Listening: A Sacred Practice
Rev. Amy Russell
April 6, 2014
My first husband and I had only been members of a Unitarian Universalist church for about two years when my husband was diagnosed with cancer. We had been peripherally involved, so we had a few friends but were just getting to know people. But when my husband, Scott, stood up in the Joys and Concerns during the Sunday service and told people about his diagnosis, he told his news with tears in his eyes. After the service, he was surrounded with people hugging him, patting him, and asking what they could do to help. He was overwhelmed by the response. And after that, he would get up every so often and tell about what was happening with his treatment. This outlet to tell his story was very important to him. He was a man of few words and didn’t talk about his ordeal very readily, never really complained. But speaking his pain and being heard at a UU church was a part of his treatment, a part of the healing that he needed.
Part of the ritual of Joys and Concerns in that church included the minister saying some words that I don’t remember exactly but which included this phrase, “When we are heard, we are healed.”
This is similar to the words we used today as our chalice lighting from ee cummings:
*“We do not believe in ourselves until someone reveals that something deep inside us is valuable, worth listening to, worthy of our trust, sacred to our touch.”
There is something about being deeply listened to, about really being heard by another caring human being that touches us deeply and allows us to heal our pain. In the Gospel of Saint Thomas, Jesus says, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” Being heard has deep life affirming power in our lives.
This deep listening doesn’t happen to us very often. We are often in conversation, we are often listening to others. But so often, we are half hearing what the other is saying, we are hearing with our minds on other things or we are preparing our response to what the other person is saying, or we are forming our own judgment about what is being said. This is not because we are bad people, this is just how our minds work. Our minds are often multi-tasking because that is what our fast moving, response driven society often expects from us.
When we are in a meeting in a business environment, we know that we will be called upon at some point to respond to what is being said, to give our opinion about what is being proposed, so we are constantly preparing ourselves to respond with our judgment about what was said. That is what is expected of us.
When our kids are talking, we are often picking out what we think we need to correct as parents, what information might be telling us that our child is in trouble or isn’t doing what is expected of him, so we are listening and responding in our roles as parents, providing safety and guidance to our children. Or we are half-listening as we are doing the myriad of other chores that we have to get done in order to get through the day. Doing the laundry, fixing meals, getting the bills paid. All those tasks that need to be done and we think can be done while we’re half listening to our kids tell about their day.
Or when our partners are telling us about their day, we are also doing chores. And as we listen, we might be really listening but creeping into our minds comes that list of things that we need to communicate to him/her. We are trying to listen, but at the same time, we’re trying not to forget what it was that we have been thinking about all day that needed to get communicated. Like “Did you pick up the shirts at the cleaners?” Or “Don’t we need to take the car in to get looked at?”
Just the mechanics of life interferes with our being truly good listeners.
If we were going to take the time to be truly good listeners, we could learn to listen with love and care to the people we care for. Listening with attention, with loving care can create a feeling of “wholeness” for another person.
When we are listening with this deep kind of listening, we first need to get ourselves out of the way. We have active minds that are constantly presenting distractions for us, similar to when we are trying to meditate and remove stray thoughts. We can use a similar practice for getting those distracting thoughts wiped away so that we can listen deeply to another. We can name the thoughts that come into our mind as what they are- distractions, or judgments, or personal reactions to what is being said and we can put these thoughts aside. Our personal history with the person speaking often gets in the way of truly hearing what is being said. We are thinking of previous interactions we’ve had or preconceived judgments about the person that prevent us from hearing what the person is really saying.
It’s like whatever is being said has to pass through a screen to get through to us. This screen filters what is being said with an overlay of past experiences. It’s not really possible to remove this screen because this screen is our experience, it is our learned point of view. But sometimes it’s possible to be aware of this screen and what it may be preventing us from hearing. Like when we are in our parental role and our screen might be filtering whatever sounds like danger or trouble for our children.
I can remember my daughter trying to tell me something about a new relationship that she was in. And my reaction had something to do with the possibility of her getting hurt instead of truly hearing what an amazing time she was having in this adventure of life. I was listening with my “mom” ears, not being to be present to her in a more human way.
