Friday, January 16, 2015

Hear ye, hear ye: what does it take to hear ye?

I wear hearing aids and in the long process of getting to this point I’ve learned a lot about communication, about listening, hearing, and understanding. Each of these is a different aspect of the human interactions!

It’s axiomatic, or, well, at least a commonly heard joke, that women’s voices are more difficult (for men?) to hear! One could say more, but, what’s the point, I’d just lose most of my readers! I concur, however, with this time-honored adage in that at least some women’s voices are more difficult to hear. Most audiologists will mumble that it’s due to their higher pitch, but there’s more to it than that, at least sometimes. But truly, hearing loss is not merely about gender differences! So, don’t write me off too soon, ok?

Hearing differs from listening in that it takes the intention of listening to hear with understanding. In some cases, “not hearing” can mean either no sound was heard, or, more likely, I heard but I didn’t understand the words or the meaning of the words (again, these are two different things.) It may mean that “I don’t like you, or what you are saying, so I choose to ignore what you said!”
I sometimes hear the words perfectly well enough, but have no idea what they mean. Apart from brain dysfunction (always a possibility), I am referring to the fact (at first, it was shocking to me to come to grips with this) that without some context, or more complete explanation, or at least a preamble, it is sometimes impossible to know what a person is talking about even when the words are perfectly clear and understandable.

A common issue I’ve noticed is the use of too many pronouns: “Did you hear what she said?” “Who?” “No, what did she say?” Or, changing the subject without warning or introduction.
An even more common issue, and this relates in part to hearing loss, is to have another person begin a sentence with the key word or a person’s name. “Alice is decided to withdraw her name.” “Who?” “What did you say?” When this happens to me, I’m stuck back at the first word trying to figure out the “who” and entirely miss the rest of the sentence. A simple solution, for a conscious speaker in the presence of a person with hearing loss, is to always begin a sentence with some throwaway introductory words. “You know what I just heard? Alice…(pause)….has decided to withdraw her name from the auction drawing.”

I want to emphasize the importance of key words such as names, proper nouns, decisive adjectives and so on. Pronouncing key words consciously is critical to effective communication, both intimate and public.

Not enough can be said about the value of a preamble: “Do you have a minute? I wanted to mention to you something about Alice.” Speaking of preambles: “What’s my name?” Repeat: “What my name?” If you want to talk to me, use my name before launching into your dialogue. Of course, if I’m already nose to nose with you, that’s not necessary, but, otherwise, how about a simple, “Hriman, oh hi! You gotta minute?”

It may be hearing loss, age, or simply staying focused in my own boundaries, but I purposely DO NOT listen to conversations of other people. If you suddenly begin talking to me, even as I pass you, I may just keep walking. Not because I’m a jerk (which I suppose I can be, sometimes, too), but because I don’t wish to get caught up in idle conversations. So, if someone like me is not facing you, eye to eye, toe to toe, please start your sentence with my name, pause, and then say something “throw away” like “Oh, Hriman,……, there’s something I wanted to mention to you.” Then, as my ship comes about face, we can talk of more important matters!

Then there are the miscreants who deign to talk to me from another room. When I can, I simply ignore such people. Or, how about the ones who turn their back on you as they talk and even walk away in the opposite direction as they are speaking to you! Egads!!!! For some, it’s simply an impolite habit, but I suspect it might also represent a lack of commitment to the conversation; or, a lack of clarity or confidence in what he or she has to say. Or, and we all probably do this: not caring whether we are heard and liking the idea that we’ve said our piece aloud!

Sometimes there can be a good reason for getting it off our chest, regardless of whether the other person hears us fully! In any case, these half-way speakers are frustrating to be around and they can come across as rude, arrogant or at best thoughtless. I cannot help but feel that if you have self-respect for what you have to say and you wish to communicate it, and respect for your listener, it would do well to take the time to do so as to be heard.  

