Compassionate Conversations: How to Speak and Listen from the Heart

Diane Musho Hamiton, Gabriel Menegale Wilson, and Kimberly Loh
Boulder, Colo.: Shambhala, 2020. 212 pp., paper, $16.95.

Three practitioners of Zen meditation, each from a different nationality and professional background, have set out to meld concepts from the practice of Zen and Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory with their own experiences in facilitating conversations professionally. Diane Musho Hamilton, Gabriel Menegale Wilson, and Kimberly Loh claim that talking about our differences is something human beings are just now learning to do in a new way. They wrote Compassionate Conversations: How to Speak and Listen from the Heart to show how we can let our differences inform and inspire us in conversations rather than overwhelm and divide us.

Each of the twenty chapters employs crisp, clear language to explore relevant evolutionary and Zen concepts, and applies them to skills readers can use in approaching difficult or even confrontational conversations. Real stories from the authors’ experience illustrate some of the points.

I especially appreciated the authors’ efforts to add an additional perspective to the individual adult development stages as articulated by Ken Wilber and others. They point out how as adults we may mature from an egocentric through an ethnocentric toward a cosmocentric worldview. Awareness of this fact can help us see beyond our own biases and accord validity to the values and priorities of others who may appear at odds with us.

One particularly important point is that as one moves through this process of maturation, an adult person comes to experience himself or herself as less fixed and solid. The self becomes more fluid, shifting according to varying situations and conditions. This allows for more confidence and stability, especially when facing potential conflict. At the same time the process also affords greater personal humility.

The concept of developmental stages offers many other understandings that run counter to the assumptions of our mainstream culture. For example, allowing ourselves to (compassionately) confront difficult situations and divergent opinions allows us to practice trusting in our common humanity and allowing awareness itself to support our healing. Insulating ourselves against stances that diverge from our own chains us to a growth-limiting provincialism. Rather, these authors claim, “it is a sign of health to want to include and integrate what’s hard, uncomfortable, or deeply painful into a wider appreciation of our experience.”

This book also adds dimension to the Jungian concept of the shadow—those “aspects of the personality that remain out of the light of awareness because we find them unacceptable, shameful, or dark.”

Sometimes we project our own shadow aspects onto someone else. Such projection may occur innocently, even in groups that otherwise think of themselves as inclusive, socially aware and/or centered around a philosophy of fighting injustice. A simple exercise is recommended when such groups meet. Each person could be asked to tell one incident in which they had oppressed or injured someone else. Getting people to admit that they too have created human suffering would leave them less polarized against someone whose view of the “right” way may differ from their own. This leads to greater integrity, a freer and more flexible (therefore more spiritually mature) identity.  

This kind of freedom allows a person to focus on the present moment, releasing preoccupation with the past and the future. It is our behavior and the choices we make in the present moment that contribute to a more positive future for everyone, and we can only do this if we free ourselves from pain and injuries from the past.

Hamilton, Wilson, and Loh assure us that loosening our grip on our personal identity (that is, expanding our worldview, or the amount of the universe we can see ourselves as part of) will bring greater humility, patience, and generosity into our engagements. It is a road to a greater and more vibrant personal freedom.

Despite vocal elements in our society that seem to want the opposite, many quieter but far wiser voices are expressing ways we might move our culture forward toward a more inclusive, evolved, and compassionate stance. This book is a very solid contribution to that effort. 

Margaret Placentra Johnston

Margaret Placentra Johnston is the author of two award-winning books on spiritual development: Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind (Quest Books, 2012) and Overcoming Spiritual Myopia: A View Toward Peace Among the Religions (2018).


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