Three stages of compassion

For the first half hour bumping through the clouds in this small plane I’ve been trying to make small talk with the guy sitting next to me. The weather. Is this vacation or work? Where is home? Short questions and answers, then we fall silent. My mind drifts to my son, living in China. This man is around the same age. A mother’s instinct tells me to let him be. I turn my attention to the white and blue sky-scape outside the window.

The Flight Attendant hands us each a coffee and our conversation resumes. Surprisingly, in a leap of a few sentences, we shift gears. Now we’re talking about the goodness of people and the suffering of the world. He held up the palm of his hand:

“One quarter of the people of the world have no peace. They live with bombs. One quarter are starving, all they can think about is food and water. Another quarter– or much less– is getting rich from all that suffering. And then there is our planet, being destroyed by all this…”  Now his words were flowing, a flood of heart-exchange between us. ” And what can we do? Those of us who have peace, have food, who wish to help? Where do we begin?”

Another silent pause.

Feeling. Where is this feeling in my body? Is it in the space between his heart and mine? What is this feeling?  Does it have a name? Despair? Compassion? Anxiety? Deep sadness. I’m in awe that this young man speaks so openly to the deepest part of me, to the warrior heart that has taken a vow to exchange self for others. A vow I forget more often than keep.

” I guess all we can do is to care. Until we have the power to do more, at least we can care. As you do.”

I silently reflect on the Buddhist teachings on compassion. The first stage is being like a mother who’s only child is being swept away by a raging river. It is feeling completely powerless, yet overwhelmed by the need for action. We can’t turn away from the suffering at hand. We’re like the parents of the soccer kids, gathered at the mouth of the cave in Thailand. This first act of compassion is to admit our own powerlessness and call for help. It sounds easy, but how often do we allow our hearts to stay open when we are up against the wall of our own limitations? If we can do this on an everyday basis, like the young man next to me was clearly doing, we are continually re-setting our intentions to stay open rather than to shut down.

Calling for help is the second stage of compassion. We realize our interdependence with others. We admit we can’t do this alone, but we trust that others, the rescuers, might regard our children as their own. In the case of the Thai scuba divers, one man gave his life for these children, as a loving parent might do. Trusting in the kindness of others is the second stage of compassion.

The third stage of compassion is to rejoice in any occasion, no matter how small, when suffering has been relieved. As my traveling companion says, “the big things weigh me down, but the small things lift me up.” It’s important to be lifted up instead of sinking into depression. For every news story about failure and despair, find one that makes you smile.

Feeling… warmth, kindness. Smile



The Key to Authenticity: Being Vulnerable

Recently a wind storm knocked over one of my favourite trees in our neighbourhood, a large cedar that must have been about 200 years old. City workers moved in with saws to shave the new stump, revealing the wide and narrow rings that tell the story of seasons of drought and nourishment in this tree’s history. The rings spread out around the core of the tree, like a mandala.
It occurred to me that we could envision our own relationship history like the rings of a tree. We’ve survived seasons of the heart that were nourishing and others that were deprived, even traumatic. Although we’ve been hurt and confused by other people in the past, our vulnerable need to be in relationship is a healthy instinct. In fact, vulnerability is essential to being authentically who we are.
We see this healthy instinct in newborn babies who thrive by connecting skin to skin, heart to heart with a loving parent or caregiver. We human beings are born with the capacity to be vulnerable, with a need to be touched and to touch others at the heart level. At the same time, we have a need to protect ourselves, to stay warm during cold weather, to guard against sharp edges that threaten us both physically and emotionally.

Practicing the Green Zone method of mindful communication offers a balance between the openness of vulnerability and the need for self-protection in our relationships. A Green Zone is an emotionally safe social space that welcomes authenticity. In this approach, we identify three kinds of vulnerability, each one requiring a different kind of support symbolized by the slogans of the three traffic lights.

