What does the NVC term ‘Jackal Ears’ mean in terms of direct experience & meditation instruction?

A student writes:

I struggle with the concept of ‘Jackal ears’ [A term used in NVC – Nonviolent Communication – that Lama Shenpen often uses, for when we only hear judgement and blame etc].

I don’t experience Jackal ears, however, I do experience a tightening in my heart/body, a sense of retreating or discomfort, usually accompanied by thoughts which are desperately seeking to reassure myself for my choices, or find ways to judge the other person’s choices as the reason for my discomfort.

What are we talking about in direct experience? How does it relate to the meditation instructions/hindrances/obstacles etc, without having to go into the rest of the NVC doctrine?

Lama Shenpen responds:

You ask about how to talk about jackal ears without all the rest of the NVC stuff – I find I am often introducing this way of talking to good effect in my interviews with people.  People present me with what is in effect, struggling with ‘jackals’ far more often than any other meditation problem or Dharma problem. Hearing with jackal ears has a lot to do with feelings of jealousy, the pride of equalness and pride of inferiority, fear of failure and rejection and so on.

Maybe it is way of dealing with the obstacle of conceit?  Such as: ‘I often feel I have the moral high ground and it’s very important to me – my own self-image. I think of it as self respect. Am I to blame? No I am not because…’ etc.

So when we try to settle in meditation we get that tight feeling you mention, we remember what it’s about and off we go:  ‘I am not to blame’ etc – just drop it – ‘it’s their problem’ – and then round we go again. A feeling, thought pattern around blame – or a simple demand – thinking: ‘why should I? Just because she thinks I should…I don’t have to… I will do what I want…’ etc. Niggle niggle.

Try not to try and get rid of it – still that tight feeling – what is it telling me? ‘Should I do this or that?’  Round and round.  It might be more a sense of criticism or implied criticism that I can see through and so don’t understand why it still bothers me – or I find myself wanting to call someone names – I stop myself but still that tight feeling is there and I would enjoy telling them what I think of them by naming their behaviour.

Then: OK this is really annoying – not being able to let it all go – that tightness that is still there and the boring old same old thoughts.  It doesn’t feel like love and ease and if it’s emptiness I was hoping it would be different from this…

Feeling like this I don’t feel confident to say what I want and that is perhaps the reason for the feeling of tightness – the situation is calling me to speak up and express and I am not doing so because I intuit it wouldn’t go well if I did.  It is almost as if I am using meditation and Dharma practice as an avoidance strategy – a way of avoiding those difficult conversations. It doesn’t feel right…

So then I pause – really notice to myself: am I hearing blame? Criticism? Demand? Labelling? Am I hearing it coming my way or am I hearing it in me directed at me or someone else?

It is actually quite relaxing to notice all that without any attempt to further complicate the situation by thinking this is negative, I need to find a way to get rid of this kind of thinking and feeling.

So the jackal puppet feels nice and cuddly and friendly – even if it’s my own jackal – attacking another jackal – they are like puppy dogs snapping at each other – cute and lively – lots of character!

It is like Metta towards oneself – like bird watching – trying to notice how many jackals there are and what they are doing – perhaps they are hiding? But basically I love them – I am fond of them.

By empathising with them all, I get to open up their energy – their heart energy which is really my own love and compassion.

By this stage, although I am listening to the jackals I am not identified with them – just as in any meditation practice – they are not me but they are telling me something. And I listen to them – maybe agreeing with them – admiring their wit or aptness of their case.

Then suddenly – Ah! Yes! I have jackal ears on… maybe I like having them on? I check it out – now I have noticed I have a choice…

Then I listen for their feelings and needs in an empathetic way – like one can do for oneself or for others.

That is when the magic happens. The tight feeling is completely replaced by a genuine feeling of interest and concern for the person or people I was struggling with – who I was feeling irritated by or who I had disconnected from.

It is like magic – I don’t know quite when and how the switch will happen – it is not necessarily the case I can name my feeling – but I can usually name the need in terms of a universal value and it’s a real experience – it is like touching in with Shamata – there is something alive and tangible about it.

That is when I know I will able to communicate in a connecting way – connecting for myself and so also connecting for the other person – and it’s such a relief – that tight feeling has been replaced by a feeling of freedom to say exactly what I want to say – I suppose because now I am properly connected to what I really want – deep down and who I really am deep down.

I am beginning to think we don’t need to talk about giraffe ears [the opposite of jackal ears in NVC language] – giraffes are just what we naturally are when we don’t hear blame, criticism, demand or labelling.

It is four of the Eight Worldly Dharmas really isn’t it? Praise/blame, good name/bad name. Taking jackal ears off could be described in all sort of ways couldn’t it? That magic switch moment – switching out of one mandala into another. Like Tonglen perhaps, but for me taking off jackal ears feels like a magical, fun thing and it’s transformative in a surprising and uncontrived way.

Lama Shenpen Hookham

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