Meeting people where they are


This last week, the Eurovision Song Contest was held in Oslo. It is an event that draws a great deal and varied attention, from enthusiastic support to dislike to ridicule to mild amusement.

There are of course many ways of judging music and cultural events. We can look at craftmanship, whether it goes beyond mere craftmanship, where it fits in terms of traditions, if it breaks new ground, if it seems to come from an authentic expression, where it comes from in terms of insight and wisdom, and so on.

We can also take a more pragmatic view and look at it in terms of its function and effects. This can be especially interesting since it cuts through “high” and “low” culture, and bypasses the usual discussion of likes and dislikes.

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Evaluating teachers and teachings

Teachings can be seen as medicine. As any medicine, it is applied to a particular condition. And as any medicine, it doesn’t have much meaning or value outside of that context. 

As any story, it is a temporary guide for how we live our lives. It has practical value in some situations, less value in other situations, and no inherent or absolute value. 

As any story, it is a lie that can have practical value in some situations. 

So when we evaluate teachings – and teachers – we can do it according to some fixed and abstract criteria. Is there a Ground awakening there? Does he/she address who + what we are? Is there soul level awakening there? And so on. This can be helpful at times.

But it is often more interesting to look at when any particular teaching appears to be the right medicine and to what extent a teacher is able to meet his/her students where they are. Of course, we cannot really know in advance when a medicine is appropriate, and we cannot always know afterwards either.

Still, some teachers appear more skilled than others here. Some have a narrow repertoire and are very clear about it. (Skilled in its own way.) Others may have a relatively narrow repertoire, but they are skilled at adapting it to the conditions of their students. And others have an obviously wide repertoire. (Tibetan teachers especially.) 

This came up for me around an interview with Adyashanti for His teachings there are more general and inspirational, very much appropriate to the audience. In other situations, for instance when speaking directly to an experienced student, his pointers are quite different. Much more specific and aimed at helping the student notice where they are still stuck, still identified with a story. 

We all do this, of course. We all adapt what we say and how we are saying it to the audience. Teachers are no different. 

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Listening for the genuine question

I am impressed by spiritual teachers/coaches who can meet people where they are, especially when that “where” means a confusing web of stories.

It seems that the best teachers listen – with genuine interest and patience – for the spark within and behind those webs. What is the student really asking? What is alive for them behind the confusion?

I notice for myself that even when I get caught up in stories, there is a genuine question inside of it. And that is the question that skilled teachers are able to uncover and respond to.

Of course, some are smart and make it easy on themselves and their students, such as Adyashanti who asks his students to sit with their question for a while and allow it to distill and clarify over time, before it is asked. That way, some of the layers of additional stories fall away and a more essential and genuine question is left. And the student may find some insights for themselves too in the process.

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Free to meet people where they are

It is easy to see that when I am caught up in my beliefs, I am not able to meet people where they are. I see them through my stories of them (as I always do), and am also limited in where I can go through my own identification, through the stories I take as true about myself, others and life.

When there is a freedom from a particular belief, there is also a freedom from a particular identification, and more options in terms of where to go. I am more free to meet people where they are, go to the stories they hold as true – or are just familiar with and find useful – and try them on, see how the world looks through those particular stories. And if it looks like some variation of hell, I can find some clarity in myself around those stories, a way out of identification with them. And by doing that, there is an invitation for the other to find clarity in themselves, or not, depending on what is available to them and where they wish to go.

I am not aware of any better example of this than Byron Katie. She is completely free to go wherever the other person is, and she is more than willing to go into hell with them and shine some clarity on it for herself, which can then help the other find clarity for themselves.

Of course, meeting someone where they are is also a story. In this context, I can only imagine what story they take as true here and now, and then try it on for myself. What happens if I take that story as true? How do I live my life? How do I see myself and others? And who am I without that belief? How do I live my life without that belief?

When I see Byron Katie work, I am sometimes reminded of the beautiful story of Christ going into hell to rescue Adam and Eve. In this context, it shows someone free to try on any story as true, and through their own clarity help others find clarity in themselves.

It also shows someone who recognizes all experience as the play of awakeness itself, and is free from identifying with any particular content. Here too, there is a freedom to allow – even welcome – any experience, independent of its content, because it is all recognized as the play of that which is untouched by any of it.

The third thing that comes up for me, from my own experience, is how hell (knots) tends to come up in a process of healing (as who we are) and awakening (as what we are). It wants to be recognized – seen, felt and loved – as awakeness itself.

Each of these are really just different flavors of the same process.

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I enjoy listening to Byron Katie because she so clearly comes from Big Mind, and at the same time meets people where they are. In that way, she serves as an interface between Big Mind and confused mind in a beautiful way.

Btw: This is one of the exchanges where she also addresses emotions, in addition to beliefs.

The Universe Story: Yes, And…, and also Who & What

I was reminded of this part of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series yesterday, after Michael Dowd‘s talk.