  1. Green light vulnerability:When the light is green, go!”: The first kind of vulnerability is authenticity itself. In a Green Zone we recognize this kind of vulnerability is an inborn intelligence we can rely on. What does it mean to be open, to be receptive? Thanks to the vulnerability of our sense perceptions, our body is awake to the environment around us at this moment. Thanks to the vulnerability of our heart, we feel tenderly responsive to the beauty or sadness in this space. Thanks to the vulnerability of an open mind, we’re inquisitive, willing to learn from the ongoing feedback of new information and ideas.
  2. Red light vulnerability:  ” When the light is red, stop!” The second kind of vulnerability is frozen fear. Like the proverbial ostrich who tries to hide by burying it’s head in the sand, we put on a mask to hide our fear of vulnerability, pretending we can make it go away.  Our mask might be intimidating like a bully in a playground. No doubt we can cause harm when we’re shut down like this. But in a Green Zone we don’t buy into the masquerade. Instead we train to stop, creating space and dropping into our heart. Instead of reacting we simply feel the vulnerable sadness that comes from communication break down. This leads to developing greater power of compassion, unmasking our own frozen fear and helping us to be more responsive to others.
  3. Yellow light vulnerability: “When the light is yellow, take care!”  The third kind of vulnerability is the one we associate with danger, that feeling that it’s unsafe to be who we are. These are the vulnerable feelings like hurt, embarrassment or shame. They’re not yet frozen but they are powerful triggers for shutting down. Most often these feelings originate from bumping into someone else’s red light barrier. We unintentionally absorb that person’s projections without realizing that they have nothing to do with who we really are. It’s deeply wounding to feel reduced to an object. The support we need during this yellow light crisis is to protect the vulnerable feelings we’re experiencing while at the same time listen carefully to the storylines we’re telling ourselves, sorting out what is accurate from what is unrealistic.

A Green Zone is a protective space where we train in mindful communication, listening with compassion and discernment to each other’s stories. By identifying these three kinds of vulnerability we can restore our confidence in what it feels like to be authentic, the wakeful intelligence of our body, the tenderness of our human responsiveness and the wisdom of our mind when it is open.


The mirror of nowness: feedback you can trust



Mindful Communication; A Mirror for Effective Feedback


Kris, the woman sitting next to me on the plane, was returning from what she called a ‘new kind’ of management conference.  “What was different about it?” I asked, curious about her enthusiasm.  “Everything!” she said. “ The first thing we learned was to think in a fresh way about what a corporation is.  Instead of focusing on the bottom line and the financial emphasis on success or failure, we were told that the most valued resource in any company is the human eco-system of its employees.”

The words human eco-system made me smile. In mindful communication training we call this approach ‘we-first’, shifting attention from our personal territory to the network of relationships that support us. Kris and I talked about how this fresh view might apply to her biggest management challenge: giving and receiving feedback.

“ For me, the word ‘feedback’ is tricky. I brace for a painful confrontation when certain people say ‘can I give you some feedback?’. I’ve had performance reviews where I felt humiliated by someone in authority over me.  So the word ‘feedback’ often means “ criticism”.  So I’m looking forward to discovering a new association for this word.”

What would it look like to give and receive feedback in a positive way, protecting this human eco-system?”

1. Is it open or closed?   Kris was describing the night-and-day difference between two kinds of communication. Understanding this difference is the first step in mindful communication training. We simply ask the question:  is the communication open, closed or in between?  To make this easier to talk about, we use the three traffic lights:  green, red and yellow.

When we’re open, the giver of feedback is a spokesperson from reality, showing us   how to pay better attention.   Like a mirror, feedback illuminates our blind spots.  And giving feedback accurately, without judgment, is an act of generosity, an investment in the relationship.

The opposite is true when communication is closed. Red light feedback is toxic. It is one person imposing an opinion on another. The effect is all the more destructive when it’s hidden behind a friendly smile. My mindfulness teacher calls this ‘honey on the razor blade’.  The receiver of the feedback might feel put down, attacked, or cast into the role of I-lose, you win, but the disingenuous mask makes it hard to validate these feelings.