Another skill in listening is confirming what we’ve heard. Now there is certainly a difference between a therapeutic relationship when the skilled listener uses confirming statements to reflect back what was said and a personal relationship when you are simply trying to let the other person know that you heard them. We probably don’t all want to go around saying, “What I heard you say was…” because we don’t want to act like amateur therapists. But it’s helpful to let the other person know that you understood them by repeating something of what you heard or by affirming the feelings that you heard. When we do this, the person speaking feels validated. They feel that you are truly attending to what they are saying. When your affirming statements contain no judgment, just a warm acceptance that you are understanding the other’s person’s feelings, that helps create trust in the relationship. This feeling of trust will allow the other person to open up further what they are communicating.
Noticing physical cues when listening also helps us to pick up the tone of what the other person is saying. When people are withholding or are unsure about whether to trust someone they may have a physical stance that shows their reluctance to open up. Crossing the arms over the chest can sometimes cue that the person is feeling protective of themselves or is not ready to be vulnerable.
We can be cognizant of our own body language in presenting to others an open, ready to listen kind of stance. Keeping our arms at our sides presents an openness to what is being said. Maintaining eye contact at least most of the time during a conversation gives the other person an idea that we are honest and sincere in our communication with them. Keeping our heads level and horizontal gives the appearance of being confident and self-assured. And sometimes tilting the head slighting to one side is a receptive posture that indicates a readiness to listen.
Many religions see listening as truly a sacred practice. Quakers call this “devout listening” and practice during their worship services. They are sitting in silence listening to the spirit. When the spirit moves them, they share what they heard. So each person listens to what is said as though it was the “spirit” speaking. This teaches them great respect for what is spoken by others.
The Buddhist practice of mindfulness also teaches listening as a sacred practice. Since in mindfulness, we are paying deep attention to whatever we are doing at that moment, when we are listening, we learn to listen with our whole attention.
*The term “beginner’s ear” or “beginner’s mind” is used by several authors describing how one would listen in mindful awareness. This attitude means that you take the attitude of “not knowing” or of having an open mind to what is being said, removing judgments and preconceived ideas from your mind. When we listen with open hearts and minds, we are removing as much of that filter screen from our minds as possible.
Perhaps you can think of a time in your life when someone listened. When you were having a very difficult time and someone saw your need to be heard. For me, there was a time in college when I was feeling depressed. I had broken up with my boyfriend. I had started hating the major I had chosen. And I didn’t feel close to my family at that time. I felt very alone. My roommate had a boyfriend and was gone every weekend.
I remember I was sitting on the steps of the dorm feeling lost and alone and very sorry for myself. A girl who was in one of my classes whom I had met at various dorm functions came up the stairs. She said hi and then she seemed to see my face. She sat down. Without making a big deal, she just sat there with me for a while. And pretty soon, without much prompting, I started telling her all about how I was feeling. She just listened. I remember that she didn’t start telling me all about her problems like so many people will do when you open up to them. She didn’t tell me that I shouldn’t worry, that it would get better. She just listened and nodded and asked me some gentle questions. Then after I had talked it all out, she suggested we go get pizza. And that sounded like a wonderful idea. We went and got pizza and we got to be very good friends. Just listening was all I needed.
Listening to others with your entire attention and with your heart is a sacred practice of compassion. You are focusing your being on that person, letting them know that they are important and valued. This person could be an adult or a child, a friend or a stranger. You could be in a line at the grocery store, or with your child putting them to bed. Listening with intention isn’t just for a time when a person is having a bad time, it’s worth practicing all the time. Certainly, we can’t always be focused 100% on what other people are telling us- we have to get the dinner cooked and the laundry done. But if we each were able to just spend part of our day listening to another person, that would mean that listening would become part of who we were. If we became aware of intentional listening to others, just think of how that could change the dynamics we have in our relationships. Who knows- maybe if we started listening better to others, perhaps they would in turn become better listeners to us.
I want to end with a prayer by Margaret Truxaw*:
May we all be free from suffering and the root of suffering.
May our practice of listening release the illusion of separation.
May it heal the listener, heal the one who is heard, and bring healing forth in an ever-expanding circle that knows no boundaries.
May the words here manifest this sacred intention.
*Excerpted from The Wisdom of Listening, edited by Mark Brady