I’ve met quite a few ventriloquists in my day. It’s really quite amazing to hear (or not) how many can speak without moving their lips; or, without any air passing through them! Why do some do this? Shyness, habit, lack of confidence or sometimes simply a soft-spoken, internalized voice?

I’ve always admired my friend and teacher, Swami Kriyananda, for, inter alia, his skill at projecting his voice. Those of us with hearing loss should, in early stages, as yet not acknowledged, pay attention to how often we say “What?” But those with too soft of voices should also pay attention to how often they are asked to repeat themselves. If the latter, learn to open your mouth, move your lips, and use your lungs and chest to project your voice into the face or into the space occupied by your listener(s)!

I look back over many years of being with Swami Kriyananda. His hearing loss grew steadily worse until it became acute by the end of his life. I look back and wonder how much of his tendency to avoid conversation at meals was due to the difficulty of hearing while eating and in the challenge presented by surround-sound conversations, oft interrupted by others, confounded by the ambient noise of dishes, music, etc.

Indeed, I, too find, unfortunately, that I can’t chew food and listen at the same time. As I share many meals with friends and in public, it becomes a choice of eating or listening, but not at the same time. 

Standing in a crowded room holding a small plate of snacks with conversations around me 360makes it impossible to have an understandable conversation.

Ever see those big trucks that have a sign on them that says “If you can’t see my mirror(s), I can’t see you?” Ditto for my eyes! If I can’t see your eyes and vice versa in a conversation, the odds are very good I’m not going to “hear” you (meaning, either the words or the meaning or both).

I couldn’t possibly count the number of times someone spoke to me and I didn’t understand a word. It happens too frequently. Sometimes I even get slightly nauseous, like I’m drowning, when I can’t hear or understand the words.

Another shocking revelation (for me, at least) has been the degree to which my expectation of what a person is saying determines what I think I just heard! You’ve read, often perhaps, about the illusion of seeing a snake on the path ahead of you (perhaps in dim light, like dusk), reacting with fear, and then discovering that the snake is only a rope left on the ground? Yup, that’s what I am talking about!

I have learned that the same happens with sight, as well: especially under stress, as in when I am frantically looking for something, say, in various drawers. Many a time I discovered that based on the intensity of my focus and expectation I would momentarily think I saw what I was looking for only to discover (usually in a flash) that the object is something else.

This is what happens, I believe, to all of us when we are listening to others. I’ve seen or heard of some movie or maybe a quote from Churchhill (no, it was FDR, I think), who went around a room of partygoers saying something like, “I killed my mother.” He discovered that no one reacted because no one “heard” what he said because the words did not fit what his hearer expected to hear nor the context (of the party)!

Many a time I have been embarrassed for the fact that what I thought I heard was the opposite of what was said: like FDR’s experiment, I would end up smiling my congratulations when instead I should have been expressing sympathy! Sigh!

Now, let’s move up to left vs right brain conversation. When I was younger I could engage in that “witty repartee” that is characteristic of young, high metabolizing brains. I can still do this, but my métier as a man of wisdom and considerable life experience (I’m partly joking, here) leaves me somewhat uninterested in “witty repartee!”

My wife likes to tell friends how at a complete loss I am during our weekly staff meetings, when, surrounded only by women, I don’t have clue what they are talking about. An abundant use of pronouns, incomplete sentences, and rapid-fire changes in subject matter, can leave my head spinning: “clueless,” as it were, “in Seattle.”

The issue is, sometimes, a gender difference, but by NO means always. It’s really, or so I believe, a question of patterns of thought and speech: in short, left vs right brain. Men have right brains too, just as women have considerable prowess with their left brains! Still, brains do rule the day and no one in our society seems to have thrown out the “women are more intuitive” cliché quite yet. My own experience does confirm this, at least some of the time.