Feeling vulnerable or hurt is a characteristic of a third state of communication, “in- between” being open or closed, symbolized by the yellow light. This is a gap of groundlessness.   We can pretty much guarantee a gap of shock and groundlessness will come to the receiver of feedback, no matter how open we feel. By definition feedback is showing us something we hadn’t counted on or expected. If we want the communication to stay open, we need to pay special attention, taking care of this critical transitional time in a conversation.  We need to be sensitive to the core fears that surface at times like this, fears that we are unworthy or inadequate. Protecting this vulnerable experience  with genuine kindness will help prevent our yellow light reaction from freezing into a red light shut down.

2.  Creating a Green Zone for Mindful Communication   To support ourselves during the groundlessness that comes from painful feedback, we can rely on mindful communication training.The main thing we need at that moment is trust.  This comes with a ‘green zone’, when there is a shared intention between the giver and receiver of feedback. To build this trust, in a green zone we agree to protect our conversation with three guidelines:

  • Go with the ‘green light’:  We agree that we value openness, being curious and supportive of all the ways that we reconnect with ourselves, with each other and with the environment.
  • Stop when the light turns red:  We agree to create space instead of reacting. We acknowledge that nothing productive happens after a communication barrier goes up. The best we can do is to notice this and then refrain from causing harm.  The red light is a signal to pause, take time to breathe, to feel the impact the  groundlessness or pain or communication breakdown is having on us, and to pay close attention to our own re-action patterns*.
  • Take care when the light is yellow:  We agree to protect vulnerability.  In the gap that opens up when we’re “ in between “  open and closed we feel uncertainty, embarrassment, disappointment.  It has the felt experience of anxiety and self-doubt. The power of transformational dialogue depends upon how successfully we can protect the ‘yellow light’ experience for both the giver and the receiver of feedback. We need to be sensitive to vulnerability whenever it arises. This sensitivity respects the fact that at some level or another, we feel an identity crisis when things don’t go as planned.

Once we have the three agreements in place, many kinds of conversations can take place in a green zone.  This shared intention creates the ideal environment for the giving and receiving of feedback. In particular, the word ‘feedback’ can be cleared of its ulterior meanings and be restored to it’s original use, as a form of listening.  In the context of a ‘we-first’ relationship, feedback is the offering of a reality check, a ‘flash of green light’ to illuminate our blind spots.

When communication is open, there is trust and honesty. Receiving feedback in this environment is a positive experience in the long run, even if it in the short term it hurts a bit, like stubbing our toe. I remember when a friend of mine carefully set up a time and place to tell me that I’d said something that hurt her feelings. She made a point of assuring me that she hadn’t told anyone else about it, that it was between the two of us.  A wave of shame and regret swept over me when I heard her feedback, but it was contained by feeling protected.

In a green zone, we maintain unconditional positive regard for both the giver and the receiver of the information. The fullness of who we are as a human being is welcomed. This fundamental recognition of the basic goodness of relationship is what sustains the openness of the communication.  We learn to trust that there is an intelligence to the communication that is beyond the territory of one person or another, and both parties are enriched by the experience of openness.

3.  Specific mindfulness practices for giving and receiving helpful feedback:  Mindfulness practice is a way to tune into the present moment, or ‘nowness’. To do this in the presence of another person takes courage and a willingness to share our vulnerability rather than defending our territory. This isn’t easy, but the alternative is more painful. So the best way to train in opening to each other is to train in opening to ourselves.  This is why meditation practice is an essential component of mindful communication training.  We need to learn how to listen to the intelligence of our own body, emotions and the mind of the present moment.    There is a new world of information waiting to be heard when we tune into the subtle messages of our own body

  • Space for silence:

When you are face to face with another human being, take a deep breath and tune into your own body, your felt experience, and allow your mind to be open to this present moment, letting go of past and future opinions. All of this occurs in silence, before the spoken conversation begins.

