Listening from the Heart

We have been speaking of words, especially in images and stories. We have mentioned how these speak to our heart. They help us to get in touch with and to name our deepest experience. The corresponding insight is that human beings grow and develop by being listeners, listening from the heart. The Rule of St. Benedict, a from the early sixth century, begins with the invitation to listen with the ears of the heart.

Before we learn to speak, we learn to listen, and probably before we speak words, we sing them. We tend to think of a word as having an exact correspondence with a specific object or person. I believe it is truer to say that a word gathers a whole pattern of experience into a single sound. For the young child, “tree” is not simply that object out there, but is a whole cluster of colour and size and shape moved by the wind and heard as the wind rustles through its leaves. “Mother” is not that person I see in front of me, but a whole pattern of sights and sounds and smells and touches, and the feelings that they evoke.

It is a matter then of tuning in to a whole variety of experiences, discerning or separating a cluster of these into a pattern, and finding a sound that expresses that pattern. In turn the words we learn shape our very experience.

Psychologist, Benedictine monk, and Zen Buddhist master, David Steindl-Rast, draws on the roots of the words obedience and absurdity to develop the understanding of listening. The word “obedience” in its Latin origin does not mean to follow blindly. Rather it means to listen fully, to tune in to the meaning of life in each present moment. “Absurdity,” also in its Latin roots means to be totally deaf, to miss the meaning of our life.

Here we have a sense of listening as a tuning in. To listen to another in this sense is not merely to be quiet until they finish speaking, but to be truly present to that person, to be aware of the person beneath the words, and to respond appropriately, I have often said before that we cannot talk another person into something, but we can listen them into their own truth.
Listening specialist Alfred Tomatis has distinguished between hearing and listening. Hearing simply happens in that the sound around us enters our ears without any attention or intention. Listening only takes place when we focus our mind and heart on the music that is playing or the person who is speaking, when we are in fact present to and participate in the meaningful sounds we encounter. Hearing is the passive reception of sound, while listening is the active participation in what we hear. It is possible to have good hearing, but poor listening.

Genuine dialogue, whether in personal conversation, classroom discussion, or interfaith communication, involves an honest openness, a real listening and tuning in to what is heard and to the person who is speaking. According to Leonard Swidler, who has engaged extensively in dialogue and has written about it, the purpose of dialogue is to grow, to be open to be changed by what we hear and to allow it to influence how we live.

Put a little differently, we listen truly only if we are open to be changed by what we hear. It is far more than simply waiting until another stops talking so that we can make our own predetermined point. As I like to say, we are transformed by what we let affect us deeply. We are shaped by the experiences that we let in to our heart. That is why a friend once closed their eyes before a violent movie scene, not wanting to let that image work on their imagination.

Transformation occurs when the outside experience or influence meets with our openness from the heart, whether the kindness of a friend, the tragedy of a loss, or really anything whatever. In the story of Narcissus, he runs from himself until he finds a reflection of himself as lovable, as someone of worth. Then he does not need to run any more. In the story of Echo, she loses her own voice and fades away as a result. We lose who we are unless we are in touch with, in tune with our own inmost voice. Real growth seems to occur, then, when inner openness and outer events blend.

Listening to our deepest self the voice of who we truly are and of our deepest longing seems to be a gradual process. We can be distracted by more surface needs and wants. We can fail to discern the difference between what we feel like on the surface and what we really long for from our centre. In the story of Rapunzel, the greed of one parent and the fear of the other lead to the loss of the child. This is the loss of the future, the loss of one’s real self. In the same story, it is in her solitude that the young woman discovers her own voice and its beauty, and her own beauty. That beauty is expressed in her singing which reaches out to another, from the core of one person to the core of another.

In The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm says in a similar vein, that what is talked about is less important than whether we experience ourselves and communicate from the centre of our existence. What is essential, in this sense, is to listen with the ears of the heart, and to speak and sing from that core.

In sum, we are exposed to many voices, both from within and without. The challenge is both to decide who or what to listen to from the heart. The challenge also is to listen as well, to tune in, to our own deepest voice, the voice of who we truly are and who we are becoming.

May you come more and more to discover and listen to your own deepest voice, your own deepest self. And may you communicate from there. And may you find fulfillment within yourself self and within your connection with others.

Norman King, April 25, 2022