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Uplifted Speech in our Communities

photo by Oleg Vernagorov

photo by Oleg Vernagorov

A Proposal Towards Creating Enlightened Conversation

by Greg Heffron

I travel through Shambhala teaching mindful communication. In programs through last few years, I’ve met sangha from Miami, Florida to Vancouver, British Columbia, from Birmingham, Alabama to Berkeley, California. Everywhere I’ve gone, teaching Acharya Susan Chapman’s Five Keys to Mindful Communication, alongside stories of warm, insightful and transformative communication, I’ve heard tales of conversations that tipped precariously into conflict. About conflicts that sank into feuds. About feuds that fermented into dank, smelly resentments.

When we’re involved in them, these resentments don’t feel cheerful, or uplifted. They feel like a weight dragging down our windhorse. We walk through the door of an Open House, and see our fellow “feudist” – and our heart sinks, exactly on the night we aspire most to represent the teachings fully.

Online communication is the new bastion for these resentments. The Shambhala Network has recently sparked tremendous discussion and controversy, and at times outright conflict. The scale of these conversations points to the fact that the reading eyes of six thousand people can stir up a lot of immediate feedback. I’m very aware of this due to one of my other roles: as the current moderator for the Sangha-Announce and Sangha-Talk groups. The moderator role is limited – only allowing one to suppress direct personal attacks, denigrations of the lineage and other blatant abuses of speech.

But uplifted speech goes beyond the problems that a moderator and rules can help with. I would like to make a proposal for conversation in Shambhala – both online and in person – and invite your participation in an online group dedicated to how we talk with each other. Are there standards of mindful communication? We’ve all been taught that there are, and I believe that we need them more than ever for 21st century Shambhala to move forward in a world increasingly steeped in the poisons of divisiveness and contempt.

Are We Open or Closed?

Our lineage holder, Sakyong Mipham, has stated that the project of Creating Enlightened Society happens “one conversation at a time.” Like so many of his statements, it at first seems straightforward: rather than an abstract ideal that can never be reached, the project of Enlightened Society is a human one, and can be part of our regular human experience. But like so many of his seemingly simple statements, this one haunts the mind. It speaks to the fact that building society is a “conversation” – a subtle, living, back-and-forth, between actual living people. It is not about broadcasting abstract views, or trying to “stuff” the right answer into the minds of others. The word conversation implies speaking and listening. Then speaking. Then more listening. Speaking, in a conversation, implies that we are speaking specifically to someone or “someones.” Listening says that we actually could listen. The Sakyong says, “and not to listen by not listening and by quickly coming up with an answer. But by spending time.”

In the communication training I’ve received, we focus on very simple principles and simple points of mindfulness, such as noticing whether in a moment we’re open to communication, or closed; noticing when others seem open, or closed. Keeping the view and practice simple is crucial. When we’re triggered, even those of us who pride ourselves on our sophistication tend to close down into childlike states. Closing down (what Acharya Chapman calls “The Red Light”), our intelligence gets hijacked into fixed views of right and wrong, of who are “the good guys” and of who is “bad.” We’ve all had this happen – mindful communication never moralizes about anyone’s momentary weaknesses. But some part of us realizes that this kind of “toxic certainty” doesn’t match our highest ideals.

We know that the profound teachings we’ve received – cocoon, compassion, impermanence, great eastern sun – reveal many of our views to be less than accurate. Hence, our toxic certainty is itself inaccurate. Perhaps we disagree with something being said. Quite strongly even. Perhaps we know that there’s a mistake and feel we must say something. All right. But our underlying irritation and panic and impatience reveal that we don’t yet really understand what’s going on. We don’t understand why something is being said. We don’t understand why this person holds his or her view. In this way, we could realize a truth: that we are also confused. Being confused, we feel ragged and vulnerable, and we can lack confidence in the basic goodness of the situation. This lack of confidence makes us want to solidify and harden ourselves. Putting it simply, it is exactly here that it is possible to stop. To soften to our own vulnerability. And eventually, as our heart begins to relax again, to “drive all blames into one,” aspiring that if we could develop our own mindfulness and awareness to a greater degree, we might have a chance of understanding, and intervening in a way that could actually be beneficial.

What is the Intention?

When it comes to communication, we have to ask, “What is my intention?” Is the point to reveal that I am correct, and to reveal that another is wrong? Is my own victory the primary point? Or the victory of “us” over “them?”