So, we are past the gender thing and have emerged into the human brain.  I’m not authority on brains but I think it’s not as simple as left vs right. There are some people whose speech patterns are discombobulated: they don’t adhere to the time honored concept that a sentence begins with a subject that gets some traction by using a verb that takes aims in the direction of an object. This idea just isn’t there for some brains. I don’t know much about “Attention-deficit disorder” or Obsessive-compulsive disorder” and to make reference to it here may be hugely inaccurate, but I throw it into the brain soup, just in case it might complete someone’s alphabet.  In any case and in a simple way, some people’s minds work at a different pace then their mouth.

Blurt-ers simply speak whatever channels through their mind. The result is disconcerting, often dismaying, and sometimes poorly said and all too often negative. Many, however, simply skip saying what they started in favor of the latest thought that brightens their bulb. This leaves the rest of us hanging on the edge of a steep cliff of cognition.

Then there are the infamous Mumblers. Some haven’t moved their lips since birth. Others are perhaps too are shy or hesitant to put their speech out into clear view. Perhaps they fear being wrong or being critiqued. Fear of critique, I have found, is balanced by a critical mind that expects from others what they, themselves, are inclined to do.

Suffice to say, I have to walk a line between saying “What” so frequently that I might be mistaken for a parrot; or, simply staying out of many conversations and miss a valuable sharing. There are numerous conversations I refrain from entering or I just simply smile and nod or offer some offhand monosyllabic utterance to indicate that I haven’t had a stroke.

If I judge that I need to pay attention and say “What?” I will but I am cautious. People frown upon those whose conversation is limited to repeating “What.” No doubt there are times when I misjudge and lose important information. After all, my work is very with and for people, so missteps do happen.

By the end, which is coming hopefully soon, it gets down to the fact that it is simply amazing that humans understand each other. It seems that communication is like a game of chance, or to quote Forest, Forest Gump: a box of chocolates (“You never know what you’re gonna’ get.”).

Ultimately, truth is, I’m just letting off steam: can you hear it hiss? Nothing I write here will actually change the conditions one faces due to hearing loss! Hearing aids are no substitute for good hearing. 

And I suppose you should remind me to “Be the change I seek.” Eh?

My favorite chant these days is “Listen, listen, listen” by Paramhansa Yogananda.

Thanks for hearing me out.


Saturday, January 10, 2015

Is Negativity a Habit?

In my many years living in intentional community I have seen that people who are otherwise idealistic can yet be negative owing, largely, to habit. I have noticed, for example, that one customary way to express friendship, intimacy, trust, and bonding is to "let your hair down" and "tell all."

In spiritual groups, nonprofit organizations, and other idealistic settings, it is the norm to affirm an upbeat, positive, and cheerful attitude. But this is simply not always possible because each of us has our ups and downs. But here I am not talking about mere ups and down. Here I am talking about what can become an entrenched habit.

What I have observed is that confiding in another person too often goes in the downward direction of digging in the dirt of one's fears, anxieties, regrets, and resentments -- things that you don't normally admit you are holding onto. Worse than that is that this digging can develop into a habit: merely something to talk about (again and again and again).

Thus, when good people get together one-on-one or in smaller, bonded groups, the whispered confidences become less than upbeat. It is too bad that sharing negativity (including fear) signals that "you are my friend and I trust you." Sometimes we all have to "let off some steam."

But it can become a habit. I've come to see that the negativity some people express is in no small way because they don't know what else to talk about! I have several friends -- good people and otherwise intelligent -- who repeat the same old junk every time he or she has a one-on-one conversation. In part their social skills may be inadequate; in part, in fact, they aren't that "bright" or at least mindful (even if in areas of skill and expertise they are rather accomplished).

A case in point surrounding a useful habit for the ego is a friend who frequently expressed her "exhaustion" in spite of being consistently day-in and day-out the most energetic person around! This habit was useful because she could use it as a tool to keep a person at bay whom she didn't like; or on the basis of a subject she didn't wish to discuss; or an attitude she thought inappropriate. Over time her co-workers and friends felt her cold and inaccessible and often turned that towards themselves assuming they must have done something wrong or were not liked.

