On listening to another, oneself

Zoketsu Norman Fischer on listening:

  • Listen with as few preconceptions or desires as possible.
  • Listening takes radical openness to another and radical openness requires surrender.
  • Listening turns a person from an object outside, opaque or dimly threatening, into an intimate experience, and therefore into a friend. In this way, listening softens and transforms the listener.
  • Listening requires fearless self confidence that is not egotism. It is faith in yourself to learn something completely new.
  • To listen is to shed, as much as possible, all of our protective mechanisms.
  • Simply be present with what you hear without trying to figure it out or control it.
  • To listen is to be radically receptive to others.
  • You are aware of all your preconceptions, desires, and delusions, all that prevent you from listening.
  • Listening is dangerous. It might cause you to hear something you don’t like, to consider its validity, and therefore to think something you never thought before, or to feel something you never felt before, and perhaps never wanted to feel.  Such change in ourselves is the risk of listening, and this is why it is automatic for us not to want to listen.
  • To really listen is to accord respect. Without respect no human relationships can function normally.
  • So much of what we actually feel and think is unacceptable to us.  We have been conditioned over a lifetime to simply not hear all of our own self-pity, anger, desire, jealousy. Our “adult response” is no more than our unconscious decision not to listen to what goes on inside us.

From Taking our Places: The Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up

So much of being grown up, yeah, is an unconscious choice not to listen to most of what goes on inside.

How to listen and let it, another, oneself, in. Not give it sway but look after it.

Asked before what just sitting following the breath could possibly offer as a response to Trump and what’s happening.

This thought, just now. Trump’s first failure is a failure of inner listening.

I know that sounds 180 degrees wrong. But I mean Norman’s sort of listening – the friendship given another, given to oneself. Trump has no such friend.


The image atop: three Daruma dolls. I saw one last summer in a store window in Toronto and wished for it and … oh, it’s a long story, but my dear friend Barb went to great lengths, and then some more. And over pancake breakfast at the Old Town Cafe a few days ago passed it across the table to me. Daruma = Bodhidharma, Zen founder, spent nine years in a cave listening.


With thanks to Nomon Tim Burnett for passing the text on.

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Ideogram at 10,000

Looks like the blog’s going to hit 10,000 hits today. Thanks, all, for coming by and staying for a bit. A second, an hour, I’m glad for your company.

This morning, a grab bag of thoughts from a shall we say historic week.


Norman Fischer, on Facebook:

Gotta learn to see the world through others’ eyes.


I am appalled, terrified, outraged. Ready to fight. How to keep your fighting spirit free of hate? Try to see the world through others’ eyes.

Which I can’t do if I decide the folks who elected Trump are all racist sexist jerks. They’re the hateful ones. . . . Our civic life needs to be more than a game of projective whack-a-mole with disowned psychic dark matter.

Challenge? There was loads of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, in that campaign. Heaping shit tons of it. Some Trump voters voted just for that, some voted for him in spite of it, and no one’s going to figure out the ratios.


In the Atlantic, headlined “I Voted for the Middle Finger, the Wrecking Ball.”

I am Southern. I am white. I am a male. I was raised Roman Catholic and now go to a Methodist church regularly with my wife and kids. I value the 2nd Amendment but do not own a gun. Every male in my family, save me, is currently serving or has served in the U.S. military. . . . Until recently, I attended field trips with my kids to our state capitol where the Confederate flag still flew, and I am genuinely glad we finally took it down.

He seems an eloquent, honourable man with whom I’d have as many agreements as differences. Not, for sure, my image of a Trump rally a-hole.

I have a Masters degree. My kids go to public school with kids of all races, colors, and creeds. Our neighborhood has immigrant families, mixed-race families, minorities, and same-sex couples. Our sports teams are multi-cultural, diverse, and play beautifully together, on and off the field. I have neither the time, energy, or room in my heart for hatred, bigotry, or racism.

I don’t think he’s just ticking the boxes here, I take him at his word, and reading this throws my stereotypes of the Trump supporter into sharp relief. Asks me, even, to compare them to other stereotypes we all agree are beyond the pale.

