Buddha didn’t give in to temptation. We know that. However, he didn’t triumph over Mara by yelling at him or telling him to go away. Instead, he welcomed the demon.
“Hello, Mara, my friend,” he said.
After all, Mara isn’t a creature who lives outside of us. He represents the longings in our own heart, our own frustrations, insecurities, and lack. If we pretend Mara is not part of us, and we send him away, the lust, fear, shame, and despair that lie within us will fester. We will project our demons onto others. If we do this often enough, we can become cruel and despotic.
Our stories are like that. They are part of us, not part of reality. So we must face them, just as we face our shadows.
How do we do this? We start from where we are, and we listen.
Listening to Ourselves
To listen, we must observe our stories without endorsing them. Once we move past the observation of the experience – the thought, the emotion, the behavior – we get into fabrication. We start making things up. That is the story, and it causes all manner of problems. It doesn’t matter if the story is one of chastisement or praise, we need to let it go.
Of course, it isn’t easy to let the stories go. First, we have to realize we’re telling a story. But the moment we realize that is the moment we can choose. Do we feed the story, or do we let it float past like a cloud blown on a gentle breeze?
It doesn’t matter how many stories we’ve told ourselves, nor does it matter how long we get stuck believing the tales we tell. Every time we notice, every time we pause to watch, witness, and listen, we build our capacity to let go of our stories.
Starting Where We Are, Again
So the first thing we can do is listen. And listen, and listen, and listen. Welcome Mara. Befriend the parts of yourself you don’t like. Then, listen some more. Be gentle, kind, compassionate, and forgiving with yourself. Notice without judgment.
This is how we change. By starting where we are, without seeking to be who we are not, we end up growing, transforming, becoming our true selves, the self that knows how to love, to be generous. We become free.
Like with most things, it’s that simple and that hard. Starting where we are, meditating, easing our way into transformation, is about listening to our inner self, and returning to that self as soon as we notice we have become distracted by thoughts, feelings, sensations, and beliefs. Over and over, stories will arise. We will fail to listen, getting caught up in judgments instead.
That’s all right. No matter how many times we get lost, we can start again. As we learn to listen without judgment, as we learn to be gentle and loving to ourselves, no matter who we are or what arises within us, we will begin to heal, for listening heals, whether we do it for others or we do it for ourselves.
In faith and fondness,
Copyright © 2020 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved
- Chödrön, Pema, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Boston: Shambhala, 2002, 110.
- Chödrön, Pema, The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness, Boston: Shambhala, 1971, 14.
- Ibid 15.
Copyright © 2020 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved