The Origins of Mindful Communication Training
Like many family therapists, I was drawn to a healing profession because of the personal heartbreak of witnessing my parents’ unhappy marriage. As a teenager and throughout my undergraduate years I was haunted by the question ‘is genuine love really possible?’ I searched for answers by studying philosophy, religion, literature, and psychology, but still felt unsatisfied. Then one day, in my early twenties, I came across an article that struck me like lightening. It penetrated the very heart of my investigation. It began by introducing the ground of communication as a ‘vast store of energy which isn’t centered, which isn’t ego’s energy at all’.
The article went on to describe how this energy of warmth and intelligence is the dance of love. Then, these words jumped out at me: ‘once you lose the right perspective, the right distance in the communication process, then love becomes hate.’ The magazine fell into my lap. I knew instantly that I’d finally found the teacher I’d been looking for, someone with the wisdom that would help me understand how to navigate the confusing and sometimes dangerous path of relationships.
My new teacher was Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche. I learned from him that the starting point for all communication is the energy of the present moment. Mindfulness is about learning to pay attention to this dance of communication that’s already happening here and now. We have the natural capacity to do this. It’s more like hitting the ‘restore’ button on a computer than struggling to achieve something new. The next step is to notice how we do this. The present moment is here right now whenever we’re open. All we have to do is to ask: What does it feel like when you’re open? Every human being knows the answer, but we don’t often put it into words. As a training method, in this workshop we highlight the qualities of being open with the symbol of the Green Light.
What is it about our human nature that enables us to be open? Investigating this question we discover that there’s a combination of physical presence, healthy intelligence and vulnerability that we can learn to tap into.
The Green Light is possible because each of us was born with this natural communication system: Awake Body, Open Mind and Tender Heart. But while these three functions are always available to us, we need training and support to re-build confidence in them.
Listening to ourselves
Training in mindfulness is learning how to re-connect with present moment using the natural wisdom of our body, mind and heart. When I met my teacher, the way he recommended we do this is to train in sitting meditation. I pass along his advice: “ Don’t believe a word I say. Try it out for yourself”.
What I’ve learned from sitting meditation is that the quality of my conversations with others always depends on the way I communicate with myself. The process of making friends with our own body, mind and heart gradually expands our sphere of acceptance to include others. Meditation practice helps us to listen, to express ourselves meaningfully, to be merciful with our own and other’s missteps, and to be unafraid of vulnerability and love.
The practice of meditation offers an ideal opportunity to witness the difference between being open and closed. Hour after hour, month after month I gradually realized that the frozen defensiveness that painfully interfered with my relationships was only a mental habit, a distracted train of thoughts, not an essential part of who I am. Openness is genuine than being closed. Green is the natural state. In Contemplative psychology we call this discovery ‘basic goodness’ or ‘intrinsic sanity’.
Nevertheless, defensiveness is a deeply embedded habit that repeats itself over and over again, triggering lots of emotional reactions. In meditation we can see these patterns come and go without causing harm. but in our everyday communication it isn’t so easy to isolate and recognize these frozen patterns. To do this, throughout our workshop we ask: What does it feel like to be closed? Again, all human beings know, painfully, what it feels like to be closed, cut off from the present moment, from each other and from ourselves. We call this barrier the Red Light. Being closed to communication is always upsetting, even when the worst we feel is numb.
The red light symbolizes a set of confused, closed communication patterns that distract us from the present moment. But the good news is that these patterns can be interrupted because the Green Light–our Awake Body, Open Mind and Tender Heart– is always communicating, here and now. At any point we can reconnect by simply opening again. Instead of holding to our fixed, mindless patterns, we can learn to respond to the ‘Positive Interruptions’ that call our attention back to the present moment. These Positive Interruptions break us out of negative habits in the everyday struggles that arise in families and workplaces.
How does love turn into hate? The Red Zone
In the early 1980’s I began post-graduate studies in Buddhist and Western Psychology. My internship in a shelter for battered women and their children inspired my thesis on “how does love turn to hate?” My intention was to apply Rinpoche’s teachings in a very practical way, using communication patterns as a way of measuring relationship. How exactly does the dance of relationship freeze into toxic communication patterns? Joining the buddhist teachings with contemporary systems and relational psychology, I began to develop models, symbols and phrases that could be useful in my clinical work.
Trungpa Rinpoche pointed out that within our society there are two main subcultures: one that promotes fear and another that promotes confidence. The women and children who came to the battered women’s shelter were transitioning from a Red Zone, a culture of fear, into a Green Zone, an environment of emotional safety, in which they could recover confidence in their basic goodness.
The next stage of my personal journey was to go more deeply into the question of recovery. Sheltering women and children is only a temporary solution to domestic violence. To uproot the problem I had to work with the perpetrators. Now my question had turned into the opposite, “How does hate turn into love?” Ironically, I this Green Zone for healing occurred behind the razor wire fencing of a maximum security prison.
