Saturday, September 10, 2011

Real Communication

One of the reasons I started meditating seriously was to learn how to better communicate with other people. Long before I showed up at my first meditation class, I felt like my life was lacking substance and direction.

I had a decent career and people who loved me, but I still felt like something was missing. I had a feeling that I couldn’t truly and deeply communicate with others the way I wanted to, or the way I did when I was younger. I had heard that Buddhist monks, when tested by psychologists, had an uncanny aptitude for recognizing emotional nuances in the facial expressions of people, whose photographs were shown to test subjects.

I thought to myself that perhaps, through meditation, I could learn to see and hear more clearly what people were trying to communicate to me. Perhaps I’d learn to be a better listener, perhaps my attention would improve, perhaps I’d learn something about these mysterious concepts called empathy and compassion, perhaps my relationships would deepen, who knows… All I really knew was that human interaction was important to me, and although I had lots of friends and acquaintances, I didn’t really feel like I knew these people.

At some point I had the realization that reading minds is not such a complex thing. I’m not talking about superhuman powers here. I’m talking about the fact that the biggest thought in the minds of most humans aren’t isn't very complex.

Charles Schultz satirized this when he invented the Peanuts cartoon characters, who live in a complex world of emotions that seem especially shocking to children. These emotions ranged from sadness and disappointment to joy and appreciation for scraggly looking Christmas trees. From the perspective of Charlie Brown and his friends, adults are oblivious to the broken-hearted beauty of life, so they only say one thing, “wah wah wah wah.” That seems just about right for 90% of what we humans try to communicate to each other. If our house-pets could understand the basic gist of what we talk about, they would probably hear us saying, “me, me, me” at least 90% of the time. I don’t mean this to be mean to my fellow humans. It’s just that I think we are all very wrapped up in ourselves. I’m no different than anyone else in this regard.  

I’m not trying to paint a stark picture of inescapable human superficiality and self-absorption either. Humans have an incredible capacity to love each other and express themselves the way other beings do not. I think it is important for all of us to learn to communicate better and realize our human potential. We can start by slowing down the chatter, the “wah wah wah wah,” that is constantly cycling through our minds: “Me want that. He was mean to me. Me lonely. Me feel anxious. Me bored. Does anyone love me? Why does this shit always happen to me!“  Then the trick is to look someone in the eye and hear what they are saying without trying to think of how you want to respond, or the next brilliant point you are about to make, or who whatever else distracts you from communicating truly. 

Sometimes I find myself on edge, wanting to express myself and impose a solid self (me) on the world. I caught myself falling into the trap of asserting “me” just the other day. I was talking to a co-worker about something that obviously meant a lot to her. As I was giving her the impression that I was listening, I had a great idea that I thought might make her idea even more interesting (at least to me). I was formulating the idea in my mind, waiting for the moment to spring it on her and blow her mind. Then she kept talking. I started to get impatient for her to shut up so I could make my point. That’s when I realized I wasn’t even listening. I was having a conversation in my own head and I had only a vague idea of what she was saying.

At that point I started paying attention to her words and I realized how passionate she was about this subject. That gave rise to a smile inside of me. I was suddenly delighted by her interest in this subject and I decided to let go of that idea I was holding onto. I realized that my idea wasn’t going to enhance her idea. I was just trying to put my stamp on her idea. I was just pissing on fire hydrants. Listening to her was much more interesting. I just wonder how many times I’ve failed to listen to somebody as I distracted myself with my own thoughts, and through all of this, failed to recognize what I was doing, failed to truly communicate, and missed an opportunity to know another human being.

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