Certainly we all have such moments when fatigue renders us brain-dead. So it is understandable to a point, but not past the point of an ingrained habit that snubs others and their sincere needs. A counselor once told her, with some intensity, that for one year she should not say to anyone how tired she was. (Maybe it helped. I don't know.)

A habit like that is, further, is a tool for the ego to extract sympathy from others. Sympathy is a very deep and usually true form of sharing, friendship and intimacy. Too much, however, of the wrong kind simply pulls the sympathizer into the swamp of the other's self pity. Couples have to watch this tendency. My motive for supporting my spouse's frustration at a co-worker might be more for the reason I get "points" in the sympathy and negativity bank for when I need them. It would be better to be silent or to say something positive or helpful (maybe later, though). Paramhansa Yogananda warned couples (as did Swami Kriyananda) not to reinforce each other's negativity.

But others I see, and very commonly, simply don't know what else to talk about and feel that in order to have a conversation and express their genuineness and friendship necessitates revealing some negative attitude or opinion, as if in a whispered hush. And that's where the habit can start to form.

I've come to understand why, in part, my spiritual teacher (Swami Kriyananda) and his guru (Paramhansa Yogananda) did not engage in small talk with those close to them. There is such a tendency to "confess," to "reveal," and to say things like, "Frankly....."

I said "Frankly" once when I was in the car, alone, with Swami Kriyananda. He had invited me to drive with him to the nearby town (Grass Valley, CA) and I knew he had some things to say to me. At one point, I began a sentence with "Frankly....." and he cut me short. He knew that I was about to dump some negative opinion on him. Though he never "always" did one thing or another, nor ever "never," I witnessed occasions where once he got the gist of what someone was expressing, he'd cut them off so that they wouldn't augur further down the rabbit hole of negativity.

In counseling, too, and based on his example, I will do something similar, especially if it's about someone who isn't present in the room!

Some of the techniques that Swami Kriyananda taught us (and received from Yogananda) included responding to another's person's negativity with positive, counter-comments or illustrations. He said be on your guard because even in spiritual settings, negativity (which is in each of us) rears its cobra-head, ready to strike. Newer people to a group are often sought out by the negative and merely talkative, self-important types, eager for an audience and new victims. Such people, having been unmasked, are more or less ignored by the more positive and creatively engaged doers.

Such people begin with positive praise of the goings-on, and then, conspiratorially lowering their voices, thrust the dagger of negativity by telling the real story of so-and-so or such-and-such. Avoid such human cobras, Yogananda counseled, like the plague. Stay positive. In this world which is a mixture of good and bad, anyone can find fault with anything or anybody. What's the point, unless some grave injustice or personal duty is at stake and some positive action can be taken to make amends.

Another is: if you have a concern or even a complaint, talk to those responsible, at least potentially, for correcting the situation. Don't talk idly to anyone who will listen to you but will be powerless to make the situation better. (That reminds me of people who argue or shout about all the bad things going on in the world about which they themselves have no intention of lifting a finger to change. I sometimes joke, "Why don't they call me? I have the solution to ALL the world's problems!)

I find that, over the years, I prefer to be friendly but to avoid rambling small talk if I can and still be polite. I don't impose spiritual conversations on others if I either have nothing to offer in that direction or sense a lack of interest.

Lastly, learn how to NOT respond to a person. Just listen and look at them. When you don't react, they will, at first not know what to do or say. In the end, they'll "shut up" or likely change the subject or simply walk away. You should also learn how to have the courage to do that, too: "Ah, excuse me, I've got to go....I've forgotten something".....or just plain, "Excuse me" and walk away.

Aging can produce negativity, too. I don't know what the brain chemistry is on this. Some get sweeter and others get irritable or worse. Patience and silence and short visits, where possible. Outside and third party help might be a good idea.

BTW: Logic is not a solution to negativity: of any kind. Positive feeling, sympathy short of supporting negativity, and a smile ready to act or suggest solutions is usually better.

