Listening to one another with compassion

1 Meditation = accepting all your experiencing

2 Listening = checking your understandings

3 Compassion = kindness, understanding and tenderness

What is meditation?

“Meditation is awareness without judgment in the whole of your life”.

Meditation has nothing to do with sitting, nothing to do with specific forms of practice. These we might call “meditative practices”.

The most important meditative practices are three:

(1) Mindfulness of actions.
In each thing you do, try not to be in two places at once.
Bring your mind to bear on what you are doing.

(2) Mindfulness of emotions.
When faced with a difficult or painful feeling:
“Look it in the eyes, as I am looking at you now”.

(3) Meditative Listening.
When dealing with other people,
aim to see the world from the other person’s point of view.

Listening is to hear other people with compassion and acceptance, to receive them with empathy.

You can seldom be sure that your empathy is on track, unless you say back the essence of each thing that other people say, allowing them to sense inwardly and to correct you by reference to what comes from the inward place.

Acceptance is to let others have their experience. You do not clutch at the experiences that a person likes. You do not deny those that are painful. Acceptance does not condemn or judge. It does not set out to fix anything. It allows everything to be as it is and to change when it changes.

(Suppose somebody is afraid and ashamed of fear. Then you accept the fear, you accept the shame, and you accept the voice which says, “You ought to be more accepting”.)

Everything that comes in experiencing is held in a vast acceptance like the sky, bigger than all feelings, than all particular experiences.

Empathy is to enter the other person’s world “as if you were that person, but without ever losing the as-if”.

Empathy is to allow people to find their own way: “We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”

Compassion is a form of understanding. It is not about drowning in the other’s emotions. It is calm, tender and peaceful. It is very kind and loving.

Compassion sees people clutching at good feelings, sharply pushing away bad feelings. It sees people creating intense suffering for themselves.
Compassion and acceptance are conveyed in the background of listening.

Neither compassion nor acceptance can be faked or synthesised. They have to be real, to be an expression of your humanity.

Humanity is your whole experience of life, working in your listening. You are not hidden behind a screen but fully present, alive and responding with all your heart, all your intelligence, all your awareness: aware of your feelings as you listen, letting your feelings show through your listening, and sometimes naming them.

Notice how listening helps the other person.

Listening is awareness without judgement, friendship without control. Listening invites other people to accept themselves, to accept their own lives. It dissolves rejection of self, rejection of others, rejection of life and experiencing. Listening lets other people direct their own lives.

Notice how listening helps the relationship.

Listening builds mutual trust and understanding. Listening dissolves anxiety. It dissolves fear of our feelings, fear of one another, and fear of life. It brings a sense of belonging, a sense of community. Listening is about love.

Notice how listening helps you.

Listening is a spiritual path in its own right. Listening dissolves the isolated self. It brings you into community with other people. Listening opens the gates of compassion. It leads to the spiritual turn. The ordinary person says, “What is in it for me?” After making the spiritual turn, one says, “How can I help you?” There is a fundamental change in motivation.

This is Meditative Listening.


Teaching focusing-and-listening to a Muslim

As always, it is both. I must listen to the students about what they feel they need to learn; and I must listen to myself. We have to reach a place of unity with one another about the process of learning together.

The students need space to reflect on their journey. They need to find ways to bring the different strands of training into some kind of harmony.

And the usual questions come. Are they ready to teach focusing-and-listening? Are they more confident when I am out of hearing? Does my confidence in them put wind in their sails?

And especially with these students: How much are they still in the shadow of a traumatic past?

The Islamic tradition has a lot of the teacher talking and the students listening patiently. When it works, the teacher is continuously feeling the mood and responses of the students, and comes to have a deep knowledge of their inner states and motivations. So there is a surface and an undertow.

I imagine that in a fractured culture, one might learn to imitate the surface and have no intuitive feeling for the undertow.

I really want to fight this word, “reflective”. It suggests that one says things back to have some effect on the focuser. But I say things back to check whether I have understood.

And while doing this, other things are conveyed: tenderness and affection, on the one hand; and my own being and shifting moods, on the other.

How Muslim are these Muslims, I wonder? (It sounds like a koan.) If they understand the tradition, then it would make sense to ask them about the Istikhara prayer, which I often mention to focusers with Islamic connections. In that way, focusing belongs in the heart of traditional Muslim practice.

If not, then some other bridge has to be made. Focusing isn’t something you do to people. It is something you do for yourself, with which other people are then infected, because it is contagious.

Our students have to find some way to embed focusing-and-listening in the mainstream of their culture, which means, in the felt life that was laid down in early childhood and in the social world to which they now give their considered allegiances.


