MF 48 – Mindful communications with Gregory Heffron

Gregory Heffron MFA owns and manages Green Zone Conversations Retreats. He is the only certified teacher of Mindful Communication authorized by author and Buddhist teacher Susan Chapman MA.

He has been teaching Mindful Communication workshops with Susan since 2009, and has been a mindfulness meditation teacher in the Shambhala Lineage since 2005.

In 2005, he apprenticed with senior Mudra Space Awareness teacher Craig Smith, and became authorized to teach this unique mind-body meditation technique. In 2007, Smith and Heffron taught this practice in a workshop for fourth-year students in the Dance Division at The Juilliard School in New York City.

His background is in creative writing, having earned an MFA in Nonfiction Creative Writing from the University of Iowa in 2003. He is a student of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and lives in Santa Monica, California.

What follows is a summary transcript of the interview. Listen to the episode for the full conversation)

How did your path to meditation start?

When I was in my 20’s and had just broken up with my girlfriend. It hit me in just that way that shook my world. For a variety of reasons, I didn’t have any tools to work with that, I was into art and literature, done therapy. I just couldn’t quite hold it all together. I came to meditation like many people through struggle and pain and challenge. Luckily I knew some people in meditation groups. Shambala Buddhist meditation group.

It struck me as being a sensible thing to experiment with. They were kind enough to bring me along. It’s been 17 years since then.

When you got attracted to that particular tradition and practice, was there anything in particular that stood out to you in that tradition that helped you with your breakup?

I found there was something about just resting with my emotional experience, without having to resolve it. Without having to come up with the big solution. I think that was the most powerful part of the practice for me, even though it was quite difficult. Quite challenging. At that time I was going through a tumultuous time.

The more I did it, I gradually gained confidence, that it could be done. That I could sit in chaos and confusion, complexity, and the richness of my emotional experience. And that it was OK to do that. Instead of finding it to be something that violated the rules of reality. It was reality, and it was OK to feel really tumultuous. There is something calming and soothing and sensible about that, that I could handle complexity and chaos and not freak out about it.

And I imagine with most meditation practices, that is a big part, to learn to be comfortable with uncertainty, not knowing, not having the answers and like you said to be OK with chaos. Not something that most of us can just learn in a few periods of meditation sitting. 

Yeah, the length of practice, and repetition of practice is crucial. Otherwise it is sort of like picking up an exercise regiment and doing it for a couple of days, you just feel kind of sore. And you don’t get very far. But if you keep it up, something happens.

How did your practice evolve from there. Did you find it was helping you in other situations, or areas of life?

Sure..I found greater ease entering uncertain situations. Situations that were unclear, where I felt anxious. That was really encouraging.

I can think of particular situations, walking in somewhere, where I thought, “Oh boy, I’m really nervous”, and then feeling that bubbling energy, that anxiety. And then enter anyways, with a certain kind of equanimity. That was ground-braking for me. There was always that sense before that, of trying to stuff down my anxiety. Trying to suppress it, which of course only makes it worse.

Suddenly I had a different way to relate. That actually allowed me to at least feel a little bit calmer. So then I was inspired as I saw those results. So within a year I did a week retreat, and then as time went on, a month retreats, and longer and complex retreats as time went on. Until that whole process became more of a passion project.  I was really interested to see where this would go. And I still feel that way now.

So your continued practice is in part led by curiosity about what else there is to learn about this practice?

Yeah, which is what else there is to learn about myself. To some degree there is more to learn about the practice itself, but really. In a way it is just applying what I’ve learned so far. Relaxing into the practice….and seeing what I can see.

Since you talking about bringing your meditation practice into your daily life. You got into mindfulness and mindful communications. Maybe you can elaborate on how you moved into that direction..

In 2009, I met Susan Gillis Chapman, who’s a senior teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition. She was teaching mindfulness communications. She conceived that type of teaching from being a marriage and family therapist, as well as a Buddhist teacher who in the Shambhala tradition was in charge of one of the longest and most sophisticated retreats in our tradition, the 3 year retreat at Gampo Abbey. Pema Chodron put her in charge of that retreat. I met her after that period.

She with her range of experience not only as a therapist, but also, she worked in a  maximum security prison with sex offenders, she worked in domestic violence shelters. From this range of experience, she put together a unique set of materials, that she calls mindful communications. Which eventually ended up in the book, The Five Keys to Mindful Communication: Using Deep Listening and Mindful Speech to Strengthen Relationships, Heal Conflicts, and Accomplish Your Goals

I met her when she was starting to teach seminars on this materials. And she invited me in to teach a mind-body meditation that I have a background in, called Mudra Space Awareness that comes out of the Tibetan tradition. I was going to teach the mind-body component, and then she was going to teach mindful communications.

