Are you a good listener? I confess that I am not. In conversation I get excited and barge in with a comment; or I get distracted and forget what the other person is saying.
We all have our conversational quirks and foibles, but listening well and deeply is an art that has to be cultivated with intention and practice. That is why I signed up to be in a zoom group last fall call “Sacred Listening.” It is an offering of my wisdom practice group in Vermont, part of the Wisdom Community at Rock Point. There are ten of us in our Sacred Listening pod, and we meet every Wednesday evening without fail for an hour. The format is simple: a leader (rotating each week) reads our list of reminders for why we are there and our groups norms, then poses a question. Any question. One recent question was “What is truth?”; another was “Which figure in the nativity tableau resonates most with you and why?” We then take turns sharing our answers while the others are muted and silent. There is no discussion, no commenting, no judging or analyzing. We speak; then we are silent. We end with a prayer and sign off.
What motivates us to be in such a group? It is an interesting activity to be sure because the answers are varied and often surprising. We get to learn how the others think and what is important to them. Mostly, though, it is a place where we can share whatever we want to, knowing that the others will simply listen to what we have to say without commenting, judging, or trying to “fix” us. How often in the daily round are we granted that gift of undivided attention and forbearance? It is wonderfully freeing. The end result is a small group of people who have grown to know each other well and respect each other and, I dare say, love each other, too.
Love. That’s what sacred listening is about. It is listening to another person from the heart and responding from an inner place of silence where the ego and its courtiers have left the premises, at least briefly.
I am reminded of a story about Mother Theresa which has made the rounds of the Internet:
A journalist, Dan Rather, asked her, “You say that you pray all the time. What do you say to God?”
Mother Teresa replied, “I don’t say anything…I listen.”
The response somewhat put Dan Rather off his footing, and after he re-grouped his thoughts, he said: “Well, then what does He say to you?”
Mother Teresa replied: “He doesn’t say anything…He listens…” There was a fairly long pause, after which Mother Teresa said… “…and if you can’t understand that, I cannot explain it to you.”
Rumi wrote, “The language of God is silence.” The bedrock of listening and speaking from the heart is inner silence, whether we are praying with God or conversing with a human. It is only when our opinions, our judgments, and our self-centeredness are silenced that we can truly listen to another person. And it is only when our sense of self-importance and our need to perform are silenced that we can truly speak from the heart. Inner silence demolishes our fear of appearing foolish in the presence of another, and we find ourselves willing to speak our truth, warts and all.
In Random Thoughts on the Love of God, Simone Weil writes,
“Our soul makes constant noise, but it has a silent place we never hear. When the silence of God enters us, pierces our soul and joins its silent, secret place, then God is our treasure and our heart. And space opens before us like a fruit that breaks in two. Then we see the universe from a point beyond space.”
Our Wednesday listening group offers a brief departure from the noise of the world and gives me an opportunity to focus on a wider and more inclusive way of being than I find in my daily life. Have I become a better listener and speaker because of my participation in the group? I think so, because now when I am in conversation with another person I say inwardly the words ‘sacred listening,’ which reminds me not to interrupt or to give advice and to focus solely on the other person. And when it is my turn to speak I inwardly repeat the words again, reminding myself to be brief and to speak from my heart.
Will I ever learn? Practice. Practice. Practice.
Nancy Bloomer is a retired Episcopal priest and college teacher. A regular participant and postholder at various ongoing Rock Point Wisdom Practice Circles, she nourishes her interest in the Fourth Way with a long-term immersion in Nicoll’s Commentaries and more recently Azize’s Gurdjieff: Mysticism, Contemplation & Exercises. A lover of books and poetry, Nancy writes her own poetry as well. She lives in an old house in Vermont with her dog Zoey and tends a large flower garden.