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The Art of Sacred Listening

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“The Art of Sacred Listening”

I’ve spent most of my professional life working as a writer, primarily as a print and radio journalist. By the time I reached the half-century mark, I had interviewed hundreds, maybe even thousands of people and I believed, justifiably, that I was a good listener. After all, I could sit with you, ask you questions, then produce a reasonably well organized, interesting and sometimes even poetic article or program about what you had told me.

But I have come to believe in this second half-century of my life that the kind of listening I was doing represents just one kind of listening, for one essentially self-serving purpose. I can say in all modesty that sometimes my listening and telling the story of another person did prove to have great meaning and be of service to that person. But it was always a job I did for a living, and the intended beneficiary of the story wasn’t really the person who told me their truths; it was third parties, other people, who were going to read or hear those stories. And of course the entire time I was “listening” to my subjects, I was busy taking notes and trying to think ahead to the next questions I would ask. Not exactly attentive listening.

We are all listeners, and there are many reasons we listen to people, of course, but I’ve now believe that it’s a rare instance in which we truly listen to another person solely for that person’s benefit, without an agenda of our own. And yet what do most of us want more, than to be heard?

“Listening is a rare happening among human beings,” wrote the Quaker William Stringfellow. “You cannot listen to the word another is speaking if you are preoccupied with your appearance, or with impressing the other, or are trying to decide what you are going to say when the other stops talking, or are debating about whether what is being said is true or relevant or agreeable.’’ Stringfellow continues, “Such matters have their place, but only after listening to the word [while] the word is being uttered [. . .] Listening is a primitive act of love in which [we give ourselves] to another’s word, making [ourselves] accessible and vulnerable to that word.’’

Another Quaker, theology professor Douglas Steere, once used the word “listen” as a transitive verb, saying,  “To ‘listen’ another’s soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery may be almost the greatest service that any human being ever performs for another.” What is communication, intimacy all about, if we aren’t coaxing each other into a “condition of disclosure and discovery”?

A few years ago I moved to Berkeley with no clear path forward for my life. I befriended the elderly woman next door, a woman named Beth with no nearby relatives and few friends in good health. Her own health was declining, and not long after I arrived she became housebound. I began taking meals to her and soon sensed I would shepherd her to the end of her life. Beth and I spent countless hours together for a little less than a year before she died. I was holding her hand in that moment. Later, I felt gratified by that time. I know that I loved Beth, and she loved me, and that I did the best I could to comfort and support her at the end of her life. But I was also keenly aware that I was missing some skills that may have been even more helpful, and one of those was the ability to listen in a way that didn’t involve my own ego.

The experience with Beth was the impetus for my decision to attend an interfaith seminary and take a yearlong clinical training in a hospital as a chaplain. I began, with the help of many mentors, to understand how to listen with what I now call my “Divine” or “third ear.” The “third ear,” to my way of thinking, is akin to the Hindu concept of the invisible, mystically insightful “third eye.” The “third ear” has the power to perceive that which is beyond ordinary hearing. When we engage our “third ear,” we hear not just the words uttered by the person to whom we are listening, but also their feelings, their history, to what degree they are connected to other people, to Nature, to Spirit.

Some people call this “generative” or “active” listening. I like to call it “the art of sacred listening.” I didn’t make up the term “sacred listening”; many people use it, especially people who practice various forms of spiritual direction or counseling, as I do. It means listening with the intention of honoring what is sacred in you and me. It demands engaging my spirit with yours and with the Greater Spirit that informs us all. It requires employing every fiber of my being in an effort to know what your experience means to you. Sacred listening is an “art” because neither technique nor desire alone can make one a good sacred listener; sacred listening is created through a combination of skill and love.

I don’t mean to suggest here that every conversation we have is one in which we set aside our own personalities and egos to listen to another person. Frankly, I’m not up for that. But at least some of our time with others should be focused on sacred listening. Before I launch into suggestions about how we can become sacred listeners, I’d first like to talk about how we normally listen to one another.

