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Mike de Give, KCL: Hi Greg. You are a senior instructor at the Green Zone Institute, which aims to bring mindfulness to communication. And the founder of Green Zone is Acharya Susan Gillis Chapman, who wrote a book about all this. Is that right?

Greg Heffron: That’s correct. “The Five Keys to Mindful Communication.”

KCL: And you are going to be doing a program here at Karmê Chöling Oct. 26 – Nov. 1?

Greg: Right.

KCL: What’s that about?

Greg: This is going to be a five-day deep-retreat in mindful communication, which is this unique material that comes out of contemplative psychology and the Shambhala Buddhist tradition and other wisdom traditions. It puts together a set of models and protocols and ways to understand communication from a mindfulness perspective so that we are essentially using our in-built mechanisms as human beings to understand communication.

KCL: When you say it that way, that we have innate abilities to communicate civilly, it reminds me of basic goodness. We have what we need and we can draw upon that. We don’t have to really learn some new method.

Greg: Yeah. I would say absolutely. The teachings within the Shambhala Buddhist tradition about basic goodness. The idea is that we pile confusion on top of innate faculties that are already decent and trustworthy and reliable. But we kind of doubt that. We doubt our fundamental goodness. Like the fundamental goodness of our ability to feel, let’s say, sad.

Communication happens and we get disappointed. Somebody says something that we really didn’t want them to say, and we feel disappointed. We feel cut off. We feel sad. That can just be an utterly true moment. Piercingly true. And that kind of piercing truth of the moment, of feeling that disconnection and that cut-offness, is not fundamentally a problem at all. The problem comes when we react in ways that try to suppress our experience.

So, we might try to suppress that sadness by going into an elaborate rationale about why this person is subhuman, or why they have failed us, or how they should have been better. And that’s never going to end well. Because we’re not going in a direction that’s true. We’re going away from what’s true.

KCL: Can you describe ways that communication can go wrong? How we might recognize that?’

Greg: It comes back to this sense of doubting the decency and goodness of the situation. That we tend to shut down into fixed patterns. What Susan Gillis Chapman calls “toxic certainties.” These are prefabricated ideas that we carry around with us that we use as a kind of protection, a shield, against reality as it’s actually unfolding. This is not real protection. It doesn’t actually really protect us. These are kind of fixed thought patterns, ideologies, and they can take a variety of forms. For those who are familiar with the Five Buddha Family teachings, they’ll recognize some of these patterns. But they could take the form of extreme judgment. They could take the form of desperate longing for this person to love us. They could take the form of arrogance. They could take the form of mindless competition. Or they could take the form of, you know, ‘this person is not worth my time, I’m tuning them out.’

KCL: It sounds like all of these things that you just described are a retreat into the cocoon as they describe it in …

Greg: … “Shambhala: Sacred Path of the Warrior.” Yes, absolutely. The cocoon, that’s it. The cocoon is in a way those fixed thoughts. But again, if they actually protected us maybe they would be worthwhile. But they really don’t, because part of what they do — and this is really the deeper truth of this material — part of what they do is disconnect us from the person that we’re facing. We are no longer in real contact with what they are really saying, doing and how they’re acting. We have kind of injected ourself with a kind of anesthesia of these ideologies, these thoughts we have, and we’re paying attention to the thoughts — we’re no longer paying attention to the person. So the irony is that it makes us less protected. If we really want to be protected, we better pay attention.


Greg: Because, you know, there’s feedback we’re getting that we may need to pay attention to. ‘

KCL: I guess it’s easier to win an argument with your projection of somebody than the actual person.

Greg: Yes, very true. And then you think you’ve won, and you feel protected, but later you can get blindsided because you weren’t paying attention.

KCL: What does a good communication look and feel like?

Greg: That itself is a beautiful, open question, actually. That’s the question we want our mindful communication practitioners to keep asking themselves. `What does it feel like when I’m open.’ And feeling open with somebody is something that we all know. We’ve all had that experience, even, honestly, if it’s just with our schnauzer puppy, right? We know that sense of being unguarded and authentic. And it feels so good, actually. We all crave that kind of connection. And it’s a living connection. It’s not a connection where we say, ‘Oh, isn’t this wonderful,’ and we go off in our mind thinking about how wonderful it is. It’s a living connection that happens moment by moment, in the present. That’s the mindfulness aspect.

Actually, part of what we love about being open is that it automatically tends to make us feel more mindful. And mindfulness actually feels real and authentic and genuine. So that’s it.