Remembering Akong


Akong is murdered. Of all people. It is hard to take it in.

I met Chöje Akong Tulku Rinpoche on a number of occasions.

I recall him saying, “Do you help with our soup-kitchens?”

I recall him saying, “Meditation has nothing to do with sitting. Meditation is awareness without judgement in the whole of your life”.

I recall him saying, “There may be another view and I may be wrong”.

I recall him saying, “When you experience a difficult emotion, you must look it in the eyes, as I am looking at you now”.

As I looked into his eyes, something changed in my heart.

I was deeply moved by Akong Rinpoche’s kindness and compassion, his wise simplicity, his astonishing stability and quietness of heart.

To talk with him was like talking with a tree. One felt a great stability as if no storm could uproot him. It feels a bitter blow that he is gone.

At the same time, one knows that Akong would not have lost his balance. He would have looked into the situation calmly and kindly , ready “to offer help where help is needed”.

Akong, I love you.

I asked Akong whether teaching the piano was harmful, whether it was part of a culture of distraction, display and competition, whether the arts distract us from the spiritual life. It is an old worry amongst people of many religions and I was feeling uneasy. I don’t quite know what I said. He put my mind at rest with a few encouraging, clear-sighted words.

When I felt very much discouraged about teaching focusing-and-listening, I went to see Akong Rinpoche. I did not know how to describe it to him and would have felt ashamed to use words less simple than his own.

I said, “I teach people to listen to one another with compassion”.

I said that it was not going well and perhaps not doing any good. I said I might give the work up.

He said, “This is good work. You will go on”.

I trusted the Akong Rinpoche. He didn’t mention Buddhism to me or karma or any of that stuff. I don’t think it’s of the essence. I don’t know that he thought so either.

What did Akong see as the essence?

I think three things:

1 to be continually aware of your present experiencing without either clutching at it or pushing it away; and

2 in the light of what that awareness teaches you: to be kind, gentle and understanding with everybody, no matter who they are, including any being that can feel pain, and including yourself; and

3 to bring help where help is needed.

These simple principles are very hard to live (and very easy). Still, they seem better than distraction, on the one hand, or bitterness, on the other.

There is some sense in which the heart is self-healing and needs only awareness and kindness to heal.

Or I seem to have found it so. But then, as I heard Akong say, “There may be another view and I may be wrong”.


How to govern a diverse, widespread community

This is an open letter to my friend, Josiah, about one possible form of government for the focusing community. There might be many possible forms, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. I suggest a way to think about diversity of language and practice.

Dear Josiah,
You say that the focusing community is “truly international”. “Truly international” is an odd phrase and not at all clear. I think you mean that we are international: we are present in many countries and languages. And we are not international: our business is conducted in English by English-speakers. And we agree that this is not good.

​Yes, I think that reflection on Quaker governmental structures would suggest good ways in which our institute and our community might be structured: ways that would open our conversations to people in other places and speaking other languages, and ways that would make it possible to realise the elusive ideal of unity-in-diversity.

I did not mean to imply that Quakers ​have no way to make quick​ decisions. Since the seventeenth century, the day-to-day running of the Quakers in Britain has been in the hands of Meeting for Sufferings, who have been under the oversight of Yearly Meeting, but have had considerable executive freedom. Meeting for Sufferings has often made very rapid responses when these have been needed.

The tradition of Quakers is that there are many “yearly meetings”. The international and central level, though strong, is not a governing level. This seems a good model for us because it means that there can be many “yearly meetings”, each with its own traditions and perspectives. By keeping government at a non-central level, Quakers have safeguarded diversity of practice. I would like us to do the same.

​Yes, our institute needs quick decisions​ now​. ​I believe that we all agree upon that. There needs to be some sort of interim administration. I am not sure how such an administration should be formed, but I guess the responsibility belongs to Gene Gendlin alone.

​Your mention of Quaker​ businesses is puzzling. None of these was run by a “yearly meeting”. They are just businesses that happen to be run by Quakers. If I were to open a chocolate shop, I should not expect The Focusing Institute to interfere in my commercial decisions.

But I think your point is simply that businesses need to be capable of quick responses. On that we agree, of course, and there is no doubt that Quaker administration has been able to give quick and energetic responses (originally in trying to protect individual Quakers from intense persecution by governments in Britain and North America).

​I too have no worry about our Co-ordinators. We have seized all the rich opportunities presented by the freedom which Gene has so patiently protected.

I would be full of regret if some coterie of business people with no lived experience of our traditions were to be brought in at the top. I fear that a business mindset would follow, and that the freedoms and liberties that we value so much would disappear extremely quickly.