Pause and silently welcome the other person, notice how he or she communicates non verbally. Notice the posture of our bodies, what we are wearing, the colors we’ve chosen for the day.

Silence and space are two essential ingredients for genuine communication. Like a green space in a city, this breathing room tends to get swallowed up in our busy schedules.  But the physical space has it’s own intelligence and communication system, which we call ‘awake body’.  It informs us about our inner environment , our own energy, and at the same time it brings us back to the sense perceptions of the present moment.

  • Tuning into the Heart:

How am I feeling right now?

Notice the very subtle texture of our emotional response to the situation.  In the present moment there is an intelligence to our sensitivity, a way of knowing what is going on and how to respond which is pre-conceptual.

How are you feeling?

It takes courage to bring our heart forward and with encouragement we invite another person to join us there.  This step clarifies our intention: the whole point of giving feedback is to polish the qualities the speaker appreciates in the receiver.

“ thank you for the opportunity to listen to you and offer feedback.  What would be most helpful for you to know?”

Putting that intention into words enables the speaker to keep the channel of communication to the receiver open.

  • The fresh mind of not knowing 

The challenge of giving feedback is to remain open minded about what we think to be true.  Most of the time we enter this conversation with some opinion or idea in mind of what we want to say.  But openness means our ideas have to fall away in order to discover something new. Both giver and receiver will have had a change of mind by the end of the conversation.  This is because genuine conversation is a transformative dialogue, one that reshapes not only our idea of what is true but in some way reshapes our experience of who we are.

The result:

At the end of the conversation, we are curious about how to go forward with the feedback we’ve exchanged. The word playfulness indicates that something creative emerges when we have no agenda, and it is this emergence that we look to for fresh ideas for the next step of the learning process.  Both the giver and receiver of the feedback have learned something new and it’s important to acknowledge this.

If the communication remains open, what emerges will be a new creation shaped by both of them, not something imposed by one over the other.

The plane was landing in Vancouver and it was time to say good-bye to Kris. We were both exhausted, but  I felt invigorated by the thought that a new generation of managers was being trained to think of the corporate environment as a human  eco-system. It’s not hard to open to each other on the plane at the end of a long journey. “May all go well for you”, a silent blessing entered my mind, my heart. Our conversation had changed me, somehow.  I felt more optimistic about the goodness of human nature could enter our corporate world with her generation.  How close to surface the ‘we-first’ experience really is, when we’re ready to listen to each other.



Outer resolution, inner courage



Last week around 45 people celebrated New Year’s in a silent winter retreat in the heart of downtown San Francisco.  Along with plenty of sitting meditation, we were exploring what happens when we make a commitment , like quitting smoking or drinking or spending more time in conversation with our partner rather than in front of a screen.  Supporting this commitment, we can apply the skills of mindful communication, even if our resolution doesn’t seem to be related. Here are three ways to do this, using Tanya as an example.

Step One: See the Red Light        Tanya decided to quit the habit of mindlessly eating at night while absorbed in her favorite TV series. So her first step is to identify that pattern as red light.  “ I ended up having a conversation with myself, listening to two sides of the argument.  One side was like a parent saying “ this isn’t good for you, you should stop”.  The other voice was like a rebellious child, wanting a reward at the end of the day.  I realized that these two voices were locking me into the ‘heartless mind/ mindless heart’ cycle, and my resolution would be doomed if I took one side or the other”.

This was Tanya’s first success in working with her resolution. By listening to herself and recognizing that the red light pattern went deeper than merely eating mindlessly, a horizon of new options opened up.

Step Two: Explore the scary feelings of the Yellow Light      Tanya turned her attention to the background issues that fed her ‘scolding- reward’ cycle.  She looked at the way she spent all day postponing rest and relaxation for that special binge in front of the TV, the way people who hate their jobs hang in there for a week in Hawaii.  The fantasy of reward was a way of staying mindless during the day, ignoring other opportunities to relax.  She realized how much she used fantasy to cope with the everyday disappointments and uncertainties that she didn’t want to relate to.