One of the things we tend to do when listening to another person is to compare our own experience with theirs. So let’s say a friend shares that he thinks his wife is having an affair. In my mind, I may suddenly remember a time when I was betrayed by someone I loved. I wander off into my own memories and think about how they are alike or different from my friend’s situation’ I get lost in my own past sorrows. Oops. What was he saying?

Another thing we do when we are listening to a friend is compete. Most of the time we do this in our own minds; we find ourselves considering how our own experience stacks up again the other person’s. So, for example, if my friend tells me she’s really worried about money, and may have to sell her 14,000-square-foot house with two swimming pools and a five-car garage in the beautiful suburbs of Chicago—I may find myself grumbling, “What is she complaining about? I’m unemployed, I’ve got hives from living next door to a meth lab in a crumbling adobe with my alcoholic husband and neurotic sister-in-law, her Goth teenage son and a drooling Bassett hound, and she’s worried that she might have to join the YMCA to get her swim in? What does she know about money problems?” I’m very sympathetic, aren’t I?

Or, let’s say a friend confides that her mammogram has come back with an irregularity in it. Her aunt died of breast cancer, and she now feels certain that is her fate, too. Most of us can’t help ourselves; we counter. We say, “Oh, no, now listen, just because that happened to her doesn’t mean it will happen to you. Even if you do have cancer, you’ve caught it very early, and you know breast cancer is very, very curable these days. . . .’’ Instead of hearing and accepting our friend’s fear and suffering—which, let’s face it, is awfully uncomfortable for us–we counter it, rationalizing that somehow that will make her feel better, when in fact it’s the equivalent of telling her that she’s crazy, not to mention nuts and wrong, to be afraid of an teeny-weeny irregularity in a mammogram. Sooooooo helpful.

Then there are the times when we can’t resist counseling or advising our companion, playing Dr. Phil. Or we try to correct or fix the problem or situation as if we were Memet Oz, dispensing medical expertise.

Comparing. Competing. Countering. Counseling. Correcting. Any one of these responses can at times offer legitimate help to a friend or loved one, right? Of course they can. But none of them scratches the deep itch. None slakes the real thirst. They’re like Band-Aids: they may cover up the wound, and maybe that’s a good idea, but a Band-Aid has minimal impact on real healing. What we are doing in all those comparing-competing-countering-counseling-correcting responses is attending to our own ego instead of sincerely listening to and hearing our friend; There’s nothing sacred in that.

So how do we practice a higher level of listening? What does “sacred listening” entail? Are we just supposed to sit there like bumps on a log as a friend pours out her heart to us? Or should we be asking questions like the stereotypical TV sitcom therapist—“And how does that feel to you?”

To begin with I think we must have the intention of sacred listening. Perhaps we know we are about to have a meaningful conversation with our partner, or maybe a friend calls and we hear in his tone of voice that something big is up. I like to take a deep breath, and speak to my higher Self and my Higher Power and say something like, “Help me to set aside my ego, my needs, my opinions, and honestly listen to my loved one for his sake.” If you have a belief in a Higher Power or spiritual energy of some kind, silently invite that power into the room.  You can speak your intention aloud: “I really want to hear what you have to say. Let’s take plenty of time to talk about this.” Or, if you know your companion shares your belief system, pray it aloud: “Be our companion, O Goddess, and let us serve each other in this sacred time and place.’’ Something simple. That’s all it takes.

To be a good sacred listener, we use more than our third ear. We turn on all our senses. Listen to what your friend says in words, but also watch their body language, feel the energy they are emitting. Sometimes people exhibit contradictory behaviors. It’s not unusual for a person who is very distressed to relate what has happened with humor, smiles and chuckles. “And then the truck barreled into my car, and now here I am, with casts on both legs and arms, pretty funny, huh?” If the story sounds painful, it probably was, even if the person isn’t saying so. Hear beyond the words. Hafiz wrote, “How do I listen to others? As if everyone were my Master speaking to me his cherished last words.” What a marvelous goal.