We did that for a few years, and in that process I began to learn what she was teaching. I wasn’t even sure at first. It was startling to me, the material she was teaching. It was based on the one hand on some of the highest Buddhist teachings, but it was also very pragmatic, very useful. You just felt like you had a way to understand very simple interactions and situations, that before had been completely confusion.

Maybe you can give a couple of examples, and elaborate on what you mean with Mudra Space Awareness….

It’s essentially an acute direct practice of experiencing your mind and body together. That comes out of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Rooted in Tibetan monastic dance training. That the monks would do in the monasteries in Tibet.

In terms of mindful communications. The easiest way to understand it is, that we’re already born with innate sensitivity to understand what is happening with our communication with others. That is the primary point of view. Not so much that mindful communication is building up a set of skills that you have to try to remember and get better. But actually in some ways it is the opposite process. That we are stripping down the kinds of habits that cover over our innate sensitivity to communication. That actually could allow us to steer very naturally, spontaneously, and accurately in our interactions with others. 

So do you have examples of habits or habit patterns that cover up what we already innately have available to us. 

One of the ones that causes the most trouble for most of us, is not recognizing certain primary states in communication. Like for example, failing to recognize when communication has shut down between ourselves and someone else. For whatever someone has broken off communication. They might still be in the room, or even speaking with us. But we can feel that something has broken down in the communications. Up until that point, there was a kind of natural interchange. We have this natural open kind of communications that we naturally carry out with others. Like over the counter in the post office or grocery line. Very simple, nothing elaborate.

And yet, there comes a moment where that can break down, and we feel it. We feel it almost immediately. We said one thing, someone thought we said something else, and they’re offended.

A miscommunication…

Or we said something, and someone didn’t hear it, so they don’t respond to us. There are a variety of ways that communication breaks down. Maybe they are overwhelmed. And whatever we said makes them even more overwhelmed. So they just tuned us out. That is a good fundamental example to go with.

You’ve spoken and someone is not responding, and there is that gap, where we don’t understand what is going on. Usually in that moment, we feel anxious. There is a subtle, a feeling of being socked in the gut. A vacuum in the room emerges, where that happens…”Now what should I do…not sure what’s going on.. is the sense. ”

What most of us do out of habit that causes trouble, is that we plow forward, as though it wasn’t happening. If what we said overwhelms that person, we might say it again, or saying it louder or elaborating more. Which of course makes this other person feel even more overwhelmed. So communication shuts down even further.

Or could be defense. Or we could cut it off. Because they didn’t respond, we feel like I’m not going to speak to this person again, now they’ve offended me. There is a variety of things, we could try to seduce them into being more friendly, or tune them out, or become angry.

All of this misses the point. The reality is very simple, there was a communication breakdown, and we felt it. No-one is telling us what is going on. We can actually feel it. It doesn’t mean we know what is going on at some deeper level per se. But we’re pretty good at knowing what is going on.

Just being willing to be mindful at such a moment is incredibly powerful. To stop the forward momentum, and just be curious. Just explore…like looking at this person’s face. If they are speaking, listening to the tone of their voice. Paying close attention to our self, to our own emotions that are rising up. Maybe we do start to feel anxious, and then feeling that. Being willing to let those feelings come through, because they are information. They are our own sensitivity.

In many ways, and in our many interactions with others, we have this sensitivity, that could allow us to slow down, and become a little more careful. And steer more accurately. But we have to remember to let go of our patterns, our habits that we build up over time.

I think it’s good you elaborated on the various things that can happen in those few moments. When you pause enough, those things can happen, but if you don’t know how to pause, that can bring problems. The ability to pause is a huge component of that. 

It’s very radical to pause. In our retreats we do a pause practice. Where randomly we ring a chime. When people are in small groups, and talking, and the instruction is to just stop for 3 breaths….nothing. Getting used to being interrupted by something unexpected..and then you resume. It’s just life interrupts us. Instead of that being a bad thing, often the idea of being interrupted in communications is upsetting. Instead, if we can reverse that tendency.

And feel that being interrupted could allow us to restart fresh. And tune in a little bit more. 

