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Learning to Speak – Sarah Kokai Thwaites

Sensei invited Woo and I to represent StoneWater Zen Sangha at the Greater Manchester Buddhist Convention where the theme this year was Dialogue. Our session was entitled “Shut up and Speak: The Zen approach to dialogue and how it influences two Zen practitioners”.  Here (roughly) is what I said:

I think we all have our tendencies, our grooved ways of responding to life. They feel part of our fabric of being. But a big part of practice in Zen is to see these habits and instead of being constricted by them, being able to choose the response that is most fitting to the situation. That applies as much to dialogue as to anything else. I grew up with a feeling that being heard, or even seen, was scary and unsafe. I didn’t realise how deeply rooted my habit of shutting up was or the fear that drove it until practice revealed it. If you sit long enough, anything you’ve been avoiding pops up with a power directly related it seems to how strongly it has been blocked. In the aftermath of that, previously cherished beliefs about who we are and how we should be in the world can become wobbly or even tumble to the ground.

I’d developed a belief that I was a shy, withdrawn person with nothing to say that anyone would want to hear.  Allowing that habit to drop away and re-evaluating my life in its absence means that I have a very personal perspective on shutting up and speaking.  I can’t claim this to be a particularly Zen perspective but it is mine arising from my practice.

The teachings of Zen are often said to be beyond words and scriptures and responding with silence has become a bit of a zen cliché. Sometimes silence is invaluable. It can be exactly what a situation calls for. Sometimes it’s unhelpful and we need to move past it. In Zen, especially on retreats, we have regular interviews, called dokusan, with teachers. The first dokusan I ever had with my teacher’s teacher, a Roshi visiting from America, I had nothing to say. I sat in the small room cushion to cushion facing this stranger pretty in much silence. This wasn’t a wise Zen silence like in the koans. It was me retreating back to my old habit of clamming up without knowing why. The following day, I apologised for having been so uncommunicative and wasting interview time. From that seeing and owning of my habit I could start to address it, to see when I was keeping silent because doing so allowed a situation or another person to be heard and when it was just another ingrained habit of mine that was getting in the way of honest communication.

It’s not easy to confront our old tendencies and sometimes I’ve had to be pushed into it. On another retreat I found myself unexpectedly in the role of jikido. This includes sounding the bell in the otherwise silent zendo.  This role brought me up sharply against my preference for being quiet, hidden and as invisible as possible. There were times that week when the thought of having to sound the bell almost paralysed me with panic. There are so many ways to hit and mishit that bell and it seemed like I was inventing new ways to get it wrong each time. There was of course no logic to my panic but then our fears rarely are logical. At times I really hated that bell but the problem of course wasn’t with the bell, it was the clash between the situation and my old habits. As always, facing those habits was really constructive in loosening their grip. Having moved out of silence,  on the next retreat I found myself falling in love with words. Words in all forms burst out as poems; letters and essays spontaneously composed themselves in my head. Words, I was reminded, are part of how we interact, part of our social fabric. And although they have the power to hurt, wound, confuse and divide, they also have the power, used with care and love, to help us heal each others’ wounds, to unite, to free us from our old ways of thinking.  I was reminded of the kind and wise words that various people have shared with me over the years, how some of those have changed me in ways that I can only see in retrospect. I could see how much I would have lost had they held back and not shared those words with me. Suddenly, holding my words back didn’t seem kind or helpful.

My work role involves public speaking. I used to do as little of that as possible and never with any confidence. In some jobs shyness wouldn’t be a big problem. In mine it was. I am the head of an organisation that represents the concerns of the public on health and care issues. We go around listening to what people have to say and then articulating that when decisions are being made. I was always very good at the listening part (my team joke that within a few minutes strangers start to tell me their life story) but I was, to be honest , pretty useless at speaking up when the time came for that. That was letting those people down. The parents who told me about the experience of having their new-born babies die didn’t do so in order for me to keep quiet about it. Nor the people who tell us about how it feels to see their elderly relatives living in overstretched and understaffed care homes. I had to learn to speak up.

It hasn’t always been easy but I’ve learned that deep down I know what I need to do and that my easiest course of action is to cut to the chase, to deal with any internal blocks as directly as I can and get on with what I’m going to need to do. There can still be resistance but it runs out more quickly these days. One day when I was out of the office I took a call from a colleague, passing on an invite to speak on the local radio about care homes closing. I knew myself well by then. I told him that if I gave him an immediate answer it would be an automatic “no I can’t do that” but that if he called me back in an hour’s time the answer would probably have changed to a yes. Speaking up was needed and there was no one else to do it for me. I knew the old patterns would arise but that, given time, the understanding that I had to speak up would be more powerful. That was exactly what happened.   When I need to speak up I now do. However speaking up for me isn’t the opposite of silence but its partner. No longer trapped in between the requirements of my job and who I took myself to be I can embrace both silence and speaking up.

I sit twice a day a without exception. This regular shutting up and staying still grounds me and allows an inner silence from which I can better judge what is the appropriate response. Sometimes the most helpful thing to say is nothing. For example when my daughter is upset sometimes what she needs is a shoulder to cry on and a long hug that conveys more than words ever can. Sometimes silence is a cop out which fails to respond to the needs of the situation or the people involved.

Speaking up out of this kind of inner silence feels very different to me than doing so out of a busy, rationalising, judging mind. It allows space for an inner wisdom to arise. This wisdom is always there. Sometimes it feels buried so deep we can forget it is there at all. Sometimes we might choose to ignore what it tells us because it might not feel easy or comfortable or fit well with our idea of who we are. But I’ve found that it is a much better judge than my everyday mind of how to respond to difficult situations. Following rather than rejecting its wisdom brings more of a feeling of authenticity and aliveness, even if I often have to deal with my resistance before I get to that point.

At StoneWater on our main altar we have a statue of Kanzeon instead of the Buddha. Kanzeon is seen as an embodiment of universal compassion. That’s not always a soft and gentle compassion but it is one which sees, hears and responds to the cries of the world. Sometimes she is portrayed as having many hands and eyes to better do this. I recently heard an American Zen teacher Florence Caplow describe how it suddenly dawned on her what this meant for her life. It was the day after her ordination as a Zen priest and she was walking along a beach trying to make sense of her new role and the vows she had taken when it hit her that her role, the role for all of us, is to serve as Kanzeon’s hands and eyes. That all we need to do is to respond to life as best we can with the resources we have, knowing that we have enough, that we are enough to do all that we are called to do. I’d agree with this with one addition. I think that sometimes we also need to serve as Kanzeon’s mouthpiece too. This is for me the point of shutting up and speaking. If I don’t shut up I can’t know in what way I need to speak up. If I don’t speak up when the need arises I’m only living one side of the practice life. I need to embrace my life fully, without holding back.