Opening to the Spirit
Today’s word: Listening
) A few years ago the theme song for our Annual Conference was “Listening is the language of love.” Not only was it beautifully melodic. The lyrics were full of meaning, and it was the type of song that would get stuck in my head for days at a time. In that case I didn't mind at all. Listening to each other, truly listening, is the way to express our love and compassion.
In our modern world many people all too often listen only long enough to catch their breath and launch into another diatribe. We are much more concerned with ensuring that our message is heard than entering into a real conversation. I have often seen politicians being interviewed and totally ignoring the questions in order to repeat a familiar talking point. One wonders if they even heard the question.
Sincere listening begins with actually caring about another person and their opinions and struggles. It means paying attention to body language, watching their eyes for expression, and waiting to let the message sink in before responding. From studying pastoral care in a hospital setting I remember some good advice. Don't stand at the door, half in and half out, far away from the patient. Take off your coat, take a chair next to them, hold hands, and physically demonstrate that you will remain with them for a while. When you are prepared to listen, real conversations will happen.
Our world can be a loud and confusing place. There are strident messages blared out over many media. Loneliness is everywhere. If we can take the time to listen, truly listen to each other, we can create a better world. Listening is the language of love.
) How many times have you heard the plea, a call from the heart, that universal longing to be heard and understood, for someone to bear witness. "Listen!" "Listen to me!" "Just listen!" "You're not listening!" And in the busyness of the moment, to you stop and offer your undivided attention? Or maybe it's you, trying to get someone's attention.
In the ancient wisdom of Zeno, there's a reason we have two ears and only one mouth. Listening is an indispensible skill of the caring soul. Who has not had the privilege of sitting with another, drawn aside to a quiet place. Maybe they reach for your hand, to connect and close the gap. Then out it comes, slowly one word at a time like pearls dropping. Or in a rush as urgent as any stream that won't be stopped. The heart opens, out pours a life story. You are invited into those sacred inner spaces where "angels fear to tread" because the terrain requires such an unspeakable lightness of being. "Listen," they say. And your ears perk up, not only to catch the words, but what lies beneath the level of language, the unsayable unsaid. No response needed, except to hear and take to notice. Shhh, you tell yourself, heart be calm, brain be still. Step back, hold your peace, give this infinite moment whatever space it needs.
Recently I read that the words LISTEN and SILENT contain the same letters. Who knew? If one half of language is listening, perhaps we should teach not only how to speak but how and when not to. We tend to think of language as made up of words. Yet in speech or dialogue, words are made up of phrases, the flow and cadence shaped by silence. As in music, the pauses, rests, full stops and moments without sound are more than punctuation. Inviting us to reflect and allow the words to sink in, and settle for awhile. Which is why I love poetry. Each word so carefully chosen, spaces not just emptiness on the page. When art is spoken, silences can echo louder than the words.
Are you listening? To whom and to what? And I hope you have at least one wholly listening ear to hear you.
) I remember recounting a particularly difficult exchange I had with a former friend and being asked later “did you feel listened to?” The answer was no. I had not.
Only then did it dawn on me how often it happens that we are so caught up in our own thoughts, we have barely enough attention to devote to what the other party is saying. We spend time preparing for what we are going to say in response. We defend our positions. We draw attention away from the speaker by drawing comparisons with our own experiences. We sometimes resort to shouting in order to get our point across.
It is surprising what we learn when we enter conversation with the clear goal of deeply listening to the other party. First there is the topic of conversation. Then there is the body language and the facial expressions that either confirm or contradict the words. There is the context of the conversation and the history of our relationship with that person. There is the matter of whether we have become a trusted listener or whether that trust has been misused.
To be able to truly listen is an art. It takes practice but it can be honed. To deeply listen to one another is one of the greatest gifts we can offer. When we are able to do this with love and compassion, without judgement, it can become a sacred moment. Speaking from my position as the talker when I have been listened to in this manner, it has felt as if Jesus himself is listening.
) There is a kind of listening that does not use our ears. The leader of a meditation group that I attend uses a singing bowl to mark the beginning and end of our time of silence. At the beginning we listen to the deep ringing. We keep listening as the ringing becomes more and more faint. And, then, we keep listening after the sound has moved into silence. Soon we are connected, to each other and to the source of mystery, in calm simplicity.
We use so many words in our usual ways of worshipping God. We fill up the air with our ideas and our songs. I hope our words and our music are pleasing to God, and I suspect they are. I know that these words remind us who God is, and I know that they give us hope. I also know that there is something more important than words that God longs for. God wants us to listen.
Meditation is all about listening. We listen in silence because silence is the language God speaks. If you have not done this before, maybe today is the time to start. Keep it simple. Sit comfortably. Focus on your breathing. Notice your thoughts but try not to get attached to them, instead observe them passing by. If focusing on your breath is not enough to let you drop beneath your thoughts, try focusing on a word. Focus, and focus, and focus, until you are listening to the silence.
One word, four voices - now it's your turn to reflect: Are you listening? To what, and to whom?
Rev. Mead Baldwin pastors the Waterville & North Hatley pastoral charge; Rev. Lynn Dillabough is now Rector of St. Paul's in Brockville ON. She continues to write for this column as a dedicated colleague with the Eastern Townships clergy writing team; Rev. Lee Ann Hogle ministers to the Ayer’s Cliff, Magog & Georgeville United Churches; Rev. Carole Martignacco is Consulting Minister to UU Estrie-unitarian Universalists in North Hatley.