Try to open yourself to your own intuitions. What thoughts are popping into your head? You don’t have to do anything with them; you need not share them, and maybe shouldn’t, with the speaker. Just notice them. Sometimes what someone is telling us triggers our own memories and feelings, as I mentioned before, and that’s normal, of course. What I do with when I get triggered is make a little mental checkmark next to them in an imaginary notebook in my head. “When she was talking about her mother and her anxiety, my stomach started churning. I’ll look into that later,” is what I tell myself. Then refocus on your friend. Let those intuitions that aren’t specific to your own triggers inform you; they’re like little whispers from an angel on your shoulder, helping you to see what’s really going on for your friend.

Usually in a serious conversation the other person may need to speak for some time. Just let them talk it out, as long as they need to. Try not to interrupt or ask questions. When they do pause, wait it out. Allow for some silence to see if they’ll spontaneously continue. Sometimes that space makes all the difference. If they don’t continue after a few moments, try to sum up what they’ve told you. “Mirror” or “reflect” what they’ve said. For example, “So, the doctor said it was an ‘irregularity,’ and you have to go back in to have a follow-up mammogram. It’s really brought up your aunt’s death again, hasn’t it?” Sometimes, when we have a problem or are sorting out an issue, just having someone repeat it back to us makes it more understandable. If the person says, “No, no, that’s not what I meant, you don’t get it at all,” just gently ask them to tell you more. I should note here that while we most commonly associate deep conversation with problems, we can just as easily practice sacred listening—and should–when someone is sharing something very exciting or joyous in their lives, they’re getting married, they’re having a baby, they have a new job. The apparently positive or negative quality of the topic at hand is not as important as the intensity or intimacy of it, in other words. And sometimes, as we all know, those “positives” can turn into “negatives,” and vice versa.

After mirroring or reflecting your friend’s story back to them, validate their description of what has happened and what they are feeling. You don’t have to agree with them in order to do this. Your friend whose wife is supposedly stepping out on him? Maybe you think she really is just going to zumba class with the girls. It doesn’t matter. Just say something neutral like, “I understand,” or “That makes perfect sense, the way you described it,” or, “I can see what you mean.” In essence, you are acknowledging your friend’s experience, telling them they aren’t crazy, that you, another human being, are in communion with them. One precaution: Don’t say, as we often are tempted, “I know exactly how you feel.” This diminishes the individual’s experience. We all believe we are unique and it’s true, we cannot know exactly how another person feels. The urge is to identify; we want to invoke that sense of communion, and that’s a natural and loving desire. But it’s usually better to say, “I cannot imagine what that was like,” or “I can only imagine how that feels; I’ve had some similar experiences, but nothing just like yours.”

It’s also important to acknowledge the feelings that your friend or loved one is expressing. Most of us, in our Western cultural context, stay stuck in our intellects, or at least feel we should stay in the rational, left-brained mode.  Identifying feelings can offer a pathway out of the abyss of overwhelming situations. So, ask your friend what he is feeling, using simple words that aren’t intellectual. “Sounds like you’re very angry,” for example. “Are you feeling excited, or scared?” Let your words prompt them to tell you how they feel. If your friend whose wife may be having an affair responds by saying, “Well, I think she should tell the truth and move out!” gently suggest what the feelings are underneath that. Here is where you can express what you imagine he feels. “If I were you, I’d feel really hurt by all this.” You can’t force someone into their feelings, but the simple suggestion of what he might be feeling may lodge in his mind and at least bubble up later.

Finally, offer your caring and support. “I love you, and I’m sorry you’re going through this. Please don’t hesitate to let me know if there is some way I can help you.” Hugs are good, when appropriate. Sometimes, when someone is sharing with you, it can be helpful to sit closer than usual to them, put an arm around their shoulder. If you don’t know if that will be okay with the person, ask. “I feel like putting my arm around you, is that okay?”

My friend Beth was very reserved and I had never done more than place a hand on her arm in greeting. One day she called in distress and when I went over I found her sitting on the edge of her bed, unable to get up. I felt a prompting in that moment, so I sat thigh-to-thigh with her and gently rubbed her back for a moment. She sighed, and I could feel some of the tension drain out of her as she relaxed. I realized in that instant that hardly anyone ever touched her—just a doctor, and only now and then. I am persuaded that we can feel the love in another’s touch; no words were necessary in that moment. As Rachel Naomi Remen has written, “A loving silence often has far more power to heal and connect than the most well-intentioned words.”

