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  • Listening to the World:Engagement with Those Who Suffer
  • Ouyporn Khuankaew

Before talking about listening to the world I would like to review what brought us to the need to listen. Riane Eisler, a thinker and peace activist who authored the book The Power of Partnership, summarizes the main characteristics of dominant culture as authoritarian, men over women, masculinity valued over femininity, hierarchical and centralized power of a few privileged groups, and violence institutionalized and normalized. The culture that we are working toward is partnership, which is about a practice of power sharing, a flat structure for society and institutions that support decentralization, gender equality, justice for all, nonviolence, and love.

To work and live in partnership cultures we need to shift, to unlearn, the world-view, skills, and behavior we have internalized from the dominant culture.

Dominant culture Partnership culture
Preaching or teaching Learning together
Telling the answer Listening with an open heart
Knowing Having a beginner’s mind
Helping Working together
Fixing Being a witness, being present with the suffering
Offering solutions Asking questions: Let people touch their wisdom

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The work of International Women’s Partnership for Peace and Justice (IWP) is to train social activists in South and Southeast Asia to deconstruct their worldview, attitude, and behaviors internalized from the dominant culture, to envision and practice skills and behaviors of a partnership culture. The main skill that we practice throughout our five-day to six-week workshops is deep listening with an open heart. Compassionate or mindful listening alone combines all the partnership values, concept, skills, and behavior mentioned above, and even beyond. When we use it with [End Page 59] Buddhists, we recognize deep listening as meditation in action. When we work with Christians, we acknowledge it as a practice of love. And we call deep listening a spiritual practice when we work with people who do not want to identify with religious institutions.

Deep listening with an open heart is a way to crack open our numbness, internalized from the dominant culture that trains us to listen with our head. Listening with our head means we listen with a readiness to make comment, to judge, to ask for more information for our curiosity, to give solutions, or to share our stories. We all know this well when our parents, teachers, or persons with authority do this to us. And when we become adults, we automatically do the same thing that we used to oppose.

When we listen with our heart open it means we are being present to hear the stories, the emotions, the hope, the joy, and the pains of people who simply only need a witness to their own existence, particularly when working with marginalized people whose power within has been taken away and their voices are not heard in the dominant cultures. Offering deep listening to the suffering of someone or a group of people is the first step to engage with their realities and to create opportunities for people to speak their truths.

Often in our ten-day workshop we will have someone who has been living or working with an abusive partner, parents, or boss for many years. Our job as a workshop facilitator is to create a safe environment for such a person to talk about her suffering. We model and encourage other participants to be present without judgment, questions, or suggestions when the person is talking. This is very hard for the first few days because most participants are trained, as a result of the dominant culture, to want to tell the person what to do, or they simply act uncomfortable with the situation by writing a note, going to the toilet, or looking away. This is because they do not know how to be with the suffering of others or do not know how to engaged in the suffering itself. We suggest that participants use the breath and the awareness of their body sitting on a floor to help anchor their mind, which is trying to run away from the unpleasant situation. We share with them that when we can be present without fixing the problem or running...