The Undefended Heart

The way to helpful communication in difficult situations, says Ray Buckner, is by pausing, creating space, and listening to your body and mind.

Ray Buckner
8 May 2019
Photo by Christiana Rivers.

I was sitting in bed waiting for her. I’d just finished an hour’s worth of panic attacks when my body finally became still. It was in that stillness—marked by a soothing solitude and a quiet mind—that I noticed exactly what was arising, how I was hurting, and what I wanted to say.

When she first arrived, I tried to speak but couldn’t—too afraid of dismissal, rejection, and shame, qualities that characterized our recent conversations. I finally worked up the courage to share my difficult truth: “I just feel like I don’t really matter.”

She rolled her eyes. I was devastated.

In an instant, my awareness was obliterated. Distress filled my body, and I couldn’t breathe.

This is often how it goes when interacting with difficult people. We yearn for understanding, but when we touch a harsh and unaccepting presence, we close down. And when we’re the difficult person, we become reactive and cause others to freeze and keep silent.

Would it be possible to soften my heart, even just a little?

Whether the situation is deeply volatile and anxiety provoking, or subtle in its creation of anguish, anger, or fear, the bottomline is this: working with difficult people and dealing with difficult situations doesn’t have to be so painful.

No matter if we are the difficult person or the difficult person is another, we can employ the simple technique of pausing, taking space, and asking ourselves some fundamental questions about our suffering. In this way, our difficulty can transform into helpful awareness. In effect, working with difficulty begins with us.

Being in contact with a difficult person can cause us to contract and lose connection with our bodies. In these states of distress, slight or extreme, we need to take the time to return to ourselves. When we listen to our body and mind with a loving ear, we begin to understand our pain, honor our experience, and hold ourselves with much needed compassion.

It’s helpful to find time to be alone, so that with ample space we may ask ourselves: Where in my body is the hurt located? When I reflect on this difficult person, what arises for me? How does this difficult person’s behavior cause me pain?

It’s from this soft, inquisitive place that we begin to feel calm and safe in our bodies, creating conditions for awareness to arise. With awareness, we may then ask ourselves compassionately how we’d like to approach our difficult situation or person.

The invitation is similar when we’re trying to refrain from becoming difficult ourselves. When we’re difficult, we’re usually afraid of something, often of becoming hurt by another. Instead of listening to our fears, we tense up and act out.

In the very moment we notice ourselves preparing to attack, we can stop and create space by asking ourselves some heartfelt questions. In addition to those above, we may ask: What about this situation is setting me off? As my body tenses, can I breathe and stay with that feeling? Would it be possible to soften my heart, even just a little? As I ask these questions, what sensations arise?

When we create space, we begin both to understand our own reactions and to consider another’s perspective and pain. We have greater presence, compassion, and care.

Ultimately, by creating space in the midst of hardship and compassionately contemplating our suffering, we transform difficulty into awareness. It’s from this awareness, embodied by a tender, undefended heart, that helpful communication, both within us and between each other, will emanate.

photo of Ray Buckner

Ray Buckner

Ray Buckner is a PhD Student in Religious Studies at Northwestern University. His research examines sexual violence in American Buddhism and transgender experiences with Buddhism in the United States. Ray’s article, “Buddhist Teachers’ Responses to Sexual Violence: Epistemological Violence in American Buddhism” (2020), was published in The Journal of Global Buddhism. Ray’s article, “Zen in Distress: Theorizing Gender Dysphoria and Traumatic Remembrance within Sōtō Zen Meditation” (2020), was published in Religions.