“Deep listening is the basis for reconciliation… After listening to both sides, we can then tell each side of the suffering of the other.”
—Thich Nhat Hanh, Touching Peace
In the course of work on various campaigns against the death penalty with Amnesty International, I stumbled upon the approach of listening to people’s fears before trying to convert them to abolition. The sense of being accepted that is evoked by listening can open people’s minds more than any persuasion. In the last few years I have made listening a practice by attending with as little censure as possible. When I learned of the Listening Project, I was extremely curious about how it had formulated what I had begun to intuit.
Three etymologies illuminate the quality listening has for me and why I think it a substantial vehicle to convey the dharma into the world.
Hlosnian, the Anglo-Saxon root for listening, means to wait in alert suspense, a state of readiness without expectation. This quality of mind allows one to see what is there, without anything added on, no prejudgment, no prejudice.
Kuan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion, is comprised of two radicals: gaze and sound. So a more appropriate translation for compassion might be “attunement to sound.” A clear presence to others without any idea as to who we think they are allows us to approach who they might be, and this attunement is a source for compassion as we encounter one of our own faces and voices.
Finally, the Chinese characters for to listen are: ear, eyes, undivided attention and heart. To listen is to look at and hear another with the spaciousness of heart/mind. In silence when our own inner voices are quiet and the voice of another is heard, dialogue becomes possible. When all four qualities are present, people may go deep into themselves and let us know who they are, give us the cherished opportunity to know another.
Listening, coming to know those whom we took to be strangers, can bring peace.
A mindfulness bell sounds in the midst of Jesse Helms country. In an office on a dirt road in North Carolina the influence of vipassana practices and teachers like Aitken Roshi and Thich Nhat Hanh are very much in evidence. Workers at Rural Southern Voice for Peace (RSVP) know that the bell is a signal for silence where listening may happen. The Tibetans say that in this era enlightenment will come through listening. For the organizers of RSVP’s Listening Project the idea would be familiar, a call to personal and social transformation. Indeed, Herb Walters (RSVP’s lead trainer) and David Grant (executive director) have extended their meditation practices into listening as a form of nonviolent conflict resolution. Walters describes listening as “a practice of letting go of yourself and fully opening to the other person.”
The Listening Project helps social action groups identify their problems and goals and then trains volunteers to conduct door-to-door surveys. The Listening Project designs these in conjunction with groups who want some change in their communities but seek solutions that include rather than alienate opponents. Listeners have conducted these surveys on issues such as military spending, AIDS, racism, abortion, toxic waste, the death penalty and breast-feeding.
The integration of practice and action seemed to come effortlessly for Walters. After his first ten-day retreat at IMS in Barre in 1975, he returned to farming in West Virginia and discovered that “some of the old-timers are really ‘Buddhist’ in spirit, gentle spirits, connected to the land and very much living in the moment.” Walters’s neighbors became his teachers, and his willingness to learn from them made their teachings “a kind of listening experience.”
Another ten-day retreat at Barre in 1981 led to the creation of RSVP. A conscientious objector during the Vietnam War and still politically active, Walters believed that the negative repercussions of the Reagan Administration demanded increased engagement. He considered a move to Washington, D.C., but insight at the retreat helped him understand that his task was to remain in the rural South where he understood the people.
He launched RSVP in Celo, North Carolina, the oldest American land trust, now held in common by thirty-five families. His desire was to re-empower rural people to speak out and to draw on their own wisdom. From the beginning RSVP operated from a nondual perspective that Walters considered essential for the development of new models in rural areas. “In a rural area, if you try the urban-based tactics that came out of the ’60s peace movement, you can end up running over people, being insensitive to their culture, not really understanding the way people are different. If you make a mistake in a rural area, people don’t forget and you lose your credibility.”
The desire to work toward community without generating polarization and division led Walters to create the Listening Project in 1986. A central belief is that people are all trying to improve their lives, and that deep listening can establish a common ground where problem-solving begins.
