Is there a right way to help?
This is a question which puzzles me, personally (as a friend, husband, brother, son, colleague) and professionally (as a communication and change coach).
It made me buy the book “The Art of Helping” (De kunst van het helpen, ed. Margreet Mossel, Het Noorderlicht 2007), a Dutch book with a collection of texts from Bert Hellinger about helping.
What did the book offer me with regard to my question?
Some of them I want to write down because they matter to me in a way which I can’t really explain. I’ll post them here in a series called “Is there a right way to help?”.
This is the first insight.
“Trying to understand is exactly the opposite of what I should do in order to respond appropriately to a situation.”
When I had this thought I immediately got the image of a soccerplayer trying to understand the game in order to decide what his next move would be. The result was that he froze. I felt my stomach ache and I got very nervous.
This made me think of an experience I’ve had a couple of days ago while I was walking through the trainstation when I got back from work. The main hall was very crowded. I was tired and the constant movement of people and the noise made me nervous. At one point I deliberately decided to get out of the way and allow my eyes to watch and my legs to walk. I also invited my breath to be free.
What happened was very powerful. I had the feeling that whatever I had to understand and read from the situation was being read and cared for in an appropriate way. I allowed myself to take care of myself by blending in in a natural way. I noticed how people looked and I even got a few kind smiles which I responded to in a very relaxed way.
A day or two later I was reading a book on my way to work. I often read in the train and for some reason or the other reading scares me. It’s like I’m running after a prey I can’t catch. At one point I was reminded of something the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn said about being attentive. It’s a different kind of attention than observing which is a more narrowed, mind controlled and detailobsessed kind of attentiveness. I noticed how I was eagerly collecting crumbs but never managed to get hold of the stories I was reading. And while doing so, I was missing out on so many things which happened around me.
So this is what I did. Instead of reading, I looked at the page and made my way through it. What had to come accross and was supposed to be understood would be understood. Again, a very powerful experience. It was as if there was more respect. I respected the book for being well writen and wise in its own way. And I respected myself as being able to deal with the book and the world in which it was writen and read.
Now what does Hellinger say about this? In one speech, Hellinger writes about observation, paying attention, insight, intuition and resonance. What struck me was the clear distinction he made between observation and paying attention (or being attentive). I have to say that this is hard to translate because when you look up “observe” in an English-Dutch dictionary you get both observeren and waarnemen, the latter being the word Hellinger uses to refer to paying attention. Weird.
From my work with non-violent communication, buddhist writings and solution focused therapy I know how important paying attention is. But knowing it is something different than recognizing it and doing it while being aware of it. When reading Hellinger’s definitions of observation (sharp, precise, aimed for details, limited, sometimes intrusive and aggressive) and paying attention (seeing the bigger picture, systemic, simultaneity, limited details, more about cohesion and coherence, …) I knew I had made that shift while both walking through the trainstation and while reading my book on the train.
I was so eager in trying to understand that I didn’t realize that what I needed was a balanced use of observing and paying attention. In fact, I only looked at the world to my mind’s eye while all I had to do to come to an understanding of the situation (feeling at home, comfortable with what you’re in) was to open ‘my other eyes’.
Thich Nhat Hahn says that looking through your mind’s eye (call it consciousness or reason) costs a lot of energy, while being attentive and paying attention to the world costs less energy. I can now say I have experienced this intensely. And the beauty of this is that I’ve experienced a relaxed way of understanding.
Does this mean I should just get rid of this little voice in my head or this focussing eye? Not at all.
I am faced with a new and exciting challenge and that is to experience how and when my ability to focus and look for details will emerge and be more effective than when it’s constantly on guard. In fact, reason is like a tool, not a toolbox. It should be used when needed, if not you end up breaking more things than you fix. And while being very ‘reasonable’ and smart, you may end up very stupid and said (I guess I’m saying this to myself in the first place).
That being said trying to discover more tools and make use of my complete toolbox (and even collect more tools) (aka being mindful) sounds like a nice plan to keep busy for the rest of my life.
Have you ever experienced anything like what I describe here? Feel free to share it with our readers. I definitely love to hear about it.