The Art of Communicating Well, by Thic Nhat Hanh

I just finished listening to the audio book of the Art of Communicating, by Thic Nhat Hanh. It was published in 2014 and offers a Buddhist's insight into how to communicate well. The book is well-written (as far as I can tell from listening to it being read) and mixes in traditional wisdom with anecdotes. One anecdote was quite disturbing to me, which I'll discuss below. Overall, it was a good read, er, listen.

So how does one communicate well? In short, the author stresses that communicating well requires mindfulness: what you are consuming in terms of media (oral, TV, Internet), and what you are producing. This might make some raise their eyebrows, since what would mean that our communication mastery is directly tied (but does not wholly determine) to how we spend our time even in leisure. Yet understanding that important point lays the foundation for the different areas discussed later in the book, and I found this most helpful in framing the discussion.

Other reviewers, however, regarded the author's teachings as impossible: how can one be mindful of each action, of each word? That would require being mindful of each thought! Aye, and there's the rub, and belies their perspective that the art of communicating should be easy to master. I would counter that if these critics considered any art that they can imagine, then the same characteristic holds: to become a master requires knowledge and practice. This book gives some knowledge, yet the practice—the hard stuff—is up to the disciple, and not everyone is up for the task.

The basis of mindfulness made the foundation something which I, as an Orthodox Christian, could take to heart. The Christian tradition is chock-full of the Church Fathers instructing nepsis, of being mindful. Being mindful allows someone to understand their actions, words, and thoughts in the context of reality outside of themselves. It allows them to be compassionate, to listen, and to love. This teaching doesn't start with the Fathers, but goes back the Apostolic teaching (e.g., 1 Corinthians, James, Philippians), emphasized by Christ Himself, and is found throughout the Old Testament. It's a discipline every Christian is called to undertake, no matter what station of life.

The points where I would disagree with the author are in some of the practices and the philosophical underpinnings of their use. Generally, however, I was fascinated by how some of the practices that are found in Christianity are also in Buddhism, or are modified to fit a different philosophical framework. The art of communication isn't just by using words: bowing is an example.

Bowing was done in antiquity much more than it is today, and only a slight nod (hat tip) being what remains in the West. The author relates the import of bowing to another, and describes a specific form, with the hands together to form an image of a lotus blossom. The reason for doing so is that the Buddha is inside others, and therefore each person should be mindful of that even when the other person isn't acting as the Buddha would. In the Christian tradition, both metanias (bowing from the waist) and prostrations (full on bowing with the head touching the ground) are done, not only to icons of the saints and of Christ, but to others around us. The intent is different, but similiar: when we're doing it to those around us, we should be mindful that they are made in the image of God, no matter how sullied that image is and how poorly they reflect their creator. (This practice is performed communally, at Forgiveness Vespers, the Sunday evening which begins Lent in the Eastern Christian tradition.) So although the practice and reason for bowing are similar, they're done for different reasons.

As I mentioned above, one anecdote disturbed me. A Catholic lady had been contemplating suicide because of how poor her relationship was with her husband. She was confessing this to her friend who was encouraging her to listen the some of the author's tapes. The Catholic would not because she considered (rightly, I might add) that the teachings would go against her Catholic faith. The lady's condition worsened--she fell into despair--and she decided to kill herself, but called her friend first. Her friend didn't try to dissuade her from suicide, but instead asked her to come say goodbye in person. The Catholic agreed, and once there the friend was able to persuade her to listen to the tapes before ending her life. From that point, the Catholic's burden was lifted because she began to realize that suicide wasn't the right response to her suffering. She decided not to commit suicide. She began attending mindfulness retreats and her relationship with her husband improved.

The main thrust of the story, of how this lady was saved from ending her life, in no way bothered me. What bothered me was how ignorant the Catholic lady was of her own Christian tradition, and more so why her pastor wasn't pastoring. From the story, she didn't have any connection with her pastor, someone who could help her with the suicidal thoughts that were afflicting her. Suicide is never a good ending to your life, and is not condoned by Catholic teaching. Mindfulness--being mindful of the thoughts you have and holding each captive to Christ--is a very important part of the spiritual life of any Christian. So what perturbed me was how alone she was. The venerable Christian saying, "Saved together, damned alone," is apropos. We are instructed to live in community, and to bear each other's burdens. This wasn't happening in her case.

Despite that jarring anecdote, I re-iterate what I said above: it contains some valuable insight. For anyone whose interest is piqued, here is the table of contents for the book:

Currently, the book is free on Audible, and is very cheap on Kindle.