For the past ten years or so, I’ve spent a lot of my time traveling around and visiting Zen centers, meditation groups, and other such organizations all over the world.
Some of these are well-established large centers with their very own beautiful buildings. Some are groups who meet in borrowed or rented spaces belonging to others. Some groups meet in modest little houses that have been repurposed for use as full-time meditation spaces. I’ve been to tattoo parlors (more than one!) that did double duty as Zen spaces. I’ve seen people using a vacant room in their tiny urban apartments as gathering places for meditators.
I’ve also watched in real time as three of the places I visited collapsed in on themselves. Not physically. But I’ve seen how they were unable to keep going in one form and had to radically change in order to survive. In addition to the three I’ve actually seen with my own eyeballs, I’ve heard about several more. In a couple cases I’m not really sure they will survive.
The collapses I’m referring to haven’t been brought on by the spectacular transgressions that would have gotten these centers covered by the Huffington Post. There have been no accusations of financial abuse or sexual scandals in the examples I’m talking about. These centers have, instead, been brought down by failures in communication.
We owe the very existence of our species to our ability to communicate. If we hadn’t been extraordinarily better than any other animal at conveying ideas to one another, our earliest ancestors would have been gobbled up by stegosaurs and diplodocuses long before they’d have ever given birth to the civilization we now enjoy.
Because we are so good at communicating, we often forget how rare and difficult of a thing it is. As a writer, I never work much on making my prose sound artful and flowing. I spend most of my efforts just trying to be clear. And yet I still fail all the time.
Think about a very simple communication. Imagine you’re at dinner and somebody says, “Pass the HP Sauce.” That sounds really straightforward.
But even that could be subject to misinterpretation. Maybe the listener is offended because there was no “please” attached. Maybe he’s hurt because he cooked the meal and considers such the request to be a criticism of his skills. Maybe the listener has never heard of HP Sauce and needs clarification on what exactly is being asked. I could go on, but you get the idea.
Or do you? I assume any sensible reader with a grasp of English knows what I mean. But actually I’ve seen even what I consider to be my best efforts at communicating the simplest of ideas get derailed.
Sometimes you’re talking to someone who just refuses to understand, claiming they don’t when they really do. Sometimes you’re trying to talk to somebody who is in a mood to argue with absolutely everything you say. Moods, in fact, have a whole lot to do with how communication is delivered and received. It’s hard work communicating with others.
We often take it for granted that people mean what we think they mean. But that’s not always the case.
Years ago I worked with this Chinese guy in Japan who spoke fantastically good English. His English was so good it was easy to forget that it was not his native language nor had he ever actually lived in an English speaking country.
This guy loved learning new phrases and trying them out. Once during a quiet moment in the office he came over to my desk and said, “Brad, could you give me a break?”
I quickly realized that he did not know “give me a break” is typically used as a colloquial way of saying something like, “What you’re doing is bothering me, please stop it.” He thought it meant something like, “Could you take a break from what you’re doing and help me?” But that didn’t prevent me from having an immediate gut reaction to being asked to give him a break when I was just sitting at my desk quietly working.
That was an easy one. Lots of the time miscommunication is way harder than that.
Often we don’t say what needs saying because we’re afraid we’ll hurt someone’s feelings. Or we don’t say things because we’ve been misunderstood before when saying that kind of stuff. Then things just fester and get worse.
Sometimes you feel like your efforts at being subtle have not been understood so you go all the way the other direction and start verbally bludgeoning people with exactly what it is you’re trying to say. This is what I do a lot of times. We all have our own bad communication habits.
I’ve found two strategies to be very useful. One is to always bear in mind that whoever you’re speaking to is never able to fully communicate everything they actually mean. Not even when all they’re saying is, “Pass the HP Sauce.” And realize what you think they’re saying may not be what they’re trying to convey.
The other one is a little more difficult. In Japan there’s a cultural myth that Japanese people can understand subtleties and things unexpressed much better than we poor Westerners. Of course this only applies when they’re speaking to other Japanese people. But I was there long enough that people started to forget I wasn’t actually Japanese.
Besides that, it’s bullshit. I used to watch Japanese people completely misconstrue what other Japanese people were trying to tell them through gentle hints and subtle suggestions all the time.
I made it my policy to only respond to exactly what someone said rather than to anything they were trying to imply. You can’t really do this 100%. You always have to read a bit into what people tell you. But I tried as much as possible to listen only to what was overtly being said. I found that this made everything better. In fact, most of the time when communications go awry in my own life it’s because I’ve been disregarding this policy and reading too much into things people are saying to me.
Maybe it’s something about the phases of the moon or whatever, but I’ve been seeing a lot of communications going wrong lately. So I offer this for whatever it’s worth.
If you’d like to spend three days not communicating verbally with anyone at all, I believe there may be room for a small number of last minute additions to our retreat at Mt Baldy this weekend. It’ll be cold but very peaceful. Info is below.
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Everybody in LA now understands perfectly what I want to do in establishing the Angel City Zen Center. If you too want to see a real Soto Zen center happen in SoCal, contribute to our fundraiser to make the Angel City Zen Center come alive! Every little bit helps a lot! Click here to learn more!
I’ve got a new book coming out soon! Stay up to date on its release schedule, my live appearances and more by signing up for our mailing list on the contact page!
Our 3-Day Retreat at Mt. Baldy is this weekend (Nov. 6-8, 2015). There are still a couple spots available. Grab ’em now if you want to go!
November 6-8, 2015 Mt. Baldy, CA 3-DAY RETREAT
April 23, 2016 Long Island, New York Molloy College “Spring Awakening 2016”
October 23-28, 2016 Benediktushof Meditation Centrum (near Würzburg, Germany) 5-Day Retreat
Every Monday at 8pm there’s zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Beginners only!
Every Saturday at 9:30 there’s zazen at the Veteran’s Memorial Complex located at 4117 Overland Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230. Beginners only! (It will still happen this Saturday Nov. 7, 2015 even though I will be up at Mt Baldy)
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