And we, we who embody the local eyes, and ears, and thoughts, and feelings of the cosmos — we’ve begun at last to wonder about our origins. Star stuff contemplating the stars, organized collections of 10 billion billion billion atoms contemplating the evolution of matter — tracing that long path by which it arrived at consciousness here on the planet Earth and, perhaps, throughout the cosmos.

Carl Sagan, Cosmos

This made a huge impact on me when I saw the series as a kid, and it was a seed of a deep shift in my orientation to life.

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Meeting people where they are

The long form improv guideline of Yes, And is a great way of meeting people where they are.

We find the grain of truth in their perspective, which is always there, acknowledge it, and then add another perspective to it.

It is a way to meet people where they are, and then gently expand the perspective. We expand our own by taking into account the truth in theirs. And we expand theirs by adding something new.

It is also a quick way to finding common ground, simply by noting the truth in their view.

And it is a way to stay in integrity. I find the genuine truth, for me, in their perspective. And then add something on my own.

It is very simple, almost childishly so as so much else in this journal. But it has a profound impact if we really bring it into our life.

Meeting others where they are

As part of uncovering who and what we are, we need to meet ourselves where we are here and now. We need to take our own immediate experience seriously. Any journey starts exactly where we are. For real results, we need to be real with ourselves.

And the same goes for our relationship with others. For a real relationship, we need to be real with them about where we are, and we need to meet them where they are. We need to take their experience seriously, no matter how different it may be from our own. (If we are honest and look, we can most often find it in ourselves.) And we also need to take their intentions and goals seriously, no matter how different they may be from our own. (Any advice that comes up for us, whether about goals or anything else, is always for us, not for anyone else.)

As we treat ourselves, we treat others, and the other way around.

How do I treat myself when it comes to take my experience seriously? I don’t have to look any further than how I treat those around me.

U. G. Krishnamurti and meeting people where they are

U. G. Krishnamurti Byron Katie 17th Karmapa

When Ground awakens to itself, and is still functionally connected with a particular human being, its expression is flavored by that human being… its personality, its likes and dislikes, its inclinations, its history.

So when Ground awakened through U. G. Krishnamurti, it came to be expressed in a very clear and uncompromising way. So uncompromising that, as far as I know, he didn’t really give people many pointers for how to invite that awakening for themselves, or how to notice that Ground is always and already there. He stayed close to the absolute in how he expressed it, and didn’t exactly go out of his way to meet people where they are.

Byron Katie has the same uncompromising quality, never straying far from the absolute when she talks, but she also knows how to meet people where they are, and she has a very simple practice to offer, one that also meets people exactly where they are.

And then at the other end of the scale is, for instance, Tibetan Buddhism with its wealth of approaches and practices, all within one consistent and comprehensive framework. It always has the absolute as its ground and framework, yet also has developed a plethora of practices and ways of talking that meets people where they are, in terms of their understanding and familiarity with the terrain, almost no matter where that may be. If you want a taste of Ground, they have ways to invite that in. If you want to ease your suffering, they have tools for that. If you want a second person worship more than meeting the Buddha as first person, yes, that is also OK (that is also valid and helpful in its own way).

Each of these are helpful in different ways, and each one meets different people right where they are. For some, U. G. Krishnamurti is the guy, for others The Work, and for some, a selection of the practices within Tibetan Buddhism.

Don’t side with yourself II

Here is a small addition to the initial post on Bankei’s reminder of not siding with oneself.

I side with myself when I side with my beliefs and identities. And I don’t side with myself when I investigate these beliefs and identities, and find what is already more true for myself… the truth in the reversals of the initial story, and the inherent neutrality of the situation.

A more accurate way of putting it is that I am not siding with my beliefs and identities.

And by not siding with my beliefs, I am actually siding with myself… with what is already more true for me. With the natural fluidity of mind, seeing each story as only a relative truth, receptive to the truths of each of the turnarounds.

Instead of don’t side with yourself, the slogan could be side with your(true)self! Or, if we have Hindu inclinations, side with your Self…! But that would be confusing for most people.

Bankei was a good teacher. Knowing that we naturally identify with our beliefs and take them as I or me, he said don’t side with yourself (with what you take yourself to be). He was free to meet people where they are at.

The beauty of meeting people where they are

I watched Life of Buddha last night, and was in particular impressed with The Dalai Lama’s ability to meet people where they are at.

He was asked what is enlightenment, and could have answered in a precise way, or a technical way, neither of which would have been much help for people not already familiar with the territory.

What he said was (heavily paraphrased)… I don’t know, I think it is an energy of peace.

At first, I was surprised. Here is someone who is deeply immersed in the most sophisticated Buddhist philosophy and practice available, and he is using vague new-age sounding terminology…?

But then I saw the beauty of it. Had he talked in a technical or precise way, it would have sounded too abstract, too removed from most people’s experience. They would not have been able to find it in themselves, and they may even have been turned off from pursuing a Buddhist practice if there was such an interest there.

Using familiar and slightly fuzzy terms, and showing that he himself is not exactly sure what it is (which is true, it is a mystery even for those clearly awakened), he allows people to find it in themselves and also see Buddhism as more approachable.

Skillful means in action.