When a friend gets into a slump but you know he or she is not normally negative, then you can jolly 'em along with a poke in the ribs, a smile of understanding and then positive words of encouragement and so on. A person steeped in negativity will soon tire of your positive responses and will eventually leave you alone.

The essence of what I want to share in these words is the observation I have made that humans sometimes use negativity as a form of bonding. Watch for this in yourself and your friends. Work with yourself patiently to transcend this all-too-normal tendency. Teach yourself when you are with a close friend or loved one, to express admiration, respect, devotion and inspiration for things or people in your life; for the beauty of nature; and gratitude for each and every thing, big or small. Keep your conversation positive and you will be a true friend. In time your friendship will be sweeter, more comfortable, and deeper!

May we always be a Friend in God,

Nayaswami Hriman

Monday, January 5, 2015

Happy Birthday Gurudeva, Paramhansa Yogananda!

Today, Monday, is January 5, the day, in 1893, Mukunda Lal Ghosh (later Swami Yogananda and in 1936 given the title "Paramhansa" by his guru) was born in India. His birth is celebrated throughout the world by his followers and by many others for whom he has been an inspiration. Having left this earth in 1952, Yogananda is now best known for his life story, "Autobiography of a Yogi." It remains, even today, a strong selling book title throughout the world and has become a literary and spiritual classic. In fact, many, myself included, revere that book as a scripture for a new age! It is well worth the read, by anyone.

There have been and are still many true and wise spiritual teachers in the world. It is folly to try to compare them for the purposes of deciding who's the best, or, the most enlightened! Popularity is hardly a safe measure: the crowd in Jerusalem called out for Jesus to be crucified, remember? Most true saints have some following but always, during their lifetimes, it is only a relatively small number. Rock stars and football heroes have far more fans, these days! While in many ways regrettable, one can understand why the Catholic Church thinks it best to make sure their saints are safely buried before making any pronouncements about their sanctity!!! (LOL)

Well, Yogananda is indeed safely buried! Yes, there are stories of many miracles, small and large: even raising the dead.....twice! But, miracles can't really be proven, only averred or testified to. Our souls find their way to God-realized saints in a way at least similar to why and how two people fall in love. By this I mean: "Gee, who knows?" No one can answer such questions, no more than anyone can prove to the satisfaction of reason and the senses that God exists.

Is it, then, a matter of taste? Preference? For those who come and go, it would seem so. I say that because I've seen many "devotees come, and devotees go" (words taken from a chant by Yogananda: "I Will Be Thine Always"). (Ditto for human love, yes?) But there are those true relationships, even in human love, that endure the tests of time and trials. And those are soul relationships.

Some saints serve only a few souls. Others, world teachers, perhaps, have many: even millions. Jesus Christ's mere 33 years on this planet in an obscure and confounding tiny, dusty 'burb of the Roman Empire, changed the course of history. Ditto: Buddha.

I am a disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda by the operation of karma, first and foremost. Once my past karma kicked me from behind to remember, I embraced my discipleship. Since then a Divine Helmsman has taken over. At each step if I say "Yes," a gentle but discernible force shows me the "next step."

I am inspired by the universality of Yogananda's spiritual teachings; by the breadth of his wisdom; the intimacy of his love for people; by the power of kriya yoga and the raja yoga techniques that he clarified, taught and brought out of the dustbin of India's ancient yogic traditions. Yogananda set into motion a clarion call for the establishment and development of small, intentional communities. It's as if he foresaw the depersonalizing impact of globalization, Wall Street, terrorism, and "politics-as-usual."

He evidently saw the need for a new and sustainable lifestyle that fostered individual initiative and creativity; and, cooperation with others. To that end he founded small businesses and small farms, and a school for children. He emphasized natural living, including living in nature, away from cities, and vegetarianism for those who could adapt to it.

