To Awaken from Our Separateness

by Jessica Star Rockers

Recently I spent several months working as a chaplain intern at Harborview Medical Center, a Level One trauma hospital in Seattle. When I showed up at Harborview, I didn’t know what to expect. Harborview is the only Level One trauma hospital in the Northwest, which means that patients from several neighboring states are brought to Harborview if they have something traumatic happen to them.  They are flown in, by helicopter, and a lot of times they immediately have surgery, and then sometime shortly after this, they or their family members are asked, would you like spiritual care.

Spiritual care. You probably aren’t surprised to hear that, even people without any religious faith at all, will say yes in that situation.  This is the worst day of their life. They may die. Or they may live, paralyzed. Or best case scenario, they have a long and painful recovery ahead. Do you want spiritual care? And they often say, yes. Yes I do.

But what does it mean, spiritual care? In that first week of orientation, leading up to the moment I would walk into a patient’s room for the first time, I asked myself this question. What does it mean? Why am I here? What am I doing?

It didn’t take too long to figure out my main job was to listen. Listen to the patients and families share with me their worries, hopes and fears. Sometimes we prayed. And I would ask them, what language they used when they prayed. And then I would try to say a prayer that spoke to what they had just told me of their life.  So I had to really listen when they were sharing with me. My perception of what might be healing for them was only my perception. I had to listen so they could tell me how they were going to begin the journey of their own healing.

Listening can be hard. Especially when someone is in pain. Especially when there’s nothing you can do to fix it. One of the techniques that my supervisor encouraged us to use was to identify the feelings. Was the person scared, hurt, worried? Over and over again I found myself saying, “That sounds really overwhelming.” Sometimes I couldn’t tell whether I was identifying their feelings or mine.

Regardless, time and time again, it would make a difference. Sitting there with someone in trauma and helping them name their feelings. Not fixing it. Not diminishing it. Not telling them, “everything happens for a reason.” Just respecting that this was their experience. They were the authority on their life.

One of the other techniques of deep listening is silence. Which can be very uncomfortable. When someone’s in trauma, silence can even feel painful. Like you want to do something and instead you’re just sitting there. But I learned to trust the silence. I would introduce myself to a patient and ask, how’s it going today? The patient would often reply that they were as well as could be expected, under the circumstances. Hoping for the best. And then, silence. I found that if I could wait, if I literally said nothing and just listened, they would begin to share with me the truth and depth of their experience.  

Thich Nhat Hanh says we are here to awaken from our separateness. And I think this is why it is so difficult to listen, to listen without judgment, to listen without fixing. When someone is in pain we want to remain separate. Their pain is too frightening. We don’t want to acknowledge the connection we feel, the interconnected web. We want to stay over here. Safe.

But we UUs who live in a covenanted community that upholds that interconnected web, that connectedness of one human to another, as sacred, we are charged with not remaining separate. We resist the human impulse to turn away because we know that the beloved community which we all seek is just beyond that discomfort. Like sitting in that silence in the hospital room, waiting for a patient to speak their truth, we are reaching out in all these different ways, a little bit unsure.

But we try to face it, try to acknowledge it. Abuse of the earth, abuse of indigenous people who are protecting the earth, discrimination of our Muslim brothers and sisters, prejudice and institutional racism that is killing our black sisters and brothers, rampant misogyny and fascism in our presidential election. And a lot of us sit in a place of privilege. How do we engage with our human family who are being oppressed, and our human family who are perpetuating the oppression? And maybe we identify with one side or the other, maybe we are wittingly or unwittingly on one side or the other. But how do we sit and listen. It is so uncomfortable.  And it is difficult to have faith that there is anything on the other side of the discomfort. Especially when it is clear that not everyone seeks reconciliation. Not everyone seeks healing.

Gandhi called his method of nonviolent resistance Satyagraha. Satyagraha translates to polite insistence on truth. Holding firmly to the truth. Hanging on. In his book Satyagraha in South Africa, Gandhi wrote: “Truth (satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement Satyagraha, that is to say, the Force which is born of Truth and Love.” In another statement written in 1920 he said, “I have also called it love-force or soul-force. In the application of satyagraha, I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit violence being inflicted on one’s opponent but rather he must be weaned from error by patience and compassion. For what appears to be truth to the one may appear to be error to the other. And patience means self-suffering. So the doctrine came to mean vindication of truth, not by infliction of suffering on the opponent, but on oneself.”

In this way to protest nonviolently is about more than just marching, though that’s part of it. Resistance is a loving insistence on the truth. We are called to listen to the oppressed and believe what they tell us about their experience. And we are also called to remain open hearted in the face of fascism. This is painful, to try to do this. It feels impossible. So how and where do we begin.

A few years ago I attended several workshops to learn compassionate listening. Gene Knudsen Hoffman, a Quaker writer and activist, used Thich Nhat’s Hanh’s teachings on compassion and Gandhi’s teachings on nonviolence, and developed this technique. It was originally used as a tool for reconciliation. First in the early 90s, Hoffman traveled to the middle east, to work for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.  And eventually her successor, Leah Green, went on to Syria and Lebanon, and to Germany. It is deep, compassionate discernment, where two sides of a conflict come together to listen.

