To Listen and Look, Deeply: the Simple Practice for Human Connection
Growing up, I was told to avoid topics like religions, family, faith in conversations. I was taught to keep my composure, to not express so much of myself. And I wondered why. I think the reason is doing so might expose us. Besides, the world is so terrifying that it’s not smart to drop our shields.
Have you ever been surrounded by many people, perhaps friends, and feel terribly lonely? Yesterday I was in a café by myself. As I took a sip of my latte, I glanced around and found many tables where people sit together but eyes fixed in their phones, face expressionless. I wondered if they felt lonely.
Our collective sense of distance and loneliness has perpetuated the terror in our world today. More than ever before, nations are at war. Terrorism is burning in many cities around the work. Men against men in the name of God and welfare for their people. And we, the commoners, we either opt out, or agitate with rage. Indifference is useless. But I don’t think anger will help. Fighting anger with anger is like pouring gasoline in a train wreck, it is a way for you to join the army.
What this world desperately needs is love. Love is not sentimental. Love is not impractical. Love is not weak. Love is the strongest, most practical thing I know.
And if we want to find a way back to each other, we need to learn how to transform the hostile energy of fear to the healing energy of love. Like Thich Nhat Hanh once wrote: “write a love letter to your Congressman.” Humanity doesn’t need another billion of dollars, or another breakthrough in technology. But humanity needs to come back to basic and learn to be human again. Part of that is learning to listen and look deeply.
That was my intention when I came to Singapore 1 month ago to chair an international youth conference. I wanted to teach 140 20-somethings from 11 nationalities to love each other. So every evening, I opened a space called “Story Telling”. It was simple: a chair adorned with balloons in the middle of the room, a microphone placed on the chair. I dimmed the lights around the edges of the room to create a warm and cozy center. One theme was given each night. I chose: Childhood, Failure, I Can.
As they all gathered and settled, I told them how important being vulnerable was in order to be happy. I told them they would practice to tell their stories and listen to others’ stories with their whole hearts. “Now, the space is your,” I said and sat back. And the evening would begin. For a chair, it was the ultimate way to lose control, but I trusted that they would open up and that it would turn out okay.
It turned out more than Okay. It turned out incredible. I heard stories of abandoned childhood, of heart-broken mistake, of losing a father, of being near-dead in a hospital, of self-doubt; but also of running marathon, of loving, of redemption, of giving one’s best, of believe that I can, we can. There were tears, many tears. There was also laughter. There was a tremendous energy of love surging in the room, in everyone of us.
It was the first time I ever opened such space. At the beginning, I thought that the person who gained the most would be those that told their stories. Of course, it was magical to be seen. For some of them, it was the first time they let themselves be seen, and the first time someone actually saw them. “This is me, this is who I am.” To peel the layers like an onion and show their most vulnerable, and tender being; and that being, like a small baby bird with a weak wing, would not be crushed but be caressed and healed.
However, as I sat back and listen to one story at a time, it dawned on me that those who listened, listened deeply, would also be bestowed with another kind of magic: to find themselves in another person. If I drop my all of past judgments and definitions, and simply listen with a sense of wonder, I could relate a part of me to all the stories that was told. It was incredible to know that it wasn’t just me. The richness of the human experience we share: struggles, pains, heartaches, fears. The material that you are made of, is also the same material that I am made of. I am not an isolated being floating around in this universe. We are all in this together.
This is a powerful revelation because it releases me from the fear towards other. Why would I be afraid of you if we are made of the same material? Once I stop being guarded and fighting for my survival all the time, you won’t have to defend yourself against my aggression. In contrast, you will soften and begin to open up. And we can be loving together.
I have looked and listened deeply as many time during my day as I can. I ask for the stories of joy and sorrow. How it feels like? Taking off all past judgments and definitions, I was a naked listener, with nothing but a sense of wonder. I try to look beyond the surface and see the real person inside. I don’t always succeed, but whenever I manage to get there, find myself without loneliness, find myself whole, and in love. When you truly listen and look deeply, when you truly see someone, you can’t help but love. When you truly see someone, you can’t help but love.
I’ve practiced to listen and look deeply first with the toughest persons – my family. It works. We laugh more during dinners now. We even talked about kissing the other day (trust me, kissing does not make the parents-kid topic list in Vietnam). Yesterday night, my brother played guitar and sang for my mother and I. My dad helped preparing dinner when he saw I immersed in writing. It is so pleasant and blissful. This concrete block in which we live has become truly home.
I think that if there are more home - home between us and our families, between us and our friends, between us and our enemies; there will be no hatred, no fear, no war.
Some have told me I’m unrealistic. But I choose to believe differently. I choose to believe that this ugly and frightful dream, which we have created and called it “life”, isn’t real. In that conference in Singapore, when I looked in the teary eyes of a young person who came from an different nationality and religion, whom I’d never met before, and said “I love you,” I felt real in every cells of my body.
I know that love is the material that my world is made of, as long as I listen and look, deeply. And to fight for peace, I want to give this reality to others.
Here it is.
You are loved.