First Compassionate Listening Gathering Held in Santa Barbara

By Anne Flatte

This past January, 41 people gathered in Santa Barbara for three days at Sola House, the peace center and home of compassionate listening pioneer Gene Knudsen Hoffman, to focus on “Compassionate Listening from the Inside Out.” The meeting marked the beginning of the Compassionate Listening Network, dedicated to encouraging and supporting people in their efforts to initiate Compassionate Listening in their communities and beyond.

If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each person’s life, sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The only enemy a peacemaker may know is the belief that human problems can be solved through violence.

Adam Curle

If reconciliation is re-connecting ourselves to dialogue and life and each other; then we have heroic work to do.

Gene Knudsen Hoffman

Gene Knudsen Hoffman, Compassionate Listening pioneer

Gene Knudsen Hoffman, Compassionate Listening pioneer

Participants from all over North America met to deepen their understanding and practice of Compassionate Listening, exchange knowledge, and restore themselves for ongoing and future collective peace work. Although the majority of the attendees were past participants of delegations to Israel and Palestine, there were also activists in attendance from ongoing Compassionate Listening projects in Alaska and Oregon. The historic workshop was led by Hoffman, Compassionate Listening Project founder Leah Green, and Compassionate Listening facilitator and trainer Carol Hwoschinsky. In addition, four board members and eight advisory board members of the Compassionate Listening Project were present.

The 82-year old Hoffman, a long-time pacifist and activist, led the first day of the workshop, which was devoted to sessions on the history and practice of Compassionate Listening. Hoffman was first inspired toward the concept of Compassionate Listening in 1980 when she came across a sign at a London Quaker meeting inviting passersby to attend a ‘Meeting for Worship for the tortured and the torturers.’ “I’d never thought of having a concern for the torturers before.” recalls Hoffman. “It was a tremendous wakeup call for me.” After working further with this concept, she realized that to be effective, peacemakers should not take sides, but rather work toward reconciliation and healing at all times. “Peace comes from reconciling the two sides, where they ultimately accept each other,” says Hoffman. “With compassionate listening, we’re practicing reconciliation, bringing people who are at odds together and understanding each other in a much broader spectrum-understanding the grievances and the suffering of each side and developing compassion in that way, not only for the people we listen to, but for ourselves.”

For many, this concept is relatively easy to understand at one level, but is much more challenging to put into practice. “We’ve been working at it for quite a few years,” says Libby Traubman, founding member of Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group in San Mateo, California and TCLP advisory board member. “It’s like learning how to relate in a whole new way, and it’s not that easy. It is an act of will- you cannot do it unless you have decided to do it, and then you just have to train yourself and practice and at every moment catch yourself when you’re not listening.”

“Gene [Hoffman] was an inspiration,” says Barbara Landau, who traveled to the workshop from Toronto with her daughter Niki to hone her Compassionate Listening skills, and to share her sorrow with others over the deterioration of relations between Israelis and Palestinians during the past year. “There was a source of energy that flowed from her and her ability to listen with her ears and her heart was truly restorative.”

Hoffman in turn was moved by events on the second day, when group members reported on Compassionate Listening projects around the world. “It was awesome,” says Hoffman, “Hearing about projects not just in the Middle East but all of these wonderful projects going on from coast to coast, and in Canada-I was just thrilled.”

For those involved in peace work in the Middle East, the workshop was also a welcome glimmer of hope in the face of devastating violence between Israelis and Palestinians. TCLP director Leah Green said that the gathering had been planned before the renewed outbreak of hostilities, “so the workshop became even more important for many of us as a way to come together to share our grief and gain renewed inspiration for our work. We know this conflict is not going to disappear overnight and we’re committed to this work for the long haul.”

“I had such a positive, moving experience on my trip, and I wanted to reconnect with people,” says Rich Hoffman [no relation to Gene Hoffman], who traveled on a TCLP Compassionate Listening delegation to Israel and Palestine in March 2000. “It’s hard to maintain your energy and having the group support for me is important. Hearing of others’ experiences, new ideas, as well as how people are dealing with these types of issues was motivating, energizing, and supportive.”

“It helped remind me again that the enemy doesn’t lie in either side,” says Niki Landau, also a past delegate to the Middle East. “The enemy is violence, which keeps damaging people and keeps them in their cycle, and I have to keep reminding myself of that.”