After learning this technique and wanting to teach it to others, I went to a very scary place with my attempts to make peace. I went to a high school.

Through a program called Teen Talking Circles, I had the great blessing of co-facilitating a group of eleven teenage girls.  We would gather after school once a week, and I would listen to them share their deepest concerns, and we would practice together compassionate listening.

I soon learned that compassionate listening isn’t just about conflict, it’s also about community. How do we talk to one another in community? Conflict is inevitable. I’ve been saying lately, you are human and I am human and we are human-ing in the same spaces and this creates conflict. There were many conflicts in this group of teenage girls. But there was also deep connection, and compassionate listening was the foundation.  It was teaching these girls to share authentically with one another, to listen deeply, and to trust. 

In her book “Practicing the Art of Compassionate Listening” author Andrea Cohen writes that Compassionate Listening teaches five core practices: cultivating compassion, developing fair witness, respecting self and others, listening with the heart, and speaking from the heart. These are designed to help people access the wisdom of the heart.

The wisdom of the heart. As Unitarian Universalists we spend a lot of time up here, in our heads, thinking things over. Thinking them through. This shift in awareness, from our heads to our hearts, is significant. It brings our values, our deep beliefs, our seven principles, into our bodies. Which is an intimate place that does not tell lies. The heart is where we can feel the truth and hold it there with that loving insistence.

So let’s break those five core practices down a little bit. To see how we might access them.

1. Cultivating compassion. This one makes sense. It is about developing empathy, being able to experience and communicate gratitude, and having an ability to forgive. This begins with a daily practice of gratitude. Because when you practice finding gratitude for the small things, you learn to see beauty in even the most difficult situations, the most difficult people, and it strengthens that muscle of empathy.

2. Developing fair witness. This is an ability to hold two ideas simultaneously, staying in the grey area of ambiguity during conflict, remaining in a place of curiosity rather than judgment. Curiosity rather than judgment.

3. Respecting self and others. This is more than just respect, this is about having healthy boundaries, identifying what is our part in a conflict, and what is not our part.  We take responsibility for ourselves while also releasing that which is not ours.

4. Listening with the heart. This means deep listening. Quieting our minds so we can be fully present and then making that shift to a heart space, where we feel empathy with the other person apart from our stories, our stories about who we are and who they are, who is right or wrong. We focus on that interconnected web.

5. Speaking from the heart. This is where the action of resistance unfolds. Because we do have our truth, and when we drop into this space of our bodies there is no denying it. We have to tell the truth. But in the spirit of compassion, using language that supports our desire for healing, for everyone.

This speaking from the heart also means that when we inquire into another person’s story, we ask questions that are illuminating and healing for them. We are drawing them into their heart space, into the truth that their body holds. This is intimate, dangerous work. Our bodies hold truths that can be scary. So we pose gentle questions that invite the other person into greater depth into their own story, as far as they feel comfortable. Even if we can see how far we could go, we trust the process, trust that they know how best to heal themselves.

Beginning this work together in this community, and more importantly, beginning inside ourselves, using this compassion on ourselves, begins the healing that the world is desperate for, and it prepares us. When we talk of the election coming in a month, and we wonder, what sort of world will come after that, or what sort of world this election indicates is already happening, being able to do this sort of work is critical. As UUs we are the helpers. We are the people in yellow, who stand on the side of love.

A few of our local ministers recently traveled to Standing Rock to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. When they arrived a member of one of the tribes saw that they were UUs and said, “I wondered when you’d get here. You’re the people who show up, you’re the ones who fight for what’s right.” We’re the ones who show up.

So we have to do our work. We can’t show up unprepared. Learning compassionate listening or similar nonviolent communication, learning to sit with trauma and grief, we have to start with our own. We have to sit in our own bodies, learn our own truths, before we can be open to another’s. And in this community, in this safe space, we can practice that with one another. 

We are here to awaken from our separateness. And we UUs who live in a covenanted community that upholds that interconnected web, that connectedness of one human to another, as sacred, we are charged with not remaining separate. We resist the human impulse to turn away because we know that the beloved community which we all seek is just beyond that discomfort.  We are the ones who show up and listen and lovingly insist on the truth.

In addition to developing Compassionate Listening, Gene Knudsen Hoffman wrote several books. One of these was an autobiography. And she ends that book with a poem:

“In the midst of darkness
Light persists.”—
Mr Gandhi said—
I’m beginning to
See the pinpoint
Of light after
Sometime in the darkness
And it all comes clear—
I don’t have to be a
         Or a moon
                  Or a planet
Not even a star—
Not even a flashlight!
Just can be—
That’s enough
And being—perhaps
I can shine enough
To light my own way
And perhaps—
For a moment—
— Gene Knudsen Hoffman
Jessica Star Rockers