In terms of good communication, there’s a number of ways to identify within ourselves where to look for that. Like, starting with our bodies, our senses, our hearing, our seeing, our feeling. All of these things. You literally cannot listen to somebody if you are not paying attention to your ears. But then there are actually our emotional faculties. The heart listens in its own way. It’s like its own sort of ear that listens on a different level, and we’re getting information constantly through our emotions. Are we paying attention to that? Are we mindful of that?

And we pay attention with our mind, as well. We could actually, at a level of thought, be curious about what this person is saying. Like, “they’ve just told me something, and I’m thinking about, ‘What does that really mean?, or ‘What are the implications of that for them in their life. And ‘Why did they choose to tell that to me right now?'” I can be open in that way.

KCL: So, you’re saying that we can be our genuine selves with someone who might be politically diametrically opposed to our views?

Greg: No. I would say actually that there are situations not to engage.


Greg: That’s actually a very fundamental part of these teachings as well. We’re not unrealistic. We’re not going to get everybody on the same page all the time. Anybody who promises that is overpromising a bit.

KCL: OK. Sometimes I feel like, rather than having a conversation, I’m saying things I’ve learned from the blogs I read and the other person is saying things from their own set of talking points, and I don’t know if we’re really having a conversation.

Greg: The key point there is actually, again, coming back to mindfulness. Feel the living situation. Is it open enough that there is actually communication happening? Or has everybody shut down into their view, their camp, their talking points, and actually they’re not listening anymore. And that’s important because if nobody’s listening, why are we talking? Five minutes later, maybe somebody changes and it opens up. So it’s not a fixed situation. It’s never stuck. But we have to be mindful of when it closes and know what to do in that situation. That’s a big part of our teachings.

KCL: One of the things you’ve told me is that when we see communication going off the rails, it may be an option just to stop talking. What else to you talk about in the program?

Greg: Well it really depends on the parties involved. We talk about three fundamental states that we’ll get into, called the three lights, and we use a traffic light as a metaphor. I won’t go into all that material right now, but it really depends. In the different states you do something quite different. So, if you’re in an open communication state, then things can be quite intense. You can really have debate, and somebody can say, “I think you’re wrong. I don’t really think you’re thinking this through.’ And if you’re in an open state, that’s your friend talking to you and they’re really reaching out to you with their open heart, you could consider that, “maybe they’re right. What if they’re right? What if I am wrong about this?” That can be quite valuable.

Then there’s a state of fear that we get into. Fear and shame and self-doubt, where we just feel really thrown and we start to attack ourselves. In that state I don’t feel strong enough, honestly. If this person’s challenging my beliefs, I’m not there yet, in that moment. I’m having kind of a internal crisis. Maybe nobody else can even see it. But I’m having a bit of a crisis, and I’ve got to actually take care of that crisis first. If I don’t take care of that crisis, it tends to spiral into more panic and self-attack. The end result of that panic and self-attack can be a full shut down, where I shut down to myself. I shut down to my own faculties. And when I do that, that’s when it’s very tempting to go into these fixed ideologies. So for ourselves, for somebody else, we have to be able to read what state they’re in to understand what’s true, and what’s useful, and what’s kind in that moment.

KCL: I’m seeing more and more as we speak how this ties into meditation. Reading yourself. There’ll be a lot of meditation in this program I’m guessing.

Greg: Yes, absolutely. We’ll be doing sitting meditation that people are more familiar with. We’ll also be doing a number of other meditations, including taking communication itself as a kind of meditation.

KCL: Oh, that’s interesting.

Greg: Instead of coming back to the breath, and paying attention to the breath, what if we’re paying attention to what state this person is in? And what state we’re in? And what’s happening in the conversation. If that becomes the focus of our mindfulness, what is revealed by that? So we’ll do a number of exercises, particularly, over the five-day period, from many different directions, trying to generate that sense. Our communication could be a meditation.

KCL: Is there anything else you want to tell me about this program?

Greg: The last thing I’ll say is, a five-day program is just fantastic because there’s so much more time to do things that we normally can’t begin to touch on. One of the things that we’ve done in our longer retreats in the past in storytelling at night. Which is kind of a theater-style situation where people can choose to get up to the microphone and just tell a very true personal story to the group, and have the entire group listen. It’s almost like going to the theater. These things happen now. There are shows like The Moth, where people go and listen to people’s true stories. It’s absolutely compelling. It’s fascinating. It’s funny. People are laughing. People are crying. It’s so powerful, the real-life stories people have been through. And to get to hear them after you’ve been training your listening, and to get to tell your own story to a group that is really tuned in, that is really listening, is quite a transformational experience. So, again, that’s something in our shorter retreats we can’t even do. And there will be many more things like this that we’ll get to do, including, at Karme Choling of course, getting outside in the beautiful environment. That alone is kind of medicine.


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