Today, a tall German man with springy brown hair approached me as I covertly poured lemon citrus water into my bottle (I say covertly because this act was kindly prohibited via sign — we were to drink from bowls only, not pour into our bottles). I was sitting on a plastic white outdoor chair and he sat down on a rock conveniently located a few feet away.
“Hello,” he said with a warm smile. “I’ve seen you around the last few days and wanted to say hi the next time I saw you. So here I am.”
I was flattered and happy and wondering what could have prompted him to say such kind words: did he see me caking my hands in wet forest clay to test the consistency for pottery making? Did he see me in the stone Buddha meadow — the last person to arrive and the lucky one to see all the beautiful friends sitting in peace?
I joyfully welcomed him and the typical exchange of where are you from? What is San Francisco like? Do you have a sangha? Where are you staying at Plum Village? I answered his questions and we began to talk about tent living (#tentlyfe) as he too was residing in a tent on Upper Hamlet grounds. He mentioned that he didn’t wear earplugs so as to connect more deeply with the natural sounds — the croaking songs of the frogs were so loud as to awaken him multiple times per night. I confessed that I wore earplugs and an eye mask and mentioned that during my stay at Green Gulch, a priest suggested that the need for rest was simply a conception of the mind worth exploring —
And suddenly the bell for walking meditation was rung. I’ve been mindful of going with the flow and not getting too attached to attending activities on time, but for some reason my mind was in the habit energy of FOMO. I didn’t want to miss another magical moment like the one in the stone Buddha garden the day before, so I suggested we go. And just like that, he bounded off to walking and I to the dish area (to wash my bowl from the lemon orange water escapade).
I was then keenly aware of how much space I had taken to talk about myself: I didn’t ask him many questions about his life in Germany or his experience here! We simply didn’t have the time unless we had cut into walking (which would have been available, should I have been open to it).
I was ashamed of what I perceived as my own selfishness and insensitivity, and this shame manifested in anger for the next few hours. The story I repeated was one of being insufficient to meet this person, that my actions resulted in missing a connection.
I started thinking about the ways in which I introduce and represent myself to new friends upon meeting. I want to be authentic to my heart, kind, and receptive to my needs and the needs of my conversation partner. How can I do this in a genuine way while acknowledging that any meeting is necessarily reductive (meaning we cannot share all of ourselves with each other)? Here’s what I have on my mind now:
- Clear my mind fully of expectations for the conversation. If it’s difficult to do so, see if there’s something in me that needs tending — and do that first.
- Be genuinely curious about the other person’s story — what is in their heart? What are their needs for the discussion and can I provide that?
- Remember to take deep breaths. Sometimes we need space to say what is in the heart, and chattering away makes it difficult for either person to access the tender pieces inside. In those moments of silence, wait for longer than is necessary before speaking: both to connect with your heart and to allow whatever is arising in the other person to manifest.
- Be mindful of equity in sharing. Most conversations are a dialogue — each person shares back and forth. And be present for what’s said (deep listening practice) so that the response isn’t pre-planned in the mind, but a genuine reply to the words and body language I’m hearing and seeing.
The past week at Plum Village has been full of meetings and deepening of connections and the quiet contentment of being with others in stillness and beauty. These simple guidelines remind me to practice deep listening, loving speech, and genuine curiosity for both myself and the other — and can foster deeper connection and sharing.
It dawns on me that these guidelines are applicable for how I meet myself in each moment as well. Going through the steps, I can ask: Are there any unmet basic needs I can take care of right away (hungry, thirsty, restroom)? How am I feeling? Can I invite in silence to give myself space to feel the tender and vulnerable pieces inside?
It is a continual practice, this art of mindful communication. I’m not going to be perfectly capable of practicing with others all the time, and sometimes I’ll need to walk away to avoid speech that causes suffering. And this is okay too. I can simply practice deeply, do my best to be aware of my needs and the needs of the other person, and know that sometimes I’ll fall short of the guidelines I aspire to.