And a big part is too that a lot of us forget to breathe deeply. Just that mindfulness bell is a wonderful opportunity to get back to your breath, the here and now, your body, everything….

Absolutely, I think it’s originally adapted from Thich Nhat Hanh. Susan calls that a positive interruption. In communication we could have positive interruptions.

Interestingly enough, when we get really fixated, stuck and trapped in our habits, sometimes the best thing possible is a positive interruption.

Suddenly a hummingbird flies by your head..You’re in the midst of something, like being shut down, angry or whatever, and suddenly something just breaks you out of it. It’s not something you can organize or plan for, but you can go with it when it happens. It could just be the taste of your coffee. While you’re upset or trying to be upset, and you get interrupted. You realize suddenly your coffee just tastes so good! For an instant you forget to be furious. We can take these opportunities and go with them. Start fresh.

In terms of mindful communication. You’ve already mentioned curiosity, listening with full attention, giving full attention. Which is also a good skill to learn. A lot of people have a hard time listening to someone else, without having agendas, maybe preparing a counter argument at the same time while the other person is speaking.

Right..The fundamental material that is in The Five Keys to Mindful Communication, covers this somewhat systematically. But essentially, just being present is one whole set of skills. And then listening is one whole set of skills.

There’s 2 ways of listening. There’s listening at a level of accuracy and information, the content of the conversation. And then there is listening at a heart level, to the emotional truth of the conversation. Which includes things that are maybe not spoken, but that you can feel them as they change.

And then there is skills around speaking, and being able to be truthful, without neither exaggerating, nor suppressing. How can we say true things without being either harsh or coy about them. So there is training around all these different elements.

Is this training that someone would do over the course of a period of time, or.. what does that look like?

We offer courses, from just a talk, or for that matter reading the book on your own, to longer retreats, like weekend retreats, or 5 day retreats. These are all on our web site Green Zone Talk.

But they do need to be worked with, and trained with. It’s easy to think about all this stuff, but much harder to get it down into your bones so to speak. So that when you’re in a challenging situation, you can apply them.

Making it part of a natural response or muscle memory that you’ve trained yourself in..

And I’ll add that one of our fundamental trainings is mindfulness meditation. If we can’t connect with the present moment, and what is arising in our senses, in our emotional faculties, what’s arising in terms of our thoughts. Then there is nothing to work with. We have to connect first and foremost with the present moment.

Anyone of us who’s done mindfulness training knows, we have to train! If you don’t train, you lose the acuity. You lose the richness of that connection, that has tremendous potential if we develop it. And then if we do develop that, then we can aim that awareness in various directions, including towards communication.

Since we’ve had such a contentious election. Maybe you can walk the listener through this example. You’ve got two groups, one on the right, and one on the political left, and they start discussing politics. And within no time at all, people part ways in anger. Walk us through how someone might approach this using your mindfulness communication techniques. 

That’s a great topic right now. So many people are deeply distraught over the level of discord in this election, and it’s historic. I think we’re living through a historic event. A lot of us are really challenged by that.

First and foremost is to just acknowledge that we are living through this unusual historic moment that is pushing these buttons even more than usual. But I would use one of our fundamental metaphors in mindful communication, which is the traffic light. We use the traffic light because it is so simple, very basic, easy, and helpful. You can teach this to children. The traffic light is good, because when we get upset, we get a bit simplistic. The more upset we get, the more childlike we actually are, not necessarily in a positive direction. We lose our intelligence and sophistication. I bring this up because it is so useful and simple.

What happens in say talking about this election, if you run into people who have different views than oneself.  We already carry around with us anxiety about the state of the world, the state of the nation, and our place in that, our future security, our freedom, and sense of connected-ness to the culture in the US say. So there is already a bit of anxiety.

Which in the traffic light metaphor, when we’re open and connected with ourselves, which automatically connects us with others. As soon as we’re really connected with ourselves, we’re already in the room. We already realize that we are interacting with our environment. Even when we’re alone. Not to mention that when we’re with others.

But as our anxiety level rises, it takes us out of the green light state of openness, into the yellow light state. The yellow light state is very much connected to fear, uncertainty and confusion. Like I don’t know what’s happening, what is going on, I don’t understand! That kind of feeling.

And when we enter the yellow light state, we’re suddenly living in a different world, than we were just a minute before. When we were feeling very connected. We’ve entered a situation where we can’t handle as much as we could just a few minutes ago. A different state. We become in some ways weakened. And our sophistication, and all of our big theories about the world, the way we want to be as a human being in the world, they get scaled way back. We get into a kind of fight or flight sensibility.