These things don't necessarily distinguish him from other spiritual leaders but they are aspects of his outer persona. They are things you can point to and emulate and learn and grow from doing them.

His devotional nature can be seen in his poems, songs, chants, writings and talks. He expresses a traditional, indeed orthodox (though nonsectarian) view of God. Some modern, forward-thinking and educated people are not ready for the "God" part, nor yet for a devotional "bhav." In this he didn't compromise but yet only showed his devotional side under circumstances and with those that were open to it.

When one reads his autobiography, one sees in his story and also in that of his guru (Swami Sri Yukteswar) and his param-guru (Lahiri Mahasaya) a distinct form of natural, even egalitarian, behavior apropos to our age. Both of these great saints, and therefore Yogananda himself, de-emphasized their own personal roles and spiritual attainment. The trappings of guru-dom are noticeably marginalized in the lives of these three Self-realized souls.

Thus another characteristic, and one also easily seen in the life of Ananda's founder, Swami Kriyananda (a direct disciple of Yogananda), is a naturalness of being that finds ready acceptance in innumerable circumstances and with a wide range of people. Lack of spiritual pretense, in other words, characterizes Yogananda, his teachers, and the work of Ananda. This, too, I find attractive.

In this new age, the universal trajectory of consciousness is upon the individual. Hierarchy, tribe, race, religion, obedience, dogmas, blind worship: these are losing their appeal as forms of primary self-identity. Instead, there is an increasing emphasis on personal choice and freedom, on conscience, cooperation and creativity. For true devotees, however, devotion -- guided by wisdom -- is the natural outcome of a higher consciousness that sees the vastness of God beyond the littleness of time, space and individuality. Thus, the primary emphasis both overall and in spirituality in this age is upon self-effort. (Grace, the corollary of self-effort isn't ignored. Instead, it is seen as that result of self-effort. In the prior age, spiritual consciousness was seen to be primarily the product of grace, not self-effort.)

Lastly, and as extension of de-emphasizing personal virtue or his own spiritual stature (which, for Yogananda, as an avatar, is beyond normal comprehension), one finds that Yogananda's life resembles, at least in some measure, our own. Born to a middle-class family, Yogananda's father was a corporate executive, and his mother was creatively and actively engaged in her community, with her extended family and in the education and training of her children. She was known for her charitable giving.

Yogananda, in his youth, excelled in sports and traveled extensively by train throughout India. He completed his B.A. degree. In America he was a popular and charismatic lecturer and met and befriended famous and talented people wherever he went. He was active in social issues, spoke against racism of all kinds, he was involved with the founding of the United Nations, and instrumental in immigration reform. He lived in Los Angeles, a hotbed of fashion, entertainment, and forward thinking spirituality, where he had many friends and students. He visited and lectured in every major city in America and was a tourist at Yellowstone National Park, Alaska and many other famous sites. Yogananda traveled throughout Europe and Asia. All of these are aspects of modern life even today. (He evidently never flew commercially but certainly would have if he had lived longer!)

Nonetheless, these outward aspects cannot fully explain the real person, nor my own, or anyone's attraction to his teachings, his persona, and to his ever-living presence. A spiritual "giant" emanates a powerful, spiritual vibration that acts as a magnet upon souls seeking divine attunement. Like bees finding flowers, the soul-to-soul call draws us to God-consciousness in human form.

I will only mention in passing his great contributions to religious dogma and theology. An explanation of seven revolutionary teachings of Yogananda was recently written by Nayaswami Jyotish Novak, Ananda's spiritual director (worldwide). It can be found at Yogananda reconciled non-dual philosophy with dualism; the divine nature of Jesus with our own human nature; Jesus' status as "Son of God" with that of other great world teachers; the seeming disintegration of society with the apparent advances in knowledge; a personal perception of God with God's infinite nature; metaphysical with medical healing; renunciation with life in the world; biological evolution with spiritual evolution, ah, just to name, "like," a few!

Happy birthday, Gurudeva!