In his book, Mindfulness and Intimacy, Zen teacher and author Ben Connelly writes: “Practice honoring and respecting voices that challenge your own view.” It’s a basic pointer towards better communication based on the principles of Zen teachings, and it’s a subject that Shunryu Suzuki also talked about in his seminal book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. He begins a chapter on communication by admitting his own difficulty with the English language, but then addressing the deeper problem with human exchanges, namely that ‘when we say something, our subjective intention or situation is always involved.’ He urges his students to cultivate naturalness in their discourses: ‘Expressing yourself the way that you are is the most important thing.’
When you listen to someone, you should give up all your preconceived ideas and your subjective opinions ; you should just listen to him, just observe what his way is. We put vey little emphasis on right and wrong or good and bad. We just see things as they are with him, and accept them. This is how we communicate with each other. Usually when you listen to some statement, you hear it as a kind of echo of yourself. You are actually listening to your own opinion. If it agrees with your opinion you may accept it, but if it does not, you will reject it or you may not even really hear it. That is one danger when you listen to someone. The other danger is to be caught by the statement. If you do not understand your master’s statement in its true sense, you will easily be caught by something which is involved in your subjective opinion, or by some particular way the statement is expressed. You will take what he says only as a statement, without understanding the spirit behind the words. This kind of danger is always there.
“If you try to adjust yourself in a certain way, you will lose yourself.”
To be quite natural to ourselves, and also to follow what others say or do in the most appropriate way, is quite difficult. If we try to adjust ourselves intentionally in some way, it is impossible to be natural. If you try to adjust yourself in a certain way, you will lose yourself. So without any intentional, fancy way of adjusting yourself, to express yourself freely as you are is the most important thing to make yourself happy, and to make others happy. You will acquire this kind of ability by practicing zazen. Zen is not some fancy, special art of living. Our teaching is just to live, always in reality, in its exact sense. To make our effort, moment after moment, is our way. In an exact sense, the only thing we actually can study in our life is that on which we are working in each moment. We cannot even study Buddha’s words. To study Buddha’s words in their exact sense means to study them through some activity which you face moment after moment. So we should be concentrated with our full mind and body on what we do ; and we should be faithful, subjectively and objectively, to ourselves, and especially to our feelings.
“True communication depends upon our being straightforward with one another.”
Even when you do not feel so well, it is better to express how you feel without any particular attachment or intention. So you may say, “Oh, I am sorry, I do not feel well.” That is enough. You should not say, “You made me so !” That is too much. You may say, “Oh, I am sorry. I am so angry with you.” There is no need to say that you are not angry when you are angry. You should just say, “I am angry.” That is enough.
True communication depends upon our being straightforward with one another. Zen masters are very straightforward. If you do not understand the reality directly through your master’s words, he may use his staff on you. “What is it?” he may say. Our way is very direct. But this is not actually Zen, you know. It is not our traditional way, but when we want to express it, we find it easier sometimes to express it in this way. But the best way to communicate may be just to sit without saying anything. Then you will have the full meaning of Zen. If I use my staff on you until I lose myself, or until you die, still it will not be enough. The best way is just to sit.
Shunryu Suzuki (1904-1971)