The surveys, a series of open-ended questions, afford a format for dialogue between people who might not normally speak to one another, and provide activists with vital information and, often, new allies. The foundation of the process is deep listening that entails moving beyond mere hearing to a serious intention to understand another person. For instance, in a survey on the death penalty, listeners begin by asking respondents about their feelings on the death penalty, move to a quiet probing into how much factual knowledge they have, and then check if the people have reformulated their views based on new information and insight that have come through the dialogue. Change happens through the relationship, not from hammering statistics at a person. As RSVP’s director David Grant says, “Everyone has a piece of the truth. The surveys are designed to show we share at least 10% of the world and probably 90%.” Walters adds that if you disagree with 90% of what a person says, you can still focus on that 10% and find community.
Walters organized the first Listening Project with peace activists protesting Trident II nuclear submarines at a Georgia naval base. “Let’s do something radical,” was Walters’s message. “Let’s go listen to the people.” The result was a surprising breakthrough beyond stereotyping and misunderstanding for both sides. And activists found support with community residents and even naval base employees.
In 1988 an understanding of nonduality inspired Walters to consider a Listening Project with the Contra during the height of the Civil War in Nicaragua. “I wanted to see who they really were, to try to understand them and their humanity as well.” Another retreat at Barre and the presence of Thich Nhat Hanh convinced him of the Contra Project’s viability. He was particularly moved by Nhat Hanh’s poem “Please Call Me By My True Names.”
I am the child of Uganda, all skin and bones . . . and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
On his return to the U.S., Walters wrote articles in which he presented the stories and human faces of the Contra fighters who had become the “faceless enemy” of many peace activists. At the same time he called for ending U.S. support of the Contras and the beginning of negotiations between the Contras and the Sandinistas.
David Grant also experiences listening as an awareness of nonduality and a source of peace. A self-described small “b” buddhist primarily of Aitken Roshi’s lineage, Grant likes “to see the friend in every enemy and the enemy in every friend; the rural in the city, the city in the rural.” After years of zazen practice in various settings, Grant now views engagement as practice and the Listening Project as the equivalent of sitting or of aikido, with empathy at its core. “The interview is like the mirror of sitting and sitting and sitting at the wall. And looking at the mirror softens the listener who is as much changed as the listened to.”
Both men distinguish a person from her or his ideas. Walters articulates this distinction, “When we really listen to another person, we are saying, ‘I accept and value you as a person even if we hold opposite beliefs.’” He comments that many people do not distinguish their ideas from their lives, and often fight for ideas they perceive as attacked as if those ideas were their lives. Barriers break down between us and them when surveys are conducted with a sincere desire to comprehend if not to agree with the other side. And then when labelling ceases, Walters notes, the possibility of compassion opens.
In the Louisiana Racial Issues Listening Project, interviewers went to the homes of David Duke supporters and encouraged them to express their beliefs and fears about race relations. In the course of being listened to, many of these supporters discovered, and often altered, their negative stereotypes. Peace activists found in the course of the survey that their own assumptions about racism could not hold up to the rich, complex human beings they met. Neither “side” could continue to reify racism as it opened into a process of inter-acting people, histories and cultures.
“People know if you are trying to change them,” explains Walters, “and then put up walls to defend themselves. When our goal is to change others, we tend to negate who they are, including their potential for positive change.” The intent is not to manipulate or defeat but to understand. Listeners approach their assignment with as few opinions as possible about the people or about where the interviews should go. The initial goal of winning over is replaced with a goal of building a relationship of trust. This relationship becomes the ground for sensitive advocacy and organizing for real change. The value of others must be recognized for this to occur.
Listeners are also taught not to be attached to specific accomplishments but rather to be conscious of planting seeds for future developments. Many activists find this a difficult concept; they equate effective action with strong action. Walters states that nothing may appear to happen, but because of impermanence, change is always going on. “And then years later, someone meets the right person, in the right circumstances, and begins to blossom. Suddenly all the experiences come together, and the person changes.” The humility gleaned from nonattachment and from holding a bigger picture in mind can help activists circumvent a frequent source of burnout: the frantic need to see results from “their” personal activity.
