Selling bitter medicine

Selling bitter medicine October 13, 2017

Pebbles by Kamran KhanEvery Sunday evening we hold something called a Listening Circle at the temple. In this practice we sit facing each other in a circle and take turns holding a stone. Whoever is holding the stone can speak or sit in silence, and everyone else is quiet. This simple practice always results in a deeply sacred space, no matter who is present, and I find it one of the most helpful practices we do.

The Listening Circle is our most unpopular offering. There are different reasons for this, but the biggest is that it asks people to become vulnerable. It is a rare thing to be truly listened to. Sometimes people are shocked by the strength of anger or loneliness that wells up when they hold the stone, or they find tears running down their cheeks. There is nowhere to hide, and the attention and care of others in the circle can be almost too much.

My husband Kaspa and I have spent a good deal of time thinking about how we can attract people to the various things we offer here. We’ve tried all sorts of different things to advertise the Listening Circle. Over the years I have experienced some frustration about the continuing low attendance. Yes, people might find the ‘medicine’ bitter to begin with, but it will offer them so much! The gift of being listened to is so precious, and when they listen to others they will hear just what they need to bring them courage, new insights and hope. I know for a fact that people would find it deeply helpful to come, if only I could find the right words to persuade them.

Or do I? In the 12 steps programmes they say ‘attraction not promotion’. This is a description of the correct way to spread the word of the benefits of the 12 step programmes. It is suggested that we don’t start raving to our friends about how wonderful it is and using all our manipulative powers to get them to come. Instead we quietly and modestly continue to work our own programme. As we are slowly transformed by the work we do, those around us start getting curious. They might notice that we’ve started to set healthy boundaries, or that we seem happy. When they ask us what we’re doing we can let them know about the group we’ve been attending, and if they ask more questions, they can come along and find out for themselves.

In my experience, this gentle approach also works well for me as a vegan who has a deep wish for others to eat more vegan food. In my early days of veganism, still full of guilt for my years of contributing to animal suffering, I mentioned my new diet at every opportunity. I shared lots of shocking, gory videos on Facebook and I told my friends ‘cruelty facts’ while we were eating. I don’t think I did much to advance the cause. I could easily have been put into the category of ‘another one of those judgemental, angry food fascists’. I wouldn’t have wanted to emulate me! If I want a role-model I think of my friend Lizzie, who quietly went about eating her delicious-looking vegan food for years before I became vegan. I was always inspired by her, and interested in what she ate, but she never shoved it down my throat.

I think that we need to be ripe before we say ‘yes’ to the discomfort that will lead to true change. This is true of someone making big changes to their diet, entering therapy, acknowledging that they have an addiction, joining a new spiritual group or attending a Listening Circle. Pushing and shoving people doesn’t help them to ripen more quickly. It might help them to hang around ripe people, like putting a ripe banana into a fruit bowl, but we can’t exude ripeness on purpose or at will. We just have to go about our own spiritual practice or recovery, and remember that there are plenty of things for us to work on before we begin poking our nose into other people’s lives and deciding what’s best for them. (This last sentence is also a note to self!)

And so I will continue to search for the right words to describe the benefits of the Listening Circle, but I won’t worry too much about how many people turn up. The important thing is that I keep attending myself, and that I keep doing my own work. I’ve developed a taste for this bitter medicine, and it’s delicious. If you want to try a swig sometime, just let me know.


Photo by Kamran Khan from with gratitude

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