When I started this blog, I intended to do at least a bimonthly post, if not every week. I also knew there was a chance I would not blog so often, that the rigor of the schedule and the depth of the practice would not leave much time or energy. No matter what we are doing here, every activity is meant to be meditative practice, an opportunity to deepen one’s awareness, have insight, even step through in to the unfiltered consciousness that is our original nature. Doing sitting meditation is but one of these opportunities, albeit the most still and silent. Every day, therefore offers experiences and insights worth sharing here. I get excited about the gems of awareness I gain and want to recount for you what led to them, or the struggle I encountered and how I made it through. But if a week goes by, there is more to tell than I have time for… and if two, then three go by, I do not know which tale to choose, nor am I in the freshness of the experience any longer.
The first two weeks back at the monastery were quite peaceful (late January). It is interim now, the time in between the formal and rigorous training periods called “kessei.” There were only five of us here, we enjoyed a relaxed approach to practice and work. The newest resident at the time happens to be an amazing cook. Creating a more balanced and nutritious daily menu had been in discussion for a while, and she helped establish that further, and in delicious ways. We stopped eating “okayu,” rice porridge, and now are enjoying a custom multi-grain blend that includes millet and quinoa for protein. We also started doing embodiment practice first thing in the morning (it was previously scheduled for 4PM). One is free to do whatever their practice is, though most of us do Ashtanga yoga. To support a good sitting meditation, it is best to do an embodiment practice first thing, then sit. Everyone’s energy levels are higher and our sitting is better throughout the day, our bodies warmed up, limber and relaxed. I was feeling so peaceful, so grateful to be here, so optimistic for the unfolding of my journey.
Then came the storm…
I found myself in a communication struggle with a fellow monk. He was repeatedly interrupting me, and I got quite tense about it. I mentioned it to him once, and was met with push back. By the time I talked with him about it again, I was even more knotted up about it, so my tension evoked reactivity in him. He countered with some observations about my behavior. I felt caught in a trap of my own tension and the truth in what he said about me. At the same time, he cleverly avoided addressing my experience and concern about his interrupting me. I let the conversation end, knowing it would not progress well unless I took time to get clear and grounded.
A prickly discomfort arose as I examined my tendency to get tense when communication does not flow, and then speak from that tension. Simultaneously, I began spinning fear story that our relationship would always be problematic, that he would not acknowledge or work on his habit of interrupting me. I was so disappointed that that joyful, easy time had turned in to this. Although I was creating a state of pain for myself, I knew I had to just stay with it, look, and look again, trusting clarity would come. So I began looking for the clarity in my turmoil, and the way out.
I saw how I unconsciously let my reactivity escalate, creating a miasma of fear, spinning in my mind, trying to find the right language to resolve the situation with the monk, and making movies about all the possible negative outcomes. I was spinning out everywhere: in the zendo, the hallways, during meals. My meditation practice was shot. I felt as though I were in a whirlpool I couldn’t get out of. I was poisoning myself. I knew had to look over the edge in to the depths of my mind, and face what I would see.
Gradually, I saw how my perception and reaction patterns around being interrupted had formed, revisiting experiences with my parents, teachers, kids at school, and on in to my teenage and formative adult years. In some communication situations I am fine with asserting myself, and in others I shut down, and seeing the difference, I am gaining clarity on what was triggering the shut down. Also, since at least high school, I have noticed that some amount of interrupting is a social norm; people do it all the time, speaking over each other, or speaking as soon as someone is finished with no acknowledgement of what was said. I never liked or understood this, but I have rarely heard anyone express any discomfort or issue with it. So, I would just let it be, but then found myself not speaking much, as I kept looking for the appropriate pause to have my turn.
Over time I became aware of the more aggressive kind of interruption, where it is no longer a casual occurrence in a flurry of social exchange, but a conscious or unconscious effort to deliberately override, discount or silence someone. With enough introspection, and checking in with a couple other monks about my experience, it was clear that this dismissive type of interruption was the kind that had been occurring. The tone of voice used helped expose it. Confirming my experience within and from feedback was a great relief, as was recognizing that I can only work on myself, and that for now, focusing on my process was enough. The opportunity to revisit the interruption issue with the monk would present itself in time. No rush. No worry.
Sometimes we know things, yet find ourselves learning them again, but on a deeper level through an uncomfortable or even painful experience. In fact, this is the only way we cultivate wisdom: clearly and intelligently recognizing truths through our lived experience, especially the difficult ones. In any painful experience, there is always the light at the end of the tunnel. As we awaken to purity of our unconditioned minds, and the miraculous reality of our existence, we also awaken to the truth that the tunnel itself is light, even though it seems dark. The essential skill to develop is this recognition, and to focus on the light while being aware of the content in and experience of the tunnel, and remembering it is just a tunnel, and that we invariably come out at the end, in to greater and greater light. No birth or rebirth is painless, but every one of them is miraculous.
Through this experience I re-recognized that I must free me, and cannot change others. I owned that I had approached the fellow monk from my contraction, not clarity, despite my best intention to improve our communication. I saw that he may not be willing or ready to look at his behavior and its impact, and despite that, when he is, I will be available to support him. If the interrupting persists or gets worse, I may call for a communal or facilitated conversation. In seeing all of this, suddenly I felt liberated of all the heavy, draining knots I had built up in me. I had new energy during yoga and zazen practice. I rediscovered the openness of seeing & feeling in to the vast, imperturbable conscious we all come from (that may sound too deep, or esoteric or weird to you, but if you sincerely look, you will see it, too). And humor and light heartedness returned, releasing all the tension in my body and mind.
And wouldn’t you know, the quality of my connection with the fellow monk shifted. I choose simply to be myself, buoyant and energetic, present and free. We could enjoy each others company, collaborate on daily tasks, laugh… Curiously, the interrupting decreased, so maybe he understood and is making changing without saying so. Maybe not. But I do know I have new clarity and centeredness to address it if it happens again.
When we look within and honestly face whatever is inside us, we can embrace and work with our reality, and more easily change and evolve ourselves. Through this we naturally become open and clear inside, and have a better chance of positively influencing outer reality and relationships. “The kingdom of heaven is within” is a deep truth statement. It is up to each of us to enter our inner kingdom or queendom. Come, let us all live in the dignity and grace of the wisdom, compassion and skillful means that reside in us all.
10 thoughts on “Communication Breakdown and The Tunnel to Heaven”
Thanks for sharing this. Over the years, I have also wrestled with understanding the art interruption. The more I am interrupted, the more I have noticed my own tendency to do so to others. Over the years, I have worked harder on listening and understanding rather than speaking. It has been an interesting challenge.
Thanks for reading and commenting. It is quite a curious issue, and I honor your effort to explore it. Yes, listening and understanding, powerful tools, powerful gifts to all involved. As you practice that, what have you discovered? I was just in a meeting today and it took several minutes and a few topic changes before I could get space to speak. It was fascinating and frustrating, but I just kept returning to patience. In the end, I did get to speak and had my questions and notions addressed. I don’t want to engage in jumping in just for the sake of being heard, and I don’t want to fade in to the background. Hmm…
This is wondegul insight with outstanding writing! Thank you brother!!
Thank you Yoshin!
Thank you for sharing your insights Tozan.
Thank you Hannah!
Excellent article mon ami!
Merci mon pot!
Your talent for writing continues to blossom! May it flower into a book oneday 🙂