In Acharya Chapman’s version of mindful communication, drawn at its heart from the profound views of the Shambhala dharma, the purpose is always for the benefit of all sentient beings. She condenses this down into a simple phrase: “mindful communication is always we-first.” Does my speech help all of us? Or does it cause harm to the relationship, burning bridges, and reducing the potential for future conversation? Likewise, is revealing the flaws of others helpful to everyone, or am I trying to do surgery with a chainsaw, “acting with a twist,” trying to highlight my own skill, my learning?

Contemplating these question is basic mindfulness. Finding out that our ego is hanging out of the back of our pants is embarrassing. For all of us. Ego doesn’t enjoy seeing itself. Speech reveals our ego’s backside just as much as body and mind. Seeing that we entered the “Red Light” of reactivity humbles us. Here, if we can be “gentle to oneself” then “merciful to others” will follow along, so the teachings say. Gentle means we can let ourselves feel what happened. And gently aim to “raise our gaze,” vowing to lessen our reactive speech habits in the future.

My proposal is a simple one – and we already all know it through our lineage. Let us be mindful in our speech. Let us be gentle in order to be powerful. Let us build prajna by being decent and dignified. Let us bypass the drama and get right down to business. And let us converse – meaning we speak and listen, both, in the midst of a living, interdependent interchange, without broadcasting or showmanship. Then, without doubt, and across the decades to come, all beings will benefit from the profound transmission of uplifted speech from our Shambhala sangha.

Come join the discussion on mindful communication at: http://shambhalanetwork.org/groups/what-is-mindful-communication/forum/

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5 responses to “ Uplifted Speech in our Communities ”
  1. Jay Lippman
    Jun 25, 2013

    Hello Greg,
    I haven’t read Susan Chapman’s book, so I’m just reacting to your writing here. Although you say a lot of things, it seems like a core theme is that we should always look at our own motivations. You say: “But our underlying irritation and panic and impatience reveal that we don’t yet really understand what’s going on. We don’t understand why something is being said. We don’t understand why this person holds his or her view. In this way, we could realize a truth: that we are also confused.” OK. But my question is, what about those situations when we’re not confused. When the communication coming from someone else is actually, really, aggressive? Where the issue is not our internal irritation, panic and impatience, but actually what is going on with the other person. I am concerned that unless you address this possibility, that abusive communications can and do occur, you may be encouraging a kind of victim mentality. Indeed, such misunderstanding of the teachings have often led to self depreciation, and this is not a small issue in our western Buddhist culture.


  2. Thanks for bringing this up Greg. It’s so important and something I find particularly challenging when faced with what feels like an attack! I’ve been reading Non-Violent Communication and finding it very helpful. I’m glad for the reminder about Acharya Chapman’s book b/c I’ve been meaning to get my hands on that as well.

  3. Sala Sweet
    Jun 24, 2013

    With gratitude for your well considered and helpful post. May we all listen to it, take it into our life and take joy in what we discover when we slow down and have a real conversation.

    Warm Regards

  4. Dear Greg,

    I very much appreciate your raising this issue and, even more, pointing the way to simple and straightforward possibilities that we can all consider and experiment with! Much of what you write is also very much in line with the presentation by The Vidyadhara and Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche of The Six Ways of Ruling. These begin with Benevolence and deal, in depth, with gentle, powerful and transformative forms of human communication . . . I hope your article and all the wonderful work that you and Acharya Chapman are doing will continue to bear fruit!

    With much warmth,


  5. Ellen Berger
    Jun 23, 2013

    Bravo for Greg, Acharya Chapman, the Sakyong, and anyone else who is working on mindful communication within Shambhala. I am guilty of much of the bitter resentment Mr.Heffron describes, mostly pertaining to the early days of our society. Interestingly my bitter resentment was about certain mistakes in conversation that now seem to be highlighted. My bitter but accurate point was aways that conversation, especially in front of a group, must include the questioner listening first to their own question, giving some time after the question was answered to make sure they acutually heard it, and only then continuing the conversation. In the early days we used to throw questions at one person like they were darts. It seemed like no-one was listening to my objections. What an absolute delight to discover that Shambhala as a whole is now seeming to emphasize some of the things about conversation that bothered me so much! I hope this permeates the entire sangha(and beyond.) Now, I must start working on letting go of my bitterness. Ki ki!

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