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  • Like an Elephant Pricked by a Thorn:Buddhist Meditation Instructions as a Door to Deep Listening
  • Willa B. Miller

The phrase “deep listening” has been circulating in recent years in the contexts of contemplative education, psychotherapy, pastoral care, and the arts. This article is a reflection on deep listening from a Buddhist perspective, as it might support the ongoing development of career educators, although this reflection might apply equally well to ministers and (in the Buddhist world) dharma teachers. My motivation to contribute to this discourse of listening is spurred by the belief that the effectiveness of educators, ministers, and dharma teachers might be enhanced by training in the art of listening. These career professionals share a key aspect of their role in common: They get up in front of groups of people to teach or preach. In this performative role, it is possible for teachers (or preachers) to become so accustomed to being the source of information that a dynamic is created, inside and outside the classroom or pulpit, in which discourse is weighted primarily in one direction. This dynamic, I would argue, prevents optimal learning and stunts the feedback loop necessary for pedagogical health, both for students and for their educators.

Listening, as a valued pedagogical discipline on the part of the teacher, has the potential to rebalance this dynamic. To educate effectively, we need to come to know the hearts and minds of those we educating, not as a theoretical group but as individuals. It takes time, effort, patience, and a dose of curiosity to listen attentively to students, to get to know them. But this effort is worth it. Only once we begin to listen to the voice of their interests, passions, and history can we begin to understand or assess their needs. Every human being is in formation. Every human being is completely unique. Listening, with curiosity and attention, is a window into the formation of the human being in his or her uniqueness. To the degree that we become familiar with the unique in our students is the degree to which we can effectively meet them where they are.

There are as many definitions of deep listening as there are theorists. On a panel on the topic of deep listening at the 2013 American Academy of Religions meeting, Duane Bidwell of the Claremont School of Theology aptly noted that deep listening is [End Page 15] “an undertheorized category.” It is not a term that has been claimed by only one field or person, but it has become popular in some religious circles and psychotherapeutic circles as a term that implies that listening can dive below the surface contents of a narrative. Two years ago, in a chapter of an anthology titled The Arts of Contemplative Care, I proposed that Buddhist practices of self-cultivation may provide models that can be adapted for applications of deep listening in a context of spiritual care.1 In that chapter, I noted that Patrul Rinpoche’s three points of “how not to listen” found in The Words of My Perfect Teacher (Kun bzang bla med zhal lung)2 can help us reflect on the difference between poor and effective listening techniques in the context of spiritual care. In this article, taking a similar approach but with different material, I will explore how instructions on meditation culled from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition can be adapted to develop a discipline of deep listening for educators. In exploring this topic, I will also propose a definition of deep listening to act as support for the discipline itself. Specifically, I draw on religious instructions found in a Tibetan genre called “māhamudrā meditation instructions” (phyag chen sgom khrid), from within the Kagyu (‘brug pa bka’ brgyud) school of Tibetan Buddhism, to construct a definition of deep listening for use in educational contexts.

The term “deep” (zab mo) often appears in Tibetan religious exegesis as an adjective modifying the word “dharma” (teaching). There, we find the term “deep teaching” (chos zab mo) juxtaposed with the term “vast teaching” (chos rgya che ba) in Tibetan commentaries. To say that a teaching is deep (zab mo) in the Buddhist context is to indicate that it...


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