Elias Botto, a native of Bethlehem, keeping our hope alive in a moving listening session

Elias Botto, a native of Bethlehem, keeping our hope alive in a moving listening session

“To me, Compassionate Listening and dialogue are like two departments leading to the same path,” says Elias Botto, a member of the San Mateo Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group, who attended the meeting with fellow members Len and Libby Traubman and Nahida and Adham Salem. “It seems to me through the 52 years of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that this kind of an understanding and hearing the other side has lagged. Now we Palestinians and Jews and Israelis, we’re starting to hear the other side, and the more we hear, the more we find out we have a lot in common, and I think this is the best way that both sides could have to proceed toward peace.”

A highlight of the gathering was a Compassionate Listening session with Botto, a Palestinian raised in Bethlehem who later immigrated to the United States. Botto spoke about his childhood experiences in his homeland and his dream of future coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians, bringing tears to many eyes in the room.

Susan Partnow, who serves on the TCLP board, was profoundly moved. “To hear his story and what a generous open heart he has really helped me keep my hope alive instead of falling into despair with things going so terribly in the Middle East, and to just keep doing the work. It’s wonderful to reflect on that moment in the face of the grisly news that there seems to be each day.”

Elias Botto

Elias Botto

“I was really deeply honored to be able to shed a tear with everybody, especially the Jewish people who were there,” says Botto, reflecting on his experience. “I feel very close to them, and I hope our communication strengthened their belief in coexistence between the two people. It strengthened mine, because what I saw was the good of the other side.”

Another major goal of the workshop was to brainstorm ways the Compassionate Listening Network, founded in October 2000, could effectively empower and sustain those practicing Compassionate Listening in their communities. One breakout session led to the establishment of regional support people who will support new and ongoing participants in their areas. There are currently regional support people in New York, Toronto, San Francisco Bay Area, Portland, and San Diego.

Another breakout session resulted in this pilot version of the TCLP/Compassionate Listening e-newsletter to provide the network with information about related news and events. Future activities include: creating a downloadable directory of Compassionate Listeners on the web, sending minutes of TCLP board meetings to all advisory board members, and listing all Compassionate Listening activities on the TCLP website.

“There’s always great inspiration and power in a meeting of people-it’s always a place of spirit, and insights, and collective thinking,” says TCLP board member Len Traubman. “My hope is that more people will see themselves as teachers, as facilitators, and find opportunities in their own communities to facilitate Compassionate Listening, in addition to Middle East activities.”

“It’s inspiring to me that the Compassionate Listening Project has touched so many people’s lives and that people are choosing to support our work at deeper levels now,” says Leah Green. “For me, it is a confirmation that we are truly offering people something of value.”

Carol Hwoschinsky, who facilitated many of the Compassionate Listening exercises during the workshop, also presented a preview of her guidebook to Compassionate Listening, “Listening with the Heart,” based on her years of experience practicing Compassionate Listening. The book, now published and available through TCLP, promises to be a much-welcomed resource for the Compassionate Listening Network. [See Listening With the Heart review]

The conference closed with a powerful “ancestors’ circle” exercise, inspired by the work of Joanna Macy, led by Hwoschinsky. Participants visualized a peaceful and just future, and told stories to listeners about how it was achieved through collective action.

“I walked away with a sense that there are a lot of different ways to demonstrate Compassionate Listening and with a renewed energy to become more involved,” says Rich Hoffman, who credits his participation in the workshop as a major factor in his decision to embark on a citizen delegation to the People’s Republic of China this summer.

“There were people at the workshop who have been working for peace for as long as I’ve been living, which gave me a feeling of amazement and hope,” says Niki Landau. “I left with a notebook full of useful exercises, and a renewed faith in humanity.”

“We are looking for the human or we can call it the divine quality in everyone that exists somewhere,” says Gene Knudsen Hoffman. “By listening, I think that we encourage people to recognize that in themselves. It doesn’t mean we give a laissez-faire to what people are doing, but we’re trying to listen for something deeper than the words most people say.”

The second annual gathering of the Compassionate Listening Network is tentatively scheduled for March, 2002. Check the website this fall for more information.

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