By Thich Nhat Hanh
August 23, 2018
Sometimes, in Plum Village (France), we sponsor groups of Israelis and Palestinians to come and practise with us. At first, it is very difficult for them to look at each other because each group has a lot of fear, suspicion and anger. So in the first week we advise both groups on how to breathe and recognise their emotions and release their tensions, to get in touch with the beauty of the place and get some nourishment. Then we help them to practise deep listening to the other group. You allow the other side to tell you about their suffering and you know that you will have time to do that too, to tell them how you suffer. But now you just sit and listen. This practice is called compassionate listening.
Compassionate listening has only one purpose – to allow the other side to speak out, to empty their heart and to suffer less. Maybe, no one has been able to listen to that person, so you may be the first one who can sit and listen peacefully to him. That is the practice of compassionate listening. You have to train yourself before you can listen. While the other person is expressing himself, he may water the seed of anger or irritation within you. What he may say might have a wrong perception, misunderstanding, bitterness, accusation … So what the other person might say may touch off irritation and anger and you may want to react by interrupting him. And if you do that, you fail. You transform the session into a debate.
So you practise mindful breathing, in and out, and tell yourself that you listen to him with only one purpose: to allow him a chance to empty his heart and suffer less. Therefore, even if he says many wrong things, full of wrong perceptions, bitterness and accusations, you still continue to listen. Say to yourself: my purpose is not to argue with him or correct him but to allow him to have a chance to suffer less by speaking out. So if you practise mindful breathing and maintain that kind of mindful awareness, you are protected by your compassion and what he says will not touch off anger or irritation in you anymore. That is why it is called the practice of compassionate listening. You are able to tell yourself: Later on, in three or four days, when the chance comes up, I will offer him some information so that he can correct his perceptions, but not now. If you can listen to him like this for even one hour, he will suffer less. At the same time, we encourage the group that is speaking to use loving speech, that you have the right to tell the other side what kind of suffering you underwent but do not use the language of blame. That will make it easier for the other side to receive your message.
In the second week, we initiate both groups into the practice of loving speech and compassionate listening, and a miracle always happens. Each group which thought they were the only ones to suffer discovers the other side suffered exactly like them. By the end of the retreat, they are able to hold hands or have a meal together, which was impossible in the beginning.