I do not hate on the basis of race, sexual orientation, gender, or faith in any way shape or form. I like liberals, conservatives, and independents. I do not hate Obama or Hillary; I do not know them. I did not deny Clinton my vote because she lacks a penis.

Okay, then, if no “lock her up,” if not “Trump the bitch,” why’d you vote for him, when she’s so manifestly competent, and he’s a blowhard and a bigot?

I am tired of the machine rolling over us – all of us. The Clinton machine, the Republican machine, the big media, investment banking, hedge fund carrying interest, corporatist, lobbying, influence peddling, getting elected and immediately begin fundraising for the next election machine – they can all kiss my ass.

Maybe Trump won’t do a thing to change or fix any of it. Hillary definitely would not have changed any of it. So I voted for the monkey wrench – the middle finger – the wrecking ball. . . .

Go ahead: Label me a racist, a bigot, a hate-filled misogynistic, an uneducated redneck. But I turned down Yale, motherfuckers, I ain’t who you think I am.

I don’t know if this guy is typical of a small minority or a great majority of Trump voters. I do feel that his words are a net gain for civil discourse. Not that he remains wholly civil – he’s about to call a lot of liberalism crazy – but I challenge my liberal friends to translate their views this clearly into terms outsiders can empathize with. Whole article here.


Same time, though, I’m not backing one inch off my insistence that the man we’ve elected (wish I could say “they” but it’s all of us; wish I could cry “not my president” but we need to say how things are; see M. Colbert on this point; instead of refusing the present, shape the future, cry “impeach!”) is a threat to our democracy.

In a recent piece in the New York Times Magazine, Teju Cole invokes Ionesco’s play The Rhinoceros, which imagines the transformation of a liberal democracy into a fascist state as the change of villagers, one by one till almost all, into rhinoceroses.

Almost everyone succumbs: those who admire the brute force of the rhinos, those who didn’t believe the sightings to begin with, those who initially found them alarming. One character, Dudard, declares, “If you’re going to criticize, it’s better to do so from the inside.” And so he willingly undergoes the metamorphosis, and there’s no way back for him.

Gradually almost everyone’s assent is won. This is the “normalization” that Masha Gessen writes about. Cole makes the connection with devastating clarity:

In the early hours of Nov. 9, 2016, the winner of the presidential election was declared. As the day unfolded, the extent to which a moral rhinoceritis had taken hold was apparent. People magazine had a giddy piece about the president-elect’s daughter and her family, a sequence of photos that they headlined “way too cute.” In The New York Times, one opinion piece suggested that the belligerent bigot’s supporters ought not be shamed. Another asked whether this president-elect could be a good president and found cause for optimism. Cable news anchors were able to express their surprise at the outcome of the election, but not in any way vocalize their fury. All around were the unmistakable signs of normalization in progress.

The piece is called “A Time for Refusal.” Four years is a long time to hang in there but others in other states have hung in longer.


Ezra Pound used the ideogrammatic method to express indirectly, concretely, by assemblage, an idea he couldn’t state directly. What maybe I’m up to here? Ideogram of Post-Electoral Tristesse and Grave Resolve.

Ezra Pound, hurt by loss into fascist sympathy. And yet, and yet.


Put a safety pin on the left lapel of my blazer evening before last. It’s a complex act and I had to poke at my intention a bit first.

Is this about being seen by others?
—Well, yes.

Is that all it’s about?
—No, it’s also a reminder of my own intention, it brings it to the fore.

The part about being seen by others, is it to be admirable?
—Partly, yes.

Is some of the rest of it to say you belong to a tribe?
—Yes, there’s that too.

—Subtract wanting to look good and wanting to belong. Is anything left? Is any part of it not about you?
—There’s wanting to say I want to be of help.

How much of it is that part?
—Doesn’t matter. Not about amounts.

Wear the pin.

A woman knocked on my door yesterday morning, she was my neighbour, lived in the little apartment complex across the road. I vaguely recognized her. She was apologetic and embarrassed asking to borrow a buck fifty because her stomach was hurting. I was sort of confused but asked if five would help her and could she just get it back to me next week. After a moment I got it, she was going to the doctor and needed bus fare.

