309 Days Remain

The directors of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care spend most of their waking hours being with people who are sick or terminally ill.  Their emotional IQ is genius level.

From the start of our Year to Live class, co-founder Robert Chodo Campbell and Sensei Barbara Joshin O’Hara of the Village Zendo have been coaching us in how to listen.

I think I’m pretty decent at that, I thought to myself when they first brought it up.  Look someone in the eye.   Concentrate.  Smile/ frown/ nod along, where appropriate.  Add in occasional verbal acknowledgments: “yes’s”  and “mmhmm’s.”

In many contexts, that’s right.  But it’s not what our teachers meant at all.

Their brand of listening comes from a deeper place.  We’re being taught to notice what it’s like to not use body language and words.   Importantly, we’re encouraged to refrain from mentally preparing our response while the other person is still talking.

This is incredibly difficult to do.

Last class, we were divided into pairs and given the task of simply listening as our partner talked for 5 minutes about how they were doing in month 2 of the Year to Live.

At first I found myself practically sitting on my hands and biting my tongue so as not to nod knowingly or tell my partner, “Exactly!  That’s how I felt too.”

After we settled in a bit, I began to see that my usual habits as a listener actually distract me from truly interacting with another person.  It’s as if all of the words and body language I use are a form of editorializing — adding my judgment to someone else’s experience — which makes the listening more about me than about the person speaking.   I also felt an amazing sense of freedom at not having to plot out what I would say after he finished.

When we switched places and I was the one speaking, I felt cared for.  The whole interaction left me feeling like I had not just listened to this perfect stranger, but had fully connected with him.

I’ve been practicing deep listening in my life this week.  I find it challenging enough to simply stop what I’m doing and turn around to face my kids when they’re trying to tell me something.

In the grocery store, I even noticed that it’s entirely possible to walk in, navigate the aisles, stand in the check out line, swipe my credit card, pick up my bags and leave without ever so much as looking someone in the eye or saying a word.   It’s a soul-numbing experience, and I don’t recommend it.

To be sure, there’s a time and a place for deep listening.  There’s a time and a place for a few pleasantries.  There’s a time and a place for holding hands and giving hugs.

I just want to make sure that I don’t miss the opportunities to connect with others, who are sometimes quite literally staring me in the face.

There was an article about silence in yesterday’s New York Times by a reporter with cancer.  Let me close with a few lines:

Words can just be inadequate.  And as we stumble and trip toward trying to say the right and true thing, we often reach for the nearest rotten-out cliché for support.  Better to say nothing, and offer the gift of your presence, than to utter bankrupt bromides.

Silences make us squirm.  But when I was sickest, most numbed by my treatment, it was more than healing to bask in a friend’s compassionate silence, to receive and give a hug, to be sustained by a genuine smile.

Strangely enough, although cancer threatened my life it also exalted it, brought with it a bright and terrible clarity.

So, no, cancer isn’t a battle, a fight.  It’s simply life – life raised to a higher power.