- Deep Listening and Virtuous Friendship:Spiritual Care in the Context of Religious Multiplicity
A monk asked Zen master Yunmen: “What is the teaching of the Buddha’s entire lifetime?” Yunmen answered:“An appropriate response.”1
In a pivotal scene from the 1988 film A Fish Called Wanda, con artist Wanda Gershwitz is fed up—finally—with her partner, Otto West. When his jealousy and ersatz intellectualism repeatedly jeopardize their attempts to steal $20 million in diamonds, Wanda yells: “Now let me correct you on a few things, okay? Aristotle was not Belgian. The central message of Buddhism is not ‘Every Man for Himself.’ And the London Underground is not a political movement. Those are all mistakes, Otto, I looked them up.”2 It’s a funny moment, of course. But Otto’s (mis)understanding of Gautama’s teaching demonstrates a challenge in translating a spiritual-religious tradition from one cultural setting to another. Too often, and usually without intention, we are like Otto; we colonize and domesticate unfamiliar ideas, assimilating them into our existing worldview instead of experiencing and accommodating their challenging differences. Otto’s facile appropriation of Buddhism confirms rather than confronts his pre-critical, individualistic, and perhaps Darwinist worldview. A Buddhist caregiver might say that Otto was not “listening deeply” to the myriad voices that shaped his perspective.
Similar hazards face someone writing about deep listening in relation to religious multiplicity.3 Deep listening, as a caring practice, “belongs” to the emerging field of Buddhist contemplative care,4 in which it has a technical (although perhaps undertheorized) usage richly informed by Buddhist thought and practice. But when I reflect as a pastoral theologian and spiritual caregiver trained in the Christian traditions of cura animarum, the cure or care of souls, deep listening can become unmoored from its origins. Someone marinated in the discourses and practices of Christian care can easily and perhaps unintentionally conflate deep listening with classic Christian [End Page 3] concepts of care such as the ministry of presence, the practice of unconditional positive regard,5 and the giving of oneself to God for the sake of the care seeker. Although I identify as a Buddhist Christian, habitual Christian views shape my thinking the way a canyon or streambed shapes the flow of water; unless I am attentive to the ways that Buddhist thought and practice seek fissures and carve new channels through the sediment of Christian spiritual care, I risk appropriating or erasing the practices that Buddhist caregivers call deep listening.
Mindful of these waters, I want to immerse myself and readers in a particular question: In the context of spiritual care, what happens at the confluence of deep listening and a practitioner’s multiple religious voices? In responding to this question I have three aims: to describe deep listening, to provide a theoretical and experiential account of deep listening in the context of religious multiplicity, and to suggest an image from the Pāli canon that can help practitioners engage religious multiplicity in ways that minimize harm, increase compassion, and realize wisdom. A particular moment in spiritually integrative psychotherapy serves as a touchstone for my reflection; thus, I begin where the canyon creates a slender and fast-moving channel for deep listening: psychotherapy with Julie.6
violence, karma, and compassion
At twenty-seven years of age, Julie was a soft-spoken, biracial graduate student who radiated mindful presence. She identifies as Asian American, and with her shaved head and tendency to wear dark colors and dramatic scarves, she might seem a typical LA hipster to other passengers on the commuter train she rode to and from our appointments. One year before our psychotherapeutic work, Julie had been beaten and raped by a boyfriend; subsequent thoughts of suicide led to a brief hospitalization. At that time she was assigned diagnoses of bipolar II and post-traumatic stress disorders. Daily, she swallowed a powerful mood stabilizer; monthly, she visited a psychiatrist. The symptoms of bipolar disorder, substance abuse, addiction, schizophrenia, depression, and suicide were present in her extended family. Julie sought counseling because of tension between what she called her “Buddhist identity” and the mental health diagnoses assigned to her. She said she...