What Else Is There to Do?

In his latest book, Make Me One with Everything, Lama Surya Das describes his first meeting, in 1972, with the Dalai Lama. The 22-year-old, who was not yet a Lama, saw himself as a Jewish kid from Long Island, born Jeffrey Miller, “thrilled” to be “in the same room as a living Buddha.” He depicts the Dalai Lama as very much the warm, avuncular fellow I describe in my post, How the Dalai Lama Does It.

Lama Surya also describes the Dalai Lama as 100% focused on him — “totally, utterly, unconditionally present.” He says that others have remarked on how His Holiness treats whoever he is with as all that matters in that moment. I’ve never been alone with the Dalai Lama but have observed the characteristic as he greeted old friends in a crowded hallway.

Years later, Lama Surya asked His Holiness about “his habit of complete compassion and attention.” The Dalai Lama’s reply:

What else is there to do?

I was reminded of Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh‘s teachings about deep listening, or compassionate listening. The Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh have very different personalities. They’re spokesmen for different branches of Buddhism, and they probably occupy different ends of the extrovert-introvert spectrum, but their messages often sound the same.

In his interview with Oprah Winfrey, Nhat Hanh describes deep listening and recommends it as a way to overcome suffering. It’s when we devote time to focus entirely on the other person. We might say something like: “Look, I know that you suffer, and I want to understand you’re suffering. Please help me understand.” Then we listen from a place of deep compassion. If we want to make a constructive suggestion, or share our own perception, we save that for another time. This time is just for compassionate listening.

What else is there to do?

Human nature is what it is, and Twitter, Facebook and mobile phones don’t cause our interpersonal problems. But in this age of many distractions, it takes a conscious effort to focus on the other, even though that’s what we need to do. A couple might set aside time every week for deep listening — maybe two times, one for each partner in the relationship. They might begin with a matching-breath meditation — sitting knee-to-knee and breathing as though one for 10 minutes or so. Then one listens deeply as the other shares.

Canaries-000001785888_MediumMany words have been spoken and written about the root cause of terrorism. It’s not poverty or lack of education, we’re told, because many terrorists came from middle-class families and went to good schools. But other factors — like American foreign policy and the rise of radical fundamentalist preachers — are not sufficient on their own to create a terrorist.

The Rev. Dr. John Morehouse has told a story about a group of Imams from Muslim countries who visited the United States after 9/11. At a meeting with clergy members in Frederick, Maryland, one of the Christian ministers asked what could cause a young man to hijack a plane and crash it into a building full of people. There was a short silence during which the American clergy members expected a denunciation. But instead the senior Imam said just three words: “Consider the desperation.”

No one with a sound mind takes on a suicide mission without feeling despair. And despair comes when we are not heard. When the world doesn’t feel our pain.

We can all fight fear, anger, suffering and, yes, terrorism, by listening deeply and compassionately to each other.

What else is there to do?


I’ll dedicate this closing song to the memory of Jane Wilhelm, the wisest old woman I have ever known. She cared for her grandson before he died at age 11 of leukemia. He asked her to sing this, his favorite song, at his funeral. She couldn’t bring herself to sing it, but she recited the words. Bless them both.

Copyright 2015 © Mel Harkrader Pine

One Comment Add yours

  1. amiezor says:

    Agonizingly beautiful. Desperation is a sad and dangerous thing.

    Liked by 1 person

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