After she left I put a story together. A woman of about 30, Hispanic I think, in who knows what situation, herself, her family. This week it will have got more stressful, maybe a little or maybe a whole lot. And stress goes to the stomach, I know that myself, all too well.

All over the country, in addition to hate crimes, Klan rallies, protest marches – these major strains in the social fabric – there are also, and far far more, these minor stresses. Anxiety, irritability, acid reflux. (If the story I came up with is at all true.) Everyone’s baseline stress level has shot up, and is like to stay up, a good while.

I don’t think I’m an especially nice or generous person. Basically decent, and ethical, but not especially nice. But this week has made me feel a lot more tender towards people. If Donald Trump has given me that, I thank him.


One more stroke. Daniel Engber in Slate on racism. He says we’ve been conflating two different senses of the word – a nuanced textbook sense and a more popular dictionary sense. In the former, developed by the academy,

the term was broadened to include more subtle agents of discrimination, exploitation, and inequality [than overt prejudice]. Entire institutions could be racist, and systems could be racist, separate from the people who composed them.

In the past few decades, scholars have stretched the boundaries of the term even further. Now we understand that people, too, can be racist in subtle, systematic ways. Even if you disavow white supremacy, you might still be subject to its influence, as well as the unintentional form of racial prejudice that social scientists call “implicit bias.” You and I are racist, essentially, in ways we’re not consciously aware of.

The broader definition of racism as something systemic or implicit has flourished on the left and in academia. That’s for good reason: It allows us to talk about the nation’s most important social problems – police shootings, for example – in the most impassioned moral terms without labeling specific people as evil or malicious. . . . This more nuanced understanding of racism calls attention to persistent racial injustice while at the same time framing it in broader, more communal terms. It calls out the problem and invites solutions.

But textbook racism, however useful it might be as rhetoric, comes into conflict with the more old-fashioned dictionary definition of the word. Last year, social scientist Patrick Forscher reviewed the most-cited studies on prejudice from the past quarter-century and found that almost every single one of them treats bias as something implicit and unconscious rather than malicious and intentional. This puts the literature at odds with a public understanding of prejudice as the product of malicious feelings, the source of hate crimes, and an ingredient of classic racist ideology. “The gap between common and researcher understandings of ‘prejudice,’ ” Forscher wrote, “can create problems when researchers attempt to communicate their findings to the public.”

It’s a helpful distinction and one I don’t think – even though I belong to the academy and the coastal liberal elite – I’ve properly understood.

If I’m being honest, whenever I hear a friend, colleague, or acquaintance call a system or practice “racist,” my first reaction is defensive – I feel accused. As if I, as a white man who benefits from that structure, were being blamed for it. My second reaction is to swallow my first reaction, make sure no one sees it. (Let’s really just be honest here.) My third reaction, if I’m lucky and mindful enough, is to try to get past the first two reactions. But the terms on hand for doing so – “white fragility,” “white supremacy” – are charged enough that they tend to re-energize my defensive reactions, rather than cool and contain them.

And I’m a member of the coastal liberal academic so-called elite, committed to equality, diversity, self-inquiry, social transformation. If the cognitive burden sometimes seems too much – made heavier by misconstruals, category slips, and sometimes by the indignant anger of natural allies – then how must it feel for Jane or Joe in the heartland, not inducted into these niceties, but told to be straitened by them. “That’s racist,” they’re told; “you’re racist,” they hear.

To all those who found the cognitive burden too much, the self-monitoring and second-guessing too much, Donald Trump must have come as a great relief. “He just says what he thinks.” If we want folks to do the inner work of combatting prejudice, that work has to look doable, and if it’s going to look doable, there has, I think, to be more compassion and less shaming.

Liberalism needs the critique the Trump voter implies of it.


Last last thought. Implicit bias is, funny enough, a race-neutral process. I found myself with a new bias category Wednesday morning. White kid, short hair, scruffy beard, baseball cap, gangly walk – Trump voter. Asshole.

