“The most effective way to show compassion to another person is to listen to them. Once we know how to listen to our own suffering with compassion, we can listen to someone else with the same compassion, and our listening is like a salve for their wounds.” 

It’s a passage from a series of books known as “The Mindfulness Essentials” written by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the most highly-respected spiritual leaders and peace activists revered by millions around the globe. 

I find the statement to be a perfect description of something that sounds logical, yet appears to have eluded so many of us, for one reason or another. It’s a reminder, especially in these times – of the critical role that listening plays when it comes to compassion; first to ourselves, and then to others.

Personally, it took the isolation of the pandemic some three years ago for me to finally listen to my own suffering. It had been at least a decade since I last applied a modicum of self-care, putting the needs of others well ahead of my own. Both my body and mind would eventually let me know in no uncertain terms that this path was not an acceptable route to continue. My biggest take-away from it all was that it wouldn’t be until I truly dug deep and addressed a handful of underlying issues that I could then start to administer a consistent amount of grace towards others, without becoming utterly depleted.

Hanh refers to this experience as “listening to our inner child.” He says that inside each of us is a child who needs to be heard and it’s not until we become in-tune with this “voice,” which is calling out for assistance, that we can begin to address the situation at hand. He envisions a dialogue that might sound something like this: “In the past, I left you alone. I’m very sorry, I know you suffer. I neglected you. Now, I am here for you. I will do my best to take good care of you.”

There is so much wrapped up in each of those sentiments that require a serious dose of courage, if we are to take full ownership of our lives. Indeed, acknowledging that we’ve reached this point of self-examination is a key component to our Being. How often have we found ourselves able express this to another person, yet we have rarely, if ever, said it to ourselves?  

Of course, what we may not have realized at the time is that some wounds might go back a generation or two, whereby our parents or grandparents suffered greatly by neglecting their inner child, and therefore that pain was then carried forward without ever having been resolved. It can be a heavy load to tow as we peel away the layers of the proverbial onion, in order to put an end to that cycle.

Once we’ve succeeded in showing the compassion necessary for our own healing to take place, we are then ready to apply it towards others who might be suffering on some level or another. That begins with listening. 

I think we can all agree that one of the most essential needs of our species is to feel we are being heard and that our opinion carries some weight or value. When we are speaking with a friend or debating policy of some sort with a family member, how often do we find ourselves letting our egos dictate the direction of the conversation, rather than listening to what is being said? 

Maybe if we took the time to put our ego aside, be completely present in the moment, and respectfully listen without passing judgment or prematurely preparing our rebuttal, we’d find some common ground to build a foundation upon. We could ask them to provide reasons for their stance and what sources they consulted before coming to those conclusions. We may even suggest some alternatives for them to look into.

Ideally, we might both grow during the exchange, whereby each of us is able to take home a more rounded perspective on a given subject or idea. If you think about it, listening really is very much like a salve – it’s there to provide comfort to a wounded soul who only wants to be heard. 

Dave Davis
Dave Davis teaches preschool for the Head Start program based at the Children’s Museum of the East End in Bridgehampton, NY. He is also a frequent contributor to “Who Smarted?,” a popular educational podcast for elementary school children.

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