My suggestion is that we could have quite a large number of essentially independent “yearly meetings”, each one self-governing.

Above them we could have some kind of international non-governing body (like the Quaker’s “World Committee for Consultation”).

So perhaps (for example) there might be a “children’s focusing yearly meeting”, an “inner relationship focusing yearly meeting”, a “French-language speakers’ yearly meeting”, a “mainland China yearly meeting”. Because these bodies would be local and speak local languages (in many cases) or be specialist and bring together different focusing streams (in other cases) they might answer many of our problems.

There would be (1) diversity of languages;​ (2) diversity of practice;​ (3) ​individual freedom to belong to different schools of practice​; (4) individual freedom to set up a new “yearly meeting”​;​ and so forth.

​I am happy to hear of your experience at the Philadelphia​ ​Quaker meeting and to learn that you too believe it would make sense to ​make a Focusing​-Quaker crossing​ for organizing our stuff.

​As for your questions:

1 How does a Quaker approach work over the internet?

​Yes, our diaspora is a central and lovely characteristic of ​our community. ​In the British Focusing Teachers’ Association ​we have made many decisions (even thorny ones) using the internet.

2 English speaking is excluding most of the world at The Focusing Institute.

​I am not sure what the question is here. I guess it is: “What to do?”

I am strongly committed to people meeting face-to-face, so my instinct would be to have the kind of diverse, broken-up structure that I have outlined above. Amongst other things, this would mean that a person could choose to belong to a group of native-language speakers. Or to start one.

I don’t believe that the internet can replace meeting face-to-face. Nor do my business friends. My friend is sometimes flown from Scotland to Korea for a one or two hour meeting, so that she can be face-to-face with the other people.

Yes, I am committed to an international form of governmental process for the focusing world which works for all our people (Co-ordinators and others). You can relax.

And yes, the more things can be dealt with by local people meeting “in their huts”, the happier I shall be.

The biggest threat to us at the moment is the threat of sudden centralisation in the hands of people who know zilch about focusing-and-listening, and even less (though that seems hardly possible) about governance.

At moments, it seems that some of us want that, but I am sure we don’t. The delicate and diverse web of free practice that has spread focusing all over the world is a deeply precious and beautiful thing.

Now, I worked through your points line by line. I enjoyed them. I hope I now sound less vague. I hope I still sound friendly, to you and all our people.

​With love,



A company or a circle of friends?

We have a Board?

This isn’t satisfactory. Where did the Board come from? Were they delivered on lotus leaves by the angels?

It matters how a government is chosen, as well as how it goes once it has met. I never doubted that our Board was distinguished by patient mutual listening. I never doubted that the meetings were intelligent, compassionate, liberal and full of mutual empathy. Yet so long as we live in the lotus-leaf phase of government, almost everybody is powerless and disenfranchised.

Here is the famous passage by John Dalberg Acton:

I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.

The presumption must always be against the holders of power. This means (amongst other things) that a Board which is delivered on lotus leaves by angels with golden wings must be presumed to be unsafe. If board-government is to be the way (and even the Quakers have Meeting for Sufferings), we need a way to choose a Board that lets people have a significant voice.

For a longer discussion by Acton, you might go to:

Elections are better than oligarchy; and it seems to me that Quaker process is better than either. One might imagine that Quaker process is slow. And yet, how often the Quakers have been ready to act years or even generations before the ambient culture.

On democracy, on the place of women, on freedom of speech, on peace, on regulation of prices, on reform of process in the courts, on good practice in banking, on the abolition of slavery, on prison reform, on individual freedom to initiate innovative projects, and on many other issues, the slow Quaker consensual process has run far ahead of the crowd.

The usual kind of Board is a side-growth from an entrepreneurial business culture. It tends to be power-driven, money-driven, status-driven, oligarchic, anti-democratic and static.

Roughly speaking, the usual Board uses elections to get a mandate for an influential few; brings money under the control of those few; gives those few central prominence within the organisation; enables them to use that prominence to establish themselves as people of status in contexts outside the organisation; enables them to make money out of that status; gathers power into a few hands; enables them to control the democratic process; and is governed (as all closed systems tend to be) by a drift towards static self-preservation and the personal interest of the Board members.

There are outstanding Boards, but the structure is inherently a bad one. We can do better.

I would like our community to build a way of working that is broadly Quaker in inspiration; because a historical analysis strongly suggests that consensual working is effective, innovative, diverse and egalitarian; and because these are qualities that I value.

This kind of working needs good constitutional arrangements. It also needs understanding, so that an ethos can grow up. The development of the ethos is the tricky part.