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Being easy to speak to

05 Monastic Mind Motivation

Commentary on the Monastic Mind Motivation prayer recited at Sravasti Abbey each morning.

  • Approaching others with respect instead of suspicion
  • Feedback does not entail criticism
  • Humility is respecting different ways of thinking

We’re continuing to talk about the Monastic Mind Motivation prayer. I think last time I discussed the sentence:

I will take care to act and speak at suitable times and in appropriate ways, abandoning idle talk and disruptive movements.

The next sentence is:

With respect for others and confidence in my good qualities, I will be humble and easy for others to speak to.

Who, me? Easy to speak to? I’m always easy to speak to, always! You just have to say the right thing, not accuse me of anything I didn’t do, and speak politely to me. Then, of course, I am so easy to speak to. But if you don’t watch the way you communicate, then you get that right in return. But, I’m always easy to speak to. Right? Do you have that attitude, too? Yeah? Oh, some of you are not agreeing. Oh, dear. Okay, glad there are some perfect people around here. [laughter]

So, we start with a basis of respect for others and confidence in our own good qualities. In other words, our basis or MO of approaching people is not suspicion. “What are they going to say to me? What are they going to accuse me of doing? Are they going to harm me? What can I get out of them?” We have to be careful and really watch our mind for the usual attitude with which we approach other living beings. It’s so easy to have that attitude of: “Are they going to help me or are they going to harm me? I better be ready in case they harm me, because I don’t want to be harmed.”

When we have that attitude of not wanting to be harmed, we often see harm where there is no harm, because we’re so sensitive to it. As they say, “Pickpockets see pockets.” When they meet somebody, that’s what they see. They don’t see much else about that person. “Are they going to help me or harm me? I better be set to defend myself”: If we approach people with this kind of attitude, then that’s what we’re going to see and how we will relate to them. So, it’s very good to be really mindful and aware of that.

Another helpful thing is to prepare ourselves. This works really well if you can remember it. Sometimes we can tell if somebody’s going to give us feedback based on the way the conversation starts. Of course, when we want to give feedback, it’s always nice to ask, “Is this a good time to give you some feedback?” It’s helpful to get their permission because they may be really busy, or they may have to go to the bathroom, or who knows what’s going on in their lives.

If we see that some feedback is coming, we can just say to ourselves, “I’ve always wanted to learn how to improve myself, and here somebody may give me some really useful information on how to do that.” It’s not saying, “I can hear criticism coming.” Instead, it’s saying, “I can hear somebody giving me some wise advice.” Feedback does not entail criticism. Sometimes people may actually point out something we did well, and sometimes they may just point out an alternative way of doing things.

Some people are really sensitive about very small things. Somebody says, “Please put the striker for the bell on this side.” You like to have it on that side because you’re right-handed, and it’s easy to grasp, but somebody says, “Oh no, we always keep it on this side.” Or another example: “We always put the spatula in this thing; we don’t put it in that thing.” Giving us that feedback does not mean we did it wrong. There is no judgment of right or wrong in telling us that we put something here and not there. If you’re making a dish, there’s no judgment when somebody tells you we’re going to cut the carrots this way, not that way.

We’ve got to take the right and wrong out of our mind. Somebody gives us an alternative way of doing something or saying something, and we go, “Oh, I did it wrong.” No. There are just different ways to do it. This person is suggesting doing it this way because maybe it’s easier or maybe it’s how we do it at the Abbey or whatever. When we can see that someone is going to give us feedback, it’s helpful to remind ourselves: “Telling me another way to do something is not criticism. It doesn’t mean I did something wrong. They’re here to help me, and they’re going to give me some useful information.”

And then you listen to what somebody says, and you become easy to talk to. You listen to what they say, and then afterwards you say, “Thank you.” What we usually say is: “But…” or, “You don’t understand that…” or, “In this circumstance, this…” And we usually go into defensive mode. So, just a suggestion about where to put the striker or what temperature the water in the thermos should be before you use it or where to put the vacuum cleaner and how to put it away properly or when to empty it—these are tiny things, but boy, do we get defensive about them, let alone big things!

Just say, “Thank you. I’ll think about it,” and then go and think about it. It doesn’t mean we have to believe all the feedback we get, okay? We don’t need to believe it. It’s just somebody else’s opinion, and it’s worth as much as our own opinions are. So, if you think your opinions are always right, then you’re going to think everything they say about you is always right, too. Check up: are your opinions always right? If you see opinions as opinions, and that’s what they are, then you think, “This is how somebody feels about something. I’m not that person. I don’t know their background, but this is either how they feel or this is how they see the situation or whatever.”

And so we listen, and we realize that we don’t have to say, “Yes, but…” and then explain to them what our truth is: “Thank you very much for not understanding me, now I’m gonna give you some information!” [laughter] Okay? Take their feedback and really think about it. This is hard because I don’t know about you, but if somebody tells me something I don’t agree with, I instantly not just want but need to tell them my side of the story. And I find that when I need that and I put that out, usually the rest of the conversation doesn’t go very well.

If I don’t completely understand what they’re saying, I could say, “Could you explain that a little bit more?” Or I could say, “Could you please say that in a different way? I don’t feel like I’m understanding what your point is.” If you say something like that, it gives the other person an opportunity to explain it more or say it in a different way. Very often that clears up the whole thing. Then we listen, and we take it away. And we can go and sit for a minute to get ourselves calmed down if our mind is still going, “Why do they talk to me like that? I can’t stand it! They’re trying to control me and boss me around!”

And then when you’re calmed down, think about what they said because it may have some value. Some sentient beings—not so many, but some of them—know more than we do. Some of them may have a better take, a more realistic perspective on the situation. So, before we dismiss it, let’s give ourselves some time to think about it. And some people we will agree with, and some people we won’t. We don’t always have to tell the people we disagree with that they’re wrong, or even tell them that we don’t agree with them. Sometimes we can just say, “That’s an interesting perspective.”

Somebody was taking Mary Grace to the airport, and it was a Trump supporter. And she had this great conversation with him in the car. What made it a good conversation is that she asked questions and she listened. She didn’t say, “But…” and “You need to know…” and “This is the right way!” You learn a lot from that, and you can really see how somebody else sees the world. Just being able to listen at first establishes a basis of trust, and then I’m sure if he had picked her up from the airport on the way home, the conversation would have been more two-way.

With respect for others and confidence in my good qualities, I will be humble and easy for others to speak to.

The humble part means that we know and respect that other people have different ideas and ways of thinking, and that we can learn something from all these different ways. If people give us feedback and what they say is true, another thing I’ve learned is to right away say, “Yes, you’re right. I did that,” or, “Yes, you’re right. I was pushing my idea on somebody.” As soon as you say it, then the person feels heard. You’re being transparent, and the conversation sort of stops there. There are many ways to deal with this kind of thing.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.