Listening from the Heart

Last week, we spoke of the eyes through which we look at life, where we see from and how we see, beyond what we see. We may view the events of our life with the eyes of hurt, fear, or hostility, or with the eyes of understanding and compassion. With some effort, it is best if we can come to see ourselves, others, and life with a true and deep and caring awareness.

We also noted that when we learn something about ourselves or about life, it is not so much the acquiring of new information, but more the dawning recognition of something we always somehow knew, but for which we did not yet have words or images. Here too it is crucial to find ways of naming that speak to our inmost heart.

To move beyond our present level of seeing and naming, we must be open–open to our own feelings and thoughts, and to new ways of naming both our angle of vision and what lies within our inmost core.

This openness involves listening. Genuine listening involves not merely hearing words on the surface, or inattentively, or simply being quiet long enough to wait our turn to say what we already have in mind. It is striking, as we have cited before, that the opening words of the fifth century Rule of St. Benedict are to listen with the ears of the heart. This would seem to mean to listen from our core or centre, to listen openly, to be willing to be changed by what we hear, to listen not only to the words but to tune in to the person or text behind the words.

In a recent CBC Ideas interview, Benedictine monk, Columba Stewart, who copies digitally ancient manuscripts, had this to say on listening.
“The discipline of listening is now an endangered art. .. .True listening requires attention. And I think the ability to pay attention and to focus is one of the many endangered things in our present-day and our modern culture. … And so the ability to just sit quietly with somebody, or in a larger group, and actually to pay attention to what they’re saying, it’s very difficult not to retreat into our own thoughts.”

And so that ability that counsellors and psychotherapists have had to cultivate — spiritual directors more in my kind of wheelhouse — of being able to really listen, not only to the words of the person but to the things that are unspoken but nonetheless are being communicated in the encounter, I think that’s tremendously important. Whether it’s a spiritual conversation, working on some kind of emotional issue or a psychological issue or functioning in a political context.

One form of listening is to listen to one’s own inmost self. This can be a matter of sitting quietly, whether in our own home or in a natural setting, somewhere we feel is a safe place for us. We can then allow thoughts and feeling to arise, and we may find that one feeling gives way to another, so that gradually what is deepest within us arises to the surface of our awareness.

One approach, used in many meditative practices, is first of all to listen to our breathing, then to physical sensations, and then to feelings. These can be progressive sessions, as illustrated in the meditation DVD by spiritual author, Jack Kornfield. He concludes his presentation with a lovingkindness meditation. It begins with a wish for the well-being of oneself and extends progressively to those near and then far from our own lives.

Spiritual writer, Thomas Merton, speaks of a listening in silence not for a word that breaks the silence, but with a general openness. We may then experience our very selves, so to speak, as a word our of the silence, as an expression of the universe, as valuable, as having a sacred worth and meaning.

Perhaps w may experience, beneath all else, a kind of longing. It may be viewed as a longing for meaning, for a sense of worth and purpose. And it may be accompanied not by a certainty, but by a hope that this longing is not in vain, but reflects what is really true about each one of us. If we are able to listen to our own sacred worth, we are able to hear that worth in others as well.

In listening to another, we may attempt to tune into the person behind their words or other expressions. The anger of a child–or for that matter an adult–may be a covering for a hurt or insecurity.

While it is essential in our contact with another not to allow ourselves to violated in any way, it may call for a listening to the person hidden within the words or gestures. As I have sometimes said, we cannot talk someone into anything, but we can listen people into their own truth.

Correspondingly, when people express themselves from their inmost self, if we are open, we may hear them in our own core as well. I recall once hearing a song in Ukrainian which resonated with deeply felt longing. I asked my mother-in-law what the words meant. She told me that the person was aching for their homeland and sang that they wished to fly there so intensely that they felt like a bird whose wings came off from the intensity of the flight.

The singing of Leonard Cohen or Louis Armstrong seems also to cone from that heart space. There is a science fiction story by John Campbell, Twilight, which tells of the song of a dying civilization, that reflects an aching sadness. The story of Rapunzel tells of her singing from her lonely solitude and that her voice rings out in the forest and touches the heart of a young man.

Certain parts of the duet from the opera, The Pearl Fishers, seem also to come from and lead into a depth dimension in the soul, to bridge the gap between time and eternity, not as entities but as present experiences, the experience of being totally present rather than merely en route. So too does the climax of the Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber.

What it comes down to, perhaps, is that if we are in touch with our inmost core and are open from that centre, in a safe place, we may tune in to voices in literature and music and art that speak to and name for us what is in our inmost core.

May you be ever more open to the voice of your inmost core and the voices around you that speak from and to that core. And may these experiences enrich your life.

Norman King, August 21, 2022