Listening from the Heart

Last week, we spoke of compassion as offering to one another not advice, answers, or a defensive wall, but a caring and safe place, a largely silent and listening presence, empty of our own clutter. The poet Rumi says: “Some human beings are safe havens. Be companions with them.”

As suggested by the Greek and Hebrew roots, compassion means feeling in our guts, our womb, and so the listening involved is a listening from that same inmost place. As the Rule of St. Benedict puts it, it is listening with the ears of the heart.

David Steindl Rast, at once a Christian and Buddhist monk, brings out that the word “obedience “ comes from the Latin that means to listen deeply. It does not mean doing what one is told, but listening, that is tuning in to the meaning of our lives in the present moment. The opposite is “absurdity” whose Latin source connotes being totally deaf, unable or unwilling to tune in to that meaning.

The challenge then is to listen from our inmost core, both to ourselves and to one another. Such listening requires silence. Silence can be at first somewhat unnerving. We may readily opt for noise to drown out, to deafen our own inner voice or the voice of another. Conversations can sometimes be less a matter of communication than a trading of surface words. They can be empty not of our clutter but of our presence. Rumi puts it concretely: “Now silence. Let soul speak inside spoken things.”

I have said before that an image I have is of our core self around which are layers of hurt and fear and hostility and superficiality. As long as we live mainly in these layers, we are away from our real home, and do not have a felt sense of our own sacredness. We will feel forever restless, and almost always on the defensive or on the attack. Perhaps a first and continuous step is to recognize that having feelings does not mean that these feelings need to be unleashed on others or used to name ourselves. As we’ve noted from writer Sharon Salzberg, it may be best to regard them as visitors who are not to be given the run of the house.

Within that framework, such feelings may not be threatening when we allow them to come to the surface of our awareness in times of silence. And we may come to sense, within and beneath that silence, our real home, our true and sacred self. As we listen to ourselves in this way, and become more at home with who we truly are, we are more and more able to speak and act from that place of home. One way of putting it is to say that our truest words come, not from our noise, but from our silence. They come not from our hurt or fear or hostility, but from our heart, from the sacred core of who we are. It was said of writer Thomas Merton, for example, that when he spoke he did not break the silence, but gave it voice.

There is a film, Through a Glass Darkly, by Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman, which portrays difficult family relationships, marked by a lack of communication. Towards the end of the film, the father does actually speak from the heart to his adolescent son. With a sense of wonder and gratitude, the profoundly moved son simply says, “Papa talked to me.”

Psychologist Erich Fromm says that love involves such communication in depth, and that its real essence is not what is talked about, but where it is spoken from.
Love is possible only if two persons communicate with each other from the center of their existence, hence if each one         of them experiences himself or herself from the center of their existence. Only in this “central experience” is human             reality, only here is aliveness, only here is the basis for love. Love, experienced thus, is a constant challenge; it is not a         resting place, but a moving, growing, working together; even whether there is harmony or conflict, joy or sadness, is             secondary to the fundamental fact that two people experience themselves from the essence of their existence, that                they are one with each other by being one with themselves, rather than by fleeing from themselves. There is only one             proof for the presence of love: the depth of the relationship, and the aliveness and strength in each person concerned;         this is the fruit by which love is recognized.

If we are able to listen to our own sacred worth, we are able to hear that worth in others as well. The practice of silence is one pathway. So too is open conversation within a situation where trust and vulnerability are possible. So too is beautiful music that, in the words of previously quoted writer, Eva Rockett, is able to reach behind our defences and touch the core of the condensed self. Stories can do so as well, such as those by Margaret Laurence, which expose the whole range of human feelings and foibles, yet also unveil the sacred self beneath them.

May you come more and more to listen with the ears of the heart and to hear your own sacredness and that of others, which gradually fills you with a sense of gratitude that flows into compassion and generosity of sprit.

Norman King, November 01, 2021