By turning inward and making a relationship with the “yellow light”, the background anxiety and self-doubts that she normally ignored, Tanya’s inner journey began.  Now, at last, she had a chance to discover and even make friends with the fears that she’s been running from.

Behind negative habits is a background anxiety that we normally keep frozen and out of sight. This ‘yellow light’ experience is like a bully. It scares us into thinking that we can’t handle the facts of life: the fact that everything is always changing, that nothing is certain, that our life and our identity is much more fragile than we think.  At some point in our history we turned away from this reality out of fear and tried to replace it with something predictable—like a fantasy of ice cream and a reliable TV show.

Tanya found that working with her yellow light experiences was essential to keeping her resolution.

Step Three:  Green Light     By choosing to come to a meditation retreat over the New Year’s holiday, Tanya invited a fresh approach to mking resolutions. Instead of setting herself up for failure, she experienced moments of relaxation and openness, ‘flashes of the green light’, in small ways throughout the day.  “ To me, this is freedom. Stepping off the carousal of scolding and rebelling, moving past the sense of shame and failure, I’m noticing how easy it is to simply pop the bubble I call ‘reward fantasy’ and come back to the present moment. After all, it’s only a thought. And the present moment has lots of rewards built into it that I never noticed before… the smile from a stranger, the amazing shade of red on the Amaryllis flower.”

Instead of denying herself something she thought she needed, Tanya began to interpret her resolution as something positive:  I’m going to reward myself by going for a walk, taking a yoga class, dropping in for a noon-time meditation.  By making friends with the present moment, her evenings changed from being a cocoon of mindlessness to an open ended chance for new possibilities. “ I notice that I don’t eat when I read. So I’m doing more of that.”

Sharing the New Year’s retreat with Tanya and talking with her a week later, I get the sense that this year something has shifted for her.  Waking up to whatever is going on the present moment has incredible power to cut through harmful habits, which depend so much on escaping nowness.  Let’s give Tanya the last word on this: “ This year my resolution started off with one small habit, but I’m finding it’s grown to include something positive:  I’m determined to live my life rather than postponing it for a cloud of mindlessness that I don’t even notice. So here I am, no matter what, and this feels very good.”

Hearts and Blessings

Blessings and Hearts


Today my American family and friends are celebrating Thanksgiving. Internet sites are posting stories about all we have to be thankful for.  In particular, I was reading a text by psychologist Dr. Robert Emmons about the power that gratitude has to transform our lives. His spiritual counterpart is Brother David Standl-Rast, who for decades has been teaching about gratitude. “All prayer is essentially a prayer of gratitude”.


One point made by Dr. Emmons caught my attention this morning: a feeling of gratitude changes the words we use when we speak. His research noted that the word ‘blessing’ appears in the conversations of positive thinkers who are grateful. This brought back memories of my grandmother, one of the many resilient women in my family.


In the summer that I turned 9 years old, I spent a blissful week in the country with Nana and my grandfather, “Cappie”, and their black lab Kim, who could balance a dog biscuit on his nose and then toss it into the air and catch it. As the oldest of four children, being alone with my elderly grandparents was heaven on earth, never boring. Nana made glue out of flour and water and I cut up magazines for a scrap book. In the afternoon, while she napped, I played on the white scatter rugs in the hallway, imagining that I was floating through the sky on a cloud.  Later, Nana brought out a set of delicate demi-tass cups and saucers and offered me my first taste of tea, delicious with lots of milk and sugar. Then, with the curtains in the dining room drawn from the hot summer sun,  she went to the piano and sang a song to me that I’ve never heard before or since. It was a song about a little black boy who was hurt by the words ‘those white boys say’. In the song the mother soothes her son, saying no matter the color of our skin, the colour of everyone’s heart is gold. Tears streaming down my cheeks, I’d ask her to play it again and again.