In the late 1980’s I became clinical director for a mental health agency in Alaska that specialized in domestic violence intervention. With generous funding from the state, I was able to develop the Mindful Heart model into a curriculum for violent offenders in prison. We were given a ‘mod’—a segregated unit of the prison—for an intensive milieu treatment of 12 carefully selected inmates.
To the best of our collective abilities, the inmates and treatment staff created an oasis of kindness in which some of these men were able to transform, dropping their barriers and re-learning how to be genuine human beings. I realized if we’re going to transform hate into love we can’t go it alone. We need to first change the social atmosphere, switching out of a fear-based environment and creating a culture of kindness, a Green Zone.
Later in my career as a marital and family therapist, I returned to the question about how the teachings on Contemplative Psychology could be helpful for working with normal, non-violent couples. What I discovered was that the Red Zone culture of fear doesn’t only manifest as aggression. It also manifests as a false kind of romantic love that I decided to label as ‘mindless heart’. Driven by a background fear of our own inadequacy, we attach to other people in what my teacher calls a ‘sentimentalized business deal’. We’re basically confusing need with love. When the dance of communication freezes in this way, love turns into it’s opposite, ‘heartless mind’. Driven by a background fear of being engulfed, we push the other person away to get some space.
Together, these two patterns create a cycle that balances itself in a dysfunctional way. Looking at my own relationship patterns as well as those of the people I’ve worked with, I realized that we’re all working to some degree or another with these frozen, fear-based patterns but given the right instruction, we can use them as stepping stones back to openness. The way to do this is to be willing to let go of what feels familiar, turn around and meet the background fears directly instead of being pushed around by them. For this we need to clarify the ‘in between’ zone of the Yellow Light.
The Yellow Light: Me-First or We-First?
Within the protective space of a Green Zone, we can learn how to trust our vulnerable intelligence when we’re right at the point of closing it down. This is the transition point that we call the Yellow Light. We identify the Yellow Light by asking ‘What does it feel like to be in between open and closed?”
It’s only during this transition point that we can actually choose to let our defensive barriers come down, switching directions from our red light defensive position. A helpful way for couples to see this more clearly is to notice the difference between a Me-First belief system and the experience of being We-First.
The phrase ‘We-First’ refers to the interdependent view that genuine communication is like a bridge joining two sides, speaker and listener. Protecting that communication bridge is essential if we’re going to succeed in getting or receiving information, a skill crucial to our survival as relational beings. The opposite, “Me-First’ is the mistaken belief that survival depends on cutting ourselves off. This is a blind spot because whenever genuine communication is blocked, we’re at risk.
Learning about the Yellow Light was the most challenging stage of my personal journey with these teachings. It began in 1997 when my husband and I made the radical decision to engage in a five year meditation program that included three years of intensive group retreat. We journeyed from our home in Alaska to Gampo Abbey, in Northern Nova Scotia, the home of Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron. Isolated on the rugged highlands and weathered by the north Atlantic winter storms, the strict boundaries and claustrophobia of retreat were like a pressure-cooker, pushing our spiritual, social and psychological capacity beyond normal limits. I found myself living an intensified version of the models I’d been teaching, observing my own defensive boundaries flaring up and then softening, painfully aware of the negative and positive impact my words and actions had on others. It was like living in a house of mirrors 24 hours a day, seven days a week, up to twelve months at a time. The shift from ‘Me-First’ to ‘We-First’ was one step forward two steps back, detoxifying negative habits and learning the hard way what mindfulness, compassion and genuine communication really mean.
The Yellow Light symbolizes those unexpected episodes when vulnerability feels unsafe. In particular I noticed how the sheer intensity of this experience would morph into shame, anxiety or aggression depending on how protected I felt. My ‘Green Zone’ (the others on the retreat) had committed themselves to precepts of ‘mindful speech’ —not gossiping about each other’s mishaps. When I felt secure in this, shame would still arise, but it was far less likely to take hold. Going one step further, I realized that learning to hold steady with the core anxiety of the Yellow Light is the pathway to restoring confidence in our fundamental innocence and trust in relationship. This pathway is the route for healing not only our relational wounds but also our sense of basic goodness in who we are.
At the end of our third retreat, Jerry and I became staff at the Abbey and my role was to be retreat leader for the next six years. During this time, with Pema’s encouragement I taught and further developed the three light communication model. “ The Yellow Light is especially important”, she told me. “ It’s like my teachings on shenpa, that powerful habit that pulls us away from the present moment.”
When Jerry and I left the Abbey in 2008 and moved to Vancouver, I began teaching the Green Light model in a program called Green Light Conversations, which consisted of two to five day Mindful Communication workshops. Since then, hundreds of people have participated in Green Zone trainings in North America and Europe.