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Maps and Location

Maps and Location (Getting Here)

The 8th step of Karen Armstrong’s guide to a compassionate life asks us to examine how we speak to one another. This is such an important question. In part one of this blog post, Sister Henrita illustrates the challenge. She writes, “There [are] moments when I [say] to myself, ‘I have it, I know how to dialogue, then a surprise dialogue occurs that reminds me that the call to growth is never ending.”

Wise Speech, as it is know in the Buddhist 8 Fold Path, is a challenge. A challenge which seems to increase as important topics such as climate change, the pandemic and Black Lives Matter become more and more divisive. Often, when I wade into these tough conversations my emotions rise and quickly reveal my frustration and my anger.

So how should we speak to each other about issues which desperately need to be raised, talked about deeply and responded to collectively and with compassionate action?

In step 8, Armstrong writes about the “science of compassion” and the “principle of charity” (p 139). Both, she writes, are crucial for engaging in deep conversations.

The ‘science of compassion’ studies discourse in an attempt to understand its divisive nature. When an opposing view is heard it can initially feel very distressing. In this distressing moment compassion requires that we stay open and curious. We must try to hear the words spoken in the context (historical, cultural, political, intellectual) which they are being spoken. This context can help us ‘hear’ the person speaking. Then perhaps we can begin to ‘see’ where the person is coming from. In this open curiosity we can hold our conversation partner with empathy and we can better listen with the intent to understand.

The ‘principal of charity’ expands this curiosity with the generosity to ‘make place for other’. It asks us to let go a little. Not to let go of our values, nor our knowledge but rather to let go of our notion that we already know everything. Our words too, are spoken through our own historical, cultural, political and intellectual context and when we hold our own words too tightly there is no room to grow.

This is, of course, hard and loving work. It is a practice. One of my teachers, Jesse Foy ( ), offers up this wisdom,
“Words express, they do not define. They bring an expression to the present moment experience. When we hold words lightly, we receive or offer them just enough to sustain wise and compassionate presence. At the same time, we let go just enough to allow for integration, growth, and new possibilities. Finding the right words does not always come easily, and do not reflect the speaker’s deeper intentions. Holding words lightly allows for an open-hearted grace and room for growth.”

Read widely. Think deeply. Speak lightly.

Sara Neall