Nana was elegant, but she wasn’t a goody-goody. When we went to church on Sunday, she’d impishly whisper things like “doesn’t that lady’s pink hat look like our toilet seat cover?” I’d spend the rest of the service trying to stifle my giggles. But in my child sense of time, I’d disconnected from the fact that Nana was grieving the death of her oldest daughter during the summer I was there. This was only one of the many tragic deaths she endured in her life. Years later, I was with Nana the day after my younger brother died in a car accident. He was one of three grandsons who she lost within five years. She was overwhelmed with sadness, saying that death was for her generation, not for the children. But, as I said, she was a woman with tremendous resilience.


All of these memories came to me when I reflected on the language of gratitude. Sitting on the front porch shaded by bamboo curtains, listening to Nana chatting and gossiping with her friends, I was struck by a phrase that punctuated their conversations: ‘bless her heart’ or ‘bless his heart’ .  The way she phrased the words was melodic, like a little prayer. In a flash I could hear her song about the heart of gold, my heart of gold, everyone’s heart of gold.


It is out of date, a blessing handed down through the mother lineage in my family from the century before the past one. But I’ve decided to say it when I can – ‘bless his heart’, ‘bless her heart’.  And, for me at least, this little prayer has a lot of power, puncturing holes in ordinary mindless speech and reminding me of how grateful I am to have had my grandmother, and so many other gentle teachers, in my life.



Listening To Joy

Joy slips into my life by surprise.  I click an e-mail attachment and the eyes of my friend’s new-born baby blink open.  The traffic’s stopped in the rain at a construction zone– out of nowhere, a brilliant rainbow!  A spring sparrow’s song filters through my bedroom window.

Last week, the doorbell rang, and a courrier handed me a box. “This is my book! It’s finally here! ”  His wrinkled face broke into a broad grin and we shared this moment of joy like two old friends. As he waved goodbye I opened the box and picked up my new book for the first time. Here it is, after twelve years of work, countless hours of writing and re-writing, indescribable frustrations, despair and occasional breakthroughs.  But in this moment of joy, the first thing I realized was that this book– my book– no longer belonged to me.  What I was holding was the work of dozens of people– the editors, cover designer, publishers… so many hands that passed it along to the courrier who delivered it back to me.  Looking back, was this book ever mine? All the ideas in come from other people– my teachers, mostly.

Because it springs out of nowhere, there is something naturally selfless about joy.   It’s like the rainbow– a surprise that depends on conditions coming together.  I remember holding my son shortly after his birth.  My mind  tried to comprehend what it meant that this baby was ‘mine’.  But the joy blasted through reference points of ‘me’ and ‘mine’ like the infiinite space in a starry sky.  I was left with awe and wonder and a profound humbleness.

Joy penetrates the illusion that things need to make sense.   There is something deliciously meaningless about beauty.  It is something we want to share, not to hoard, like the smile of a child in the grocery store. The gift of joy is that it reconnects us with a much bigger picture, beyond ‘me and mine’ beyond the struggle of our daily routine.  It reveals our interdependence.

Dipping into moments of joy quenches a certain kind of thirst in our lives.  Beauty is there waiting to be discovered in all kinds of insignificant ways.  Practicing mindfulness is paradoxical.  It enables us to drink in the sweet moments of joy and at the same time it shows us that we can’t hold on.  “Touch the joy and let go” as my teacher would say.

It isn’t that easy to listen to joy.  We have a deeply rooted habit of trying to possess joy.  Most of us are addicted to this confused idea.  Before we know it, that moment of joyful surprise has closed and all we’re left with is the craving for more.  Popping that bubble of wishful thinking and coming back to the surprise of the present moment is the best thing we can do for ourselves.  It may be joy or it may be pain or we might find an experience that has no name.  Whatever this moment presents to us, it is a gift.

May your day be full of joyful surprises!