I’ve given you some of my best suggestions about sacred listening. At this point you may be wondering where the “sacred” part comes in; this may sound like little more than good interpersonal communication. “I’ve already read I’m Okay, You’re Okay, you may be thinking. All I can tell you is that when I am really present to another human being—when I am able to set aside my own ego and completely focus on the other person—more than good interpersonal communication is happening. Amazing things come to pass.

One of my mentors in spiritual direction training warned us that our clients would bring our own troubles to us, as if they had read our minds. They would tell us stories, raise issues, admit to weaknesses that were very similar to our own. That has proved true for me, and it’s proved to be a blessing. My first spiritual direction client turned out to be a writer who struggled with creative issues quite like mine. One of the first patients I met in my hospital residency suffered from the same disease I had had as a child. And since I have been consciously practicing sacred listening in my personal life, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve sat down to lunch or received a phone call or email from someone I care about, only to hear them articulate the very issue or concern with which I have been obsessed that very day. In those instances, when I am able to stay present, to listen to their journey rather than remain focused on my troubles, my own path miraculously becomes clearer. This is the “disclosure and discovery,” as Douglas Steere calls it, and it never fails to reassure me that all is indeed well, even in the midst of chaos; that we are all in the same proverbial boat, and in the same river; and it affirms my belief in some ineffable force, some energy, that connects us all in spirit.

Another outcome of practicing sacred listening is the opposite—the astonishing discovery that, as one of my friends says, “There are many different ways to be in the world.” We are different. We have different thoughts, reactions and behaviors. And when we see those differences through sacred listening, a door sometimes cracks open for us. We see that we perhaps don’t have to hang onto an old value or belief, for here is someone we love who has an entirely different idea, and it seems to work quite well for them. Our rigidities begin to soften; what was once black-and-white thinking expands into a rainbow of mauve, salmon, crimson and violet. Life gets richer. The great psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote that, “Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.’’ So, too, is the listener created in the sacred listening process.

And we will learn, with practice, when it is appropriate to offer our ideas, our counsel and advice, while allowing our beloved companions to maintain their autonomy. The mentor I spoke of earlier said that when we are engaged in sacred listening, and a great idea comes to mind, it’s wise to initially simply note it and set it aside. If, as the conversation progresses, the thought recurs, put it in boldface in your imaginary notepad. My mentor said that only if a specific idea came to his mind a third time, with a sense of urgency, did he consider actually sharing it with the person to whom he was listening. If the thought recurred three times, he reasoned, maybe it wasn’t generated by his ego after all; maybe God, or the collective unconscious, was talking, and it was time to share the thought. I’ve found his method pretty reliable; but honestly, it’s a rare thought that strikes me in triplicate.

Still there remains, perhaps, the lingering idea that one might simply become the friend everyone else calls to lean on. Am I to be nothing but a sounding board for my family and friends, you might ask yourself? Of course not. We have to seek out those who are willing to practice sacred listening with us. Not everyone can do it, of course, but most of us can find friends and family members who are willing to work a little harder to establish and maintain this kind of deep communication and communion. And when you are on the receiving end of sacred listening, you will discover its greatest magic. When another person listens to you without judgment, with real compassion, telling your story is cathartic. You can be vulnerable and feel safe at the same time. Authentic intimacy is achieved. And the presence of the sacred in the room is palpable.

Give sacred listening a try; find someone who will embrace it as a spiritual practice with you. Make a pact to “listen” another’s soul into disclosure and discovery. Seek out that form of primitive love in which you give yourself to another’s word, “becoming accessible and vulnerable to that word.’’ Listen to someone, anyone, with your third ear wide open; listen like Hafiz, “as if everyone were your Master speaking to you her cherished last words.”

-A version of this essay was first presented as a sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Santa Fe, New Mexico, on Oct. 7, 2012

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