Koa Books

Veterans of War
Veterans of Peace

How to Build Your Own Veteran Writers Group

Edited by Maxine Hong Kingston

Deep Listening

Throughout the workshop day, we hope to learn to truly listen to one another. There are two sessions when we intensely practice listening. In the morning, each of the circle of participants introduces himself or herself to the rest of the group, “checks in” by telling everyone how he or she is feeling. In the afternoon, writers read their stories and poems to the group. We prepare to listen by evoking Avalokiteshvara, the buddha of compassionate listening:

We evoke your name, Avalokiteshvara. We aspire to learn your way of listening in order to help relieve the suffering in the world. You know how to listen in order to understand. We evoke your name in order to practice listening with all our attention and open-heartedness. We will sit and listen without any prejudice. We shall sit and listen without judging or reacting. We will sit and listen in order to understand. We will sit and listen so attentively that we will be able to hear

what the other person is saying and also what has been left unsaid. We know that just by listening deeply we already alleviate a great deal of pain and suffering in the other person.

At the sound of the Bell of Mindfulness, our ears awaken.

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Deep Listening
Dennis Fritzinger

Today's exercise: I try to really listen during the go-around and not sit here thinking what I'm going to say when it's my turn.

How will I be able to do this?

I look around the room, and except for a couple of newbies, all I see is familiar faces. Suddenly I'm more interested in hearing what they've been up to than ever before. (And the newbies--I want to hear their stories too.)

Maybe it has something to do with the weather—today is gorgeous. Plenty of sun, just a touch of wind, flowers blooming. No hawks though (there’re usually hawks—where have they all gone?). The eucalyptus stand together in their separate groves, hatching plots or socializing.

And, energy permitting (the go-around takes a long time), I do manage to listen. To the stories, at least. (And everybody here is an expert storyteller.)

So listening deeply isn't hard at all—when I want to, when I'm not trying to frame everything that's being said, when I'm not trying to make poetry out of it.


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i am the bell
Dennis Fritzinger

i am
the bowl,
the bowl you call
the bell.
the clapper is
the wooden stick
you hit me with.
when i speak,
everyone listens.
i say things like
"stop the busyness
in your mind.
pay attention."
"let's take a breath now,
after that powerful
piece of writing;
let's clear our minds
so we can listen afresh
to the next reader."
i also say,
when appropriate,
"let's empty our minds now.
we have a long day
ahead of us."
"we've had a long day.
let's empty our minds
so we can process what we heard."
i am the bell.
when i speak,
people listen.
that's why i am.
that's my function.
i am the bell.


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On Silence
Mike Wong
November 17, 2007

Silence. Being Still. Doing Nothing.

This is one of the most powerful aspects of our discipline in the Veterans Writers Group. How can silence, doing nothing, be so powerful? In the silence, you can hear everything. More, you can hear nothing.

I will give two examples. The first is a positive example of the proper use of silence. The second is a negative example of what happens when silence is needed but not used.

In our group one meeting, Pauline Laurent read her story about hearing of her husband’s death in Viet Nam. We heard her describe in very personal detail the premonition, the Army representatives coming to her door, greeting her, telling her, “We regret to inform you that your husband, Sergeant Howard E. Querry, was fatally wounded…” She described saying, “Dead? Is he dead?”, the room spinning, the daze of the following moments, retreating to her room, feeling herself die inside. It was an intense story. A moment after Pauline finished her story, the facilitator invited (gently rang) the Zen mindfulness bell. This was the signal for silence. We sat in silence. Pauline’s story hung in the air. The hurt was raw, the feelings deep. As we sat in silence, the feelings washed through us. We felt the hurt, but there was nothing that needed to be done about it. Feeling was enough. The feeling moved through us. In a minute or so, it had found it’s place in each of us. Pauline’s story was heard, the feelings felt. It was so.

Once the feelings settled in us, the facilitator invited the bell again. This brought us back to the room, the present, where we were. We were ready for the next person to read their story. Silence had done it’s work.

At a different event, Keith Mather and I were part of public reading of our work by several in our group. We sat together in a line and read to an audience. Keith read us his story of how, after resisting the Army and war and deserting to Canada, he and a friend went out one day to hunt food for their commune in the backwoods of British Columbia. In the bush they were surprised and confronted by a large black bear, and true to his Army training, Keith fired his rifle as threatening targets presented themselves. When the running and the shooting were over, three bears lay dead, a mother and two cubs. It wasn’t his plan, but it was what happened. Keith concluded by reading, “I had refused to kill. I had left my country and was in exile because of my refusal, yet I had killed.”

Being a fellow Army deserter, it was an intense moment for me. I was sitting next to Keith and was next in line to read. I looked at Keith. I felt uncomfortable. The irony struck close to home. Instantly, I opened my book and began to read. I read my story, and it went OK. But something wasn’t quite right. Feelings unfinished hung in the air. I knew I had done something wrong. But it was done. There was a moment of silence after my reading, and the room readjusted and rebalanced itself. For most of the people, things moved on and it was fine.

But not for me. I knew I had done something wrong. Feelings remained unfinished. Thinking about it later, I realized that I had wanted to escape from the feelings, rather than deal with the feelings and issues that Keith’s experience brought up for me. Had I let there be a moment of silence, the silence would have let the feelings find their place in me, in Keith, and in others. But I hadn’t done that. Because I felt uncomfortable, I jumped in immediately and started reading my story, thus interrupting the process of allowing peace, acceptance, to enter. Months later, I talked to Keith about this and apologized to him. Only then did it feel complete.

Silence is the power of acceptance.

In silence, you can hear. You can feel. You can experience presence, being aware in the present moment. In silence, you accept what is.

In silence, you feel your reactions to the story. You feel the story go through you. Your feelings have space to accept the story, for the story to find it’s place in you. In silence, there is no judgment or need for judgment. There is no debate, right or wrong, or opinion. I, self, opinion, the expression of ego, is suspended. There is simple presence. In allowing this, in allowing the story to go through you, you also accept the other person. Thus, in silence everyone can be accepted without judgment. This is where the healing is.

Others have also tried to form groups of veterans to promote healing. Some groups succeeded, others failed. I have heard of groups that fell apart due to deeply felt differences of opinion, of perception of intense events in the past, which hurt them in the present. We also have had our differences of opinion, differences of perception of intense events in the past, which still hurt horribly in the present. But in silence, we didn’t have to be right or wrong, we could simply be. Each person could be heard. Each person could be heard without the need for judgment, simply heard.

In the end, it’s not about right or wrong. It’s about being, existence, truth not in opinion, but truth in felt experience. Hearing this, accepting this, accepting each other, our group survived, thrived, and most important, healed.

This is the essence of silence in the group.


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