Nonthreatening questions open people up so they can challenge their own positions. “The questions are oriented to fears, hopes and feelings rather than ideas,” according to Walters. “The interview moves to a feeling level where the two sides begin to understand each other’s potential for good.” The survey takes the interview out of the usual debate format of much of our culture’s communication, and the two “sides” become a team looking at the same problem, each holding part of the solution.
Activists trying to clean up water contaminated by a mining plant in Harlan County, Kentucky might have been seen by residents as a direct threat to their marginal livelihoods. Instead, Concerned-Citizens-Against-Toxic-Waste initiated a Listening Project to ask gentle questions about where people fished, what kind of waste went into the river and what kind of illnesses were prevalent in the community. “Several times someone would say a son or brother had an illness no one could explain. And at some point you could see a light go off, and the person would ask, ‘Do you think that could have something to do with the poisoning going on?’” Walters underscores that no one made the connections for them. “You give the person silence, to wait for all the deep things that come out of sitting. Then they get it for themselves.” And they are willing to become involved.
The Listening Project has proven its value even in the international arena, with the Contra Listening Project and another in Palau, Micronesia. In September, 1992 Walters went to the Balkans, where most of us would welcome any hope that a nonviolent solution has a chance to succeed. On his way he stopped in Thich Nhat Hanh’s center, Plum Village, in France. There, to ground himself in the spirit of non-harming, he took Nhat Hanh’s precepts. Walters then proceeded to the Serbian village of Brestovac.
A fight between a young Muslim and Serb had escalated into another fight, further attacks and shooting. A volatile, seemingly highly polarized situation, to say the least. Walters spent ten days of intensive planning with fifteen members of the local peace movement. After being trained in listening techniques they went out to interview forty-seven people from all sectors of the community. The first job was to investigate and stop the spread of rumors like “Some people are storing weapons.” The second was to let all sides understand themselves, to penetrate the illusion of stereotypes to a more subtle reality. And quickly the interviewers found that the villagers on both sides were keen to talk about a situation they had found too frightening to deal with. Diffusing fear is a priority for Walters, since fear makes violence seem stronger than it is and lets the forces of violence take on a greater power than they really have.
One story is particularly dramatic. A seventeen-year-old started by bursting out, “I hate all Muslims!” but eventually admitted that he did not know anything about Muslim culture and that previously “We had never paid much attention to who was Muslim and who was Serb.” Walters carefully held this opening for the young man to step through by letting him know he could play a part in the solution to his village’s problems. When he began to realize that the war was connected to a desperate economy, the youth began to come up with ways to avoid hostilities. For instance, he suggested that a private restaurant be converted back into a disco, so young people, mainly responsible for the violence, had a place to go.
The Listening Project left Brestovac after three weeks. The project gave voice to the desire for peace and let those responsible for the violence come up with solutions rather than be ostracized as troublemakers. Two follow-up actions have taken place: meetings among the women in Brestovac and the sending of a new trainer to help reduce the prejudice and conflict among the youth. Apparent adversaries have opened their hearts and minds and can see the situation differently. While the situation may not be turned around, a process has begun. Reason enough that the Unitarian Universalist Peace Fellowship gave the Listening Project its Adin Ballou Peace Award in 1993.
Peace entails giving up the defense of our own particular position, a position usually founded on the fear of perceived separation. The Listening Project lays bare the recognition that not only are we interconnected but that reality is interactive: we exist only in relationship with others, and together we create a reciprocal reality. The Listening Project creates an environment where people may feel safe and then act with the kindness engendered when we rest in the awareness of We instead of We and Them.
To quote Walters: “To let go of one’s personal ego is an act of radical nonviolence.”