Stereotyping is a way the mind works. The red berry principle. (So is the anger flash. “Asshole.” I gave myself a pat on the head for it, there, there.)

You can’t purge yourself of it. There’s no point beating yourself up for it. But you don’t have to take everything you think seriously. Norman Fischer‘s good on that point too.


And, after all the week’s losses indignities and catastrophes, it’s this that makes me cry? Kate McKinnon playing Hillary Clinton playing Leonard Cohen playing “Hallelujah.” Go figure.

Peace to you, friends, and strength.

Blake and the vision thing

Norman’s talk this morning has me thinking about Blake and vision and metaphor. The myth he made, I want to say from scratch, but in fact through some sly composting, offers to our minds four, I want to say worlds, but really, visions. Four ways of seeing that express themselves as worlds.

Blake felt sure one lives in such a world as one makes in mind. Thus the “mind-forged manacles” of “London.” His letter to Thomas Butts (previous post) lays the four out one way. In the prophetic poems he sets them before us as Eden, Beulah, Generation, and Ulro.

I asked this morning if “birds are forms of attention” is a metaphor or literal. Maybe the answer might depend on what realm one’s in that moment.

In Eden, the sentence is an insult to birds and attention. Not untrue but vulgar to say. In Beulah it’s a literal truth. In Generation it’s a metaphor. In Ulro, hell, it’s a lie. Them’s my thinks of an evening.

Birds of attention

One thing I love at Samish Island are the birds. Great blue herons, bald eagles, barn swallows, robins; all through a day of sitting your mind is woven into and out of by robinsong. And today, on the drive back, a redtail hawk on a power line, and the sheer abundance in the eye of two goldfinches on a wire fence.

An old thought came back, birds are forms of attention, sometimes the mind twits and chitters, others it floats on thermals, others it dodges cars eating road carrion.

When I say that, birds are forms of attention, is that a metaphor. I don’t think I mean it as one. I’m thinking I mean it literally.

If any thing is also every thing, then metaphor’s no longer a lie, but maybe too it’s no longer metaphor. It’s just a different mode of literal.

Blake’s fourfold vision in the back of my mind here — probably because Norman talked about Blake, his “Fly” and his “London,” this morning. More on that soon but first to the gym.

“The New Thing”

A link to Stephen Burt’s essay on the “new thing” poetry. Or the new “thing poetry.” Need to reread it, but what I remember is, how grateful I am to find a name for what I’ve thought to be up to.

He sets as an epigraph a favourite passage by a favourite poet.

The self is no mystery, the mystery is
That there is something for us to
stand on.
– George Oppen, “World, World —”

Oh and just for funs, since I’m about to head back down to Samish for the last of Norman Fischer’s dharma talks, let’s put Oppen beside Dogen.

To study the Buddha Way is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be realized by the ten thousand things.
– Eihei Dogen

Grasses trees and broken bricks reach out to wake you up.

No Narcissus

Drove down to Samish Island this morning for a dharma talk by Norman Fischer. A bit remains with me from the life of Dongshan. He was walking up in the mountains, newly a teacher, chewing on the question of suchness, his teacher Yunyan’s “just this,” came to fastmoving stream and was startled by his fastmoving reflection in the water.

“Wherever I go,” he wrote in the poem the moment gave him, “there he is, with me. He’s me. But I’m not him.” Norman, I hope I have that right.

Drove away with a feeling for the dreamlike spaciousness of the country around—green fields, tidal flats, starlings in the road, hawk on a powerline. If I could amend it, it would be to say, “He’s me. And I’m not him.”

A few points of contact. Narcissus staring at his reflection in the water. Chuangtzu’s butterfly. (Was I Chuangtzu dreaming I was a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming I’m Chuangtzu?) And the spacious light of Sappho’s fragments (rereading them for my compost course) in Carson’s translation:

]
]
]
] thought
] barefoot
]
]
]

(She won the Griffin Prize this year, as did Brenda Hillman, on the international side. Wonderful.) More to come on Carson’s Sappho, how it seems to me compost might be a way to speak of them.