We need to recognize this when this happens. Politics triggers this in us. Because the stakes are high, and we have these big concerns. There are moral issues, that really touch us at a deep heart level. Maybe they have a different morality that we don’t understand, that we don’t share. So we’re in the yellow light. Usually already, just to find out that someone has a different view from us is already threatening to a lot of us.

Now when we’re in the yellow light, we’re already feeling quite overwhelmed. We don’t want to absorb far more information than we already have. Since we’re already overwhelmed, we don’t want to take on an even bigger task at that moment. Because we already got disconnected a bit from our self, we start to lose touch with our heart, lose touch with our senses. It’s when we go into our head, and stop paying attention to the room and the feeling in our body. Basic truths. We stop seeing what our eyes are actually seeing in the room, because we’re in our minds. We’re starting to worry and go off into the future. What if this political situation happens, that could be tragic, etc…

So because we’re disconnected, due to our anxiety, we have to realize we’re a little limited on that moment. Our top priority at that moment is to reconnect. Our top priority is not at that point to continue the discussion or get an opinion down someone else’s throat. Or to sit through a discussion that for whatever reason we don’t feel like we can tolerate at that moment.

We need to protect our-self a little bit at that point. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s not the fault of the other person, or the other political party. We have become disconnected from our own mind and heart a little bit. Not even our fault, it just is.

So the question is what do we do?.. And what we need to do is get a little protective, and perhaps get ourselves to a safer space. Whatever that means. This may mean literally opting out. “Please continue without me!” or it could mean, just saying, “I’m not doing very well with this, and I don’t know if I can continue talking about this at this time.” Whatever it is, we need to reconnect.

Once we can get or are able to get back to the present moment, reconnect to our senses, to our heart, to the intelligence that we carry as human beings…Then we can have any kind of sophisticated political conversation.

We need to recognize that we go in and out of this. Anxiety may bring us to a certain state were we are not going to make a lot of progress..Until we soothe our-self, and calm down, and reconnect. That is the important part. And that others are going through this as well. Driving someone into a state of anxiety, while maybe no-one’s fault. But if they are in a higher and higher state of anxiety, the conversation is not going to be that fruitful.

Yeah, it’s only going to escalate, get more reactive and reactionary…

What we don’t want, is for the situation to progress to what we call the, “red light”. The red light is when we fully shut down. The yellow light we’re sort of in-between, we’re fearful, getting disconnected, but we haven’t really gone for it. But the red light is where we tip into fully shut down. That’s when we lash out, or go silent. Give someone the silent treatment. Or could take different forms. Could be arrogance, or hyper competitiveness. I don’t care what is true anymore, I just want to win, no matter what. That kind of thing.

These are habits, no-one’s fault, but we carry them out because we’re afraid essentially. And we’ve run away from our own fear, into this shut down state. That is where more harm can happen. Both to ourselves and others. And we don’t want to do that. We want to find our way back out. Instead of pushing ourselves so hard to where we shut down, we just need to naturally recognize our limits. And pull back a bit. We might even be able to continue the conversation if we pull back a little bit. Maybe a few minutes break, get some more snacks for example at a holiday party. Allows us to reconnect a little bit, and we can actually say what we really mean, instead of having things come out of our mouth that we don’t mean.

And continuing to see each other’s humanity, seeing a common ground. Some of these conversations, people end up completely alienated from each other. That’s sad!

Absolutely. The worst part about that, from my point of view, is that we then don’t understand what is going on with this other person. If we’d been able to slow down, step back a bit, and allow the conversation to progress on a more human level, instead of trying to win, or trying to prove that this person is morally bankrupt, or something. We could then ask them to, “tell me more about your world, what do you believe.”

That’s how we do break down those barriers. Instead of the world progressing into a kind of red light state, where suddenly there’s whole groups of people who are considered as inhuman. “Those people” on the other side. “I don’t even think of them as human beings anymore. ” Instead we realize that shared humanity, like you were saying.

And then we go, OK, well I don’t really agree with them, but I understand what they’re thinking. I talk to this person, and they told me their view of the world. Even if you think they are wrong. Even if you want your candidate to win, and theirs to lose, That’s fine. But even then you need to understand who you’re up against, and what they’re into. How they see things.

So it’s effective, it’s not just ideological, not just being compassionate in a moral way. If you want to get things done, you need to know the world in which you are trying to get things done in. 

