By Amalia Phillips, Compassionate Listening Facilitator
Facilitating Compassionate listening workshops from the heart can be an intense, intimate and deep experience. It often challenges my deepest beliefs and values. It is a journey of continuous self-discovery requiring courage and vulnerability.
So when I saw a participant on my list for one of my workshops whose home state was Palestine, I knew it would be my ultimate test. I felt my body tense; my heart felt like it was squeezed by strong violent hands; my mind was filled with visions of buses blowing up, my ears were overwhelmed with sounds of screaming, smells of burnt flesh washed over me. My mind raced with fragments of thoughts and many conflicting feelings: Should I quit? Could I challenge myself?
COULD I DO IT?
I typically do not bring my place of origin, Israel, into the workshop, at least not before we establish a safe and brave space, for participants and facilitators alike. When I determine that people can work through biases, triggers and judgements in the workshop, we practice turning toward our experience with warmth and kindness. It is only then that I make the choice to share this crucial one of my many identities.
At this time, Israel does not recognize a country by the name of Palestine, nor does the UN. As I write this, I know some of my readers’ pulses are racing. However, this is the narrative I grew up with. And when I saw the Palestinian participant on my list, in my head, I was asking: what kind of a person is she? How is she going to show up? How am I going to respond? Am I going to be able to truly listen?
I TOOK THE PLUNGE.
My Palestinian participant proved to be a lovely, eloquent woman. During all of her sharing she referenced her experiences as an oppressed people; her hardships and challenges. Not surprisingly, she did not have nice things to share about Israelis.
It was when we practiced deep questioning that she volunteered to tell her story so others could practice the skill. When participants went into breakout rooms to come up with questions, she stayed behind with us two facilitators. It was then that it happened. She was talking about wanting a different future for her kids, not the kind of memories she holds as a young girl crouching in her home’s basement, listening to the horrible noise of the Israeli tanks approaching.
Suddenly I too am the little girl I once was. I am jumping out of bed as a siren pierces the quiet night warning of an upcoming bombing attack. It is dark and I am forbidden from putting the lights on in fear of becoming a target. The windows are covered with dark paper. I try to put my pants on and stumble as my mothers urges me to run down three floors to the drafty communal shelter. I sit in the dark listening to war planes flying low.
It took all that I had to bring myself to the present moment, to see us both, two little girls, years apart, but only miles away, sitting scared in dark basements. Her trigger sound was tanks, mine was airplanes flying low. Both girls, now women, still yearn for a different future, where children are safe and spared the fear of sitting in a dark basement.
I squeezed my eyes shut. This was her time to share. It was her story. If I was to be true to my calling, I was not going to hijack her story by telling mine. With great effort, and strong intent, I shut out the sounds of the little girl in my mind. My inner child was silently screaming and crying to also be heard. “It is not fair!” she shouted mutely. I took a deep breath and promised her that her turn would come.
And with that promise in my heart, I opened my eyes. My Palestinian participant was still talking. I listened. I listened across generations, and oceans, beyond the two conflicting narratives, beyond hatred and love. I was breathing deeply and consciously. This is my gift to her, I thought. This is my gift to myself. This is my gift to all of us across the divide.
When she was done, we sat in silence for a minute and then I gently reflected her story back to her and asked some questions. She looked pleased and said appreciatively that I seemed to have understood her so well. I could hear the hiss of my co-facilitator’s breath escaping as she let go of the air in her lungs. She was holding her breath through it all.
Several weeks later, at the end of the workshop, I asked my Palestinian participant if she could stay after. I let my co-facilitator know that I was going to take a bold step. I took a risk and confessed my Israeli origin to my participant. She was silent. I then asked her if she would want to bring this work to her community, perhaps by becoming a facilitator herself.
Very soon, she will be a fully certified facilitator with the Compassionate Listening Project.
When I tell this story I always unconsciously hum lines from an Israeli song that loosely translates to, “I come from a place where there is no peace and this journey is burdensome for me.” I tell this story because I believe that we must contribute to building a world that is no longer structurally divisive but rather structurally compassionate. My hope is that as I/we heal, as I/we let go, as our heaviness and burdens fall away, our minds and hearts will be able to cultivate a capacity for compassionate understanding toward our own struggles, and those of all humans.
Amalia Phillips is a facilitator with The Compassionate Listening Project. Keep an eye out for workshops facilitated by Amalia and our other TCLP Facilitators on our events calendar: