I find that if I listen quietly and patiently to what the other person is saying
over an extended period of time, his or her words may catch my heart.
As a Buddhist monk, I often hear people suddenly tell me about their grave personal troubles. I get this from people of all ages and both sexes, even when I am meeting with them in my work. Before I am prepared for such sudden confessions, they often launch into them with no warning. "My husband . . . ," they will say, or "My wife . . . " "My child . . ." "My work . . ." Probably the fact that I am a monk encourages them to open up to me in this way.
When this happens, I never try to understand the other person. I just listen to what he or she is saying, generally for three or four hours, occasionally voicing a syllable or two to indicate I am listening.
If I try to understand, I am apt to interpret the other person in a way that fits the framework of my own thought patterns. More often than not, this interpretation is off. And if I give simplistic advice, the counterpart is bewildered and pained to receive an answer that misses the mark.
But I find that if I listen quietly and patiently to what the other person is saying over an extended period of time, his or her words may catch my heart, overlapping some part of my own experience. I find myself thinking, "I can understand that." This is the moment at which I resonate with the other person: she must feel isolated; he must be suffering. And when I have resonated, I start talking about what the other person's words make me feel.
Next, the other person starts to talk more frankly and emotionally. Sometimes people - even young men - will break down and cry. This is probably because they feel they have gotten through to somebody. Perhaps they have never been able to tell anyone what they were feeling and have simply been enduring. Even those with groups of good friends may find that getting along well with these friends actually makes it harder for them to open up about delicate topics.
People seem to sense relief when somebody else understands what they are saying. The realization that one is not entirely alone after all may come as a saving grace.
Taking a Step beyond Despair
In this world there are some who seem to be able to love themselves, but others cannot come to terms with their own being.
When I was a child, I felt tremendous worry and confusion about death, wondering how such a thing could possibly exist in the world. I suffered from serious asthma, which put me in terror of my own demise. "Why can't I be healthy like other people?" I asked myself. I was both worried and bewildered in this way.
"I didn't start myself, so why should I have to keep living as myself?" This question obsessed me and would not go away. At times it gave me a fascination with death.
As an adolescent I encountered the following words of the thirteenth-century Zen Buddhist teacher Dogen: "Forget the self." This was my salvation. If I had not encountered those words, I think I would not be here now. As I understand it, Dogen's words mean that nobody can settle the problem of his or her own existence.
None of us started ourselves. The state of "being me" is actually imposed on us by somebody else.
So who imposed this "me" on us? We can never know. I believe that it is only by enduring the despair of not knowing this that we can accept "being me" squarely and can find the path toward using "me" with skill.
To a greater or lesser extent, everybody is apt to experience personal troubles at some point. Perhaps your family suddenly breaks up. Maybe you have a setback of some sort. When something like this happens, your comfortable worldview is shaken, and your life may become unstable. At times like this, you get a searing sensation of the "me" that has been imposed on you as a heavy load to bear.
When people despair completely, they cannot go on by themselves. But if they have the opportunity to encounter the words and character of a sympathetic person, it may provide the opportunity for them to pick themselves up.
And if people have the chance to find a sympathetic person, somebody who affirms the totality of the "me," they will gain the basic strength to live. This is the sense of affirmation that comes from being told, "You can just be you; that's plenty."
With this, one becomes able to accept even the imposed "me" as something with meaning.
Everybody else is presumably living, like me, with various cares. It is precious to sense the weight of their burdens.
To put it in Buddhist terms, everybody carries his or her own karma: "You have yours, just as I have mine." So I believe it is important not to judge others as being this sort or that sort of person. This goes even for those close to us, including our parents, spouses, and children.
Keeping in mind that everybody else is living in the face of circumstances unknown to us - this, I think, can serve as a major starting point for respect for others.
Jikisai Minami was born in Nagano Prefecture in 1958. After graduating from Waseda University in Tokyo and working at a major department store, in 1984 he took his orders as a Soto Zen Buddhist monk. He trained at Eiheiji in Fukui Prefecture and is now head priest of Reisenji in Fukui City and deputy head priest of Osorezan Bodaiji in Mutsu, Aomori Prefecture. His numerous books include "Toi" no mondo: Do jidai zenso taidan (Dialogue between contemporary Zen monks) and Kataru zenso (The speaking Zen monk).
This article was originally published in the January-March 2012 issue of Dharma World.