Even in congress, the complete failure of communication across the isles and how it’s turned into a stand still. In a lot of different situations, to learn to be more mindful and communicate better would have a lot of fruit and benefit. 

I saw an article recently on that, that charted it across decades, and how fractured it has become now. That is in terms of the democrats and republicans, no longer being able to work with each other.  You look back 50 years, and it was a different world.

That is where you see that our own troubles and habits around communication breaking down, they turn into world history. It’s exactly the same as what is going on within us, but it is a bunch of people who happen to be in congress, or whatever other government body, or military body for that matter in the world, that they have the same trouble that we do.

And that when they shut down into the red light, suddenly if that is the wrong person shutting down, you’ve got a war, and a 100.000 people die. Because of that one moment of shut-down. It’s that simple in a way. It comes down to one moment where someone said, I’m not going to connect with my experience. I’m going to turn this other person into an object, I’m going to objectify this other country, or another. And now we can attack them. But it’s now different than our own experience.

Yeah it’s an important practice. I imagine you also work with marriages in your practice..

That’s an interesting one, because here’s someone we’re so close to in intimate relationships to. We’re so close is that the irony is that we feel every grain of disagreement. As if there were little bits of sand, that if you weren’t absolutely pressed up against each other, you wouldn’t feel a little grain of sand. But because you are, every little bit can become some huge drama. Some huge disagreement. It’s only because we’re so invested, and we’re so close, that that’s the case. Which is a bit unfair way to judge our relationships. We’re doing our best, they are doing their best. And yet we’re judging it by this very extreme standard.

Do your retreats emphasize couples, or do you have a variety of emphasize different aspects of life, different situations?

Yeah, we have a number of retreats. The one that is focused on relationships is called, “the four seasons of relationship”. This looks at the cycles that relationships go through. In terms of every relationship is like a year. In the sense that, we start out alone, and then we go through a kind of spring time, where a courtship that happens. You meet someone, and you start to assess whether there is a connection. And if there is a connection, you continue into the summer. And summer is this sense of deepening the connection, and committing to the connection. And even to the point of making vows to each other, in whatever sense. Whether literal or coming to understandings, of what the nature of the connection is.

And then at some point, even if it is just over the course of a human life, where of course we’re going to die at the end of our lives. There is a coming apart. Or could be breakup. There is a natural point where the connection has to come apart, and this is true even for ongoing relationships. That we could recognize that even walking into a room with someone in the morning we go through these seasons. We were alone, and we walk in to have breakfast or something, and there is that meeting point where we come together, and begin a conversation, or whatever that is. And then there is the full breakfast time, where we’re really deeply engaging. And then we split of into different directions for the day.

So this 4 season cycle happens in a lot of different ways. Not just in romantic relationships. It could be someone you meet on the bus and have a conversation with.. So that retreat covers that material.

We have a whole retreat about conflict, and the 4 stages of escalation into conflict, and how to undo each of those 4 those stages. We have a whole retreat on the chemistry of emotions. How the emotions manifest in the 3 different traffic lights. Open emotions (green), the yellow light emotions of fear and anxiety, and then finally the shut down emotions of the red light.

And we have a retreat (called the stories of our lives) that is all about looking back at our life story, and re-configuring our life story. Telling it in different ways, in order to cut through the complaint a lot of us have about our lives. “My life should have gone a certain way, instead it went a different way.” And to actually look at our lives, and say, “ah, this is a hero’s journey.” In which there are tragic moments, and disappointments.

It’s a bit like an opera, but it’s a spiritual journey in some sense. We’re going through a lot of experiences, some of which are quite painful. In order to live a heroic life.

So the retreat helps you to learn to appreciate things that you formally didn’t really appreciate about your life.

Yes, that’s it, recognizing that our lives are rich. They’re not necessarily a vacation. They’re not for sissies so to speak! Life can be quite intense, and yet we could really view it as a powerful experience. Including all the troubles that we’ve had. Those could all be crucial parts of the story.

Could you mention the book one more time, so folks who are interested can follow up and learn more about this practice.

Yeah, it’s,The Five Keys to Mindful Communication from Shambhala publications by Susan Gillis Chapman. And there is going to be another book, a workbook, hopefully in the next year. people can do some homework, and implement it. 

Exactly, because a lot of people are interested in doing that, and this will make that more explicit and give you more of a path to travel through the material.

That’s great, that’s what we’re all about, applied meditation.

Thanks so much!