Basking in Compassionate Silence

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 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.

Tags: , , ,

13 responses to “Basking in Compassionate Silence”

  1. Love this! We practice listening at my sangha – I found it not only a new experience to listen in the way you describe, but also to be listened to in that way. I agree, it does feel supportive, but at that same time, for me, it opened up this vulnerability when I realized someone was REALLY listening.

  2. Barbara says:

    For your pursuit, I dedicate this Rumi poem I just re-discovered:


    Inside this new love, die.
    Your way begins on the other side.
    Become the sky.
    Take an axe to the prison wall.
    Walk out like someone suddenly born into color.
    Do it now.
    You’re covered with thick cloud.
    Slide out the side. Die,
    and be quiet. Quietness is the surest sign
    that you’ve died.
    Your old life was a frantic running
    from silence.

    The speechless full moon
    comes out now.

  3. LCS says:


    This reminded me of something (I think) Fran Lebowitz said, “There’s listening and there’s waiting.” I have this thought often in conversations when I realize that I am mostly “waiting” to say what I want to say instead of actually just…listening. Thanks for the reminder, and for another great post!

    Last night, I actually started to get sort of nervous and scared about you only having 309 days left…isn’t that weird? This whole journey/project seems pretty mind-blowing.

    Leslie 🙂

    • Barbara says:

      That quote sums it all up, Leslie. Tonight I’m going to ask my kids if they have an idea about what it means. (I wish someone had prompted me in this stuff when I was younger!)

      309 days. Nearly a quarter of the time gone. When I think about it that way, I start getting nervous and scared too. These are great emotions to explore more: what, precisely, makes us nervous/scared? What’s at the root of all of this?


  4. I like the listening and waiting.I catch myself sometimes waiting. I LOVE the Rumi poem. So well said!!!! I posted it on my blog as a reminder of the busyness we live in. So many distractions! Loving your blog!

  5. Oh, to add, today I made the effort to look the grocery clerk in the eye and say hello! 😉

    • Barbara says:

      I’m so happy you did that! Sometimes when I say hi to people, they seem a little shocked. My husband joked that I could be arrested for that in some places!

  6. Sven says:

    Listening is an art form, and it takes some practice to learn. Once we get our basic listening chops (as described in this lovely blog post) we get to improvise and jam. That’s when the fun starts ;-).

  7. Barbara says:

    It does feel like there’s more possibility when I’m in this mode. And the pressure is lifted to respond “intelligently.” Whew!

  8. This is a fascinating post. Highly thought-provoking and the type of reminder we need that quietening the mind and trusting in silence every now and then, can be liberating. Thank you.

    • Barbara says:

      Thanks for reading, Colleen! I just read your blog about the courageous move you made in Australia. We’ve been talking about what it’s like to take risks in the Year to Live group, and I’m so glad that you took the leap.

  9. Linda says:

    I have been working on listening for a bout a year myself and I am still struggling with it a lot. My mind is always going and the temptation to jump in(help, solve, comment..) while the other person is talking is on auto pilot. Thanks for the beautiful blog.

    • Barbara says:

      At first I thought this new style of listening would be a small improvement, but it turns out to be a radical change. Great to see you on-line, Linda!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *