Listening with the Ears of the Heart

Last week, I spoke of trust: trust in the process of unfolding life within ourselves, trust in an intelligently caring other, and trust in life and the meaningfulness of life itself. This latter includes a trust in the universe as meaningful, as unfolding in the direction of wisdom and compassion. The basic implication of this conviction is the challenge to become ourselves trustworthy persons. Underlying this whole process is an at least implicit experience of life, not as a tragic accident or a cruel fate, but as a valuable gift. This experience gives rise to an undertone of gratitude, rather than resentment. This gratefulness flows naturally into a generosity of spirit, rather than a spirit of fear or hostility.

Many years ago, I attended a conference which included a talk by David Steindl-Rast, who is at once a Benedictine Monk, a Zen Buddhist master, and a clinical psychologist. He looked at and commented on the roots of the words “obedience” and “absurdity.” Obedience comes from the Latin roots ob and audire, which means to listen truly and deeply. Absurdity comes from the Latin roots ab and surdum, which means totally deaf. He explained that our orientation to life is either one of tuning into its meaning at each given moment, or being utterly deaf to such meaning, unable to discover any meaning to life.

This view reflects the perspective of Karl Rahner and others, that our fundamental life choice is either a trust in the enduring meaningfulness of life–its lasting worth and purpose–or despair over its ultimate futility. At the same time, they add that the approach to discover, or perhaps better to uncover, such meaning, is to listen, to tune in with awareness, rather than close ourselves off. In effect the choice is to build totally encasing walls that block off all light or sound of meaning, or to allow the cracks that allow light and sound to get in.

The key, then, seems to be to listen. Alfred Tomatis, the listening specialist, has distinguished between hearing and listening. Hearing is the passive reception of sound while listening is the active participation in what we hear. We may have good hearing, but poor listening. While Tomatis’ work has a more scientific basis, it is also a reflection of the opening words of the sixth century Rule of St. Benedict, which invites us to listen with the ears of the heart. This is a question of listening with openness rather than closing our ears. It is a listening with an openness to be changed by what we hear, rather than being closed to any transformation.

There is a marvellous Peanuts cartoon in which Lucy is chasing Charlie Brown and yelling :”I’ll pound you, Charlie Brown.” He replies to her that if we small children cannot solve our small problems without resorting to violence, how do we expect the larger world problems to be solved. She then punches him and says to a friend, “I had to hit him, he was beginning to make sense.” In other words, closing our ears, that is, closing our minds and hearts, refusing to listen to someone, results in violence. Along similar lines, Lorraine once commented on the New Testament story of Peter cutting off a servant’s ear, by saying that violence causes deafness. In Steindl-Rast’s approach, “absurdity” is deafness of the heart.

In light of our reflection on trust, to find meaning in life, a sense of worth, belonging, and purpose, implies a threefold listening, a threefold tuning in with openness. It implies a listening to our own inmost core, listening to one another from the heart, and tuning in to the sound of the universe. A parallel example is found in the ancient Greek myth of Tiresias the blind seer and of Oedipus who becomes physically blinded. It occurs as well as in the later poet, John Milton, who becomes blind, as does King Lear in the Shakespearian play. In all these cases, physical blindness is an image of the transition from seeing the externals only, to seeing, that is, understanding, from the heart, It is coming to a wisdom that seems inseparable, in some degree, from suffering.

I recall a radio interview I did many years ago, when the interviewer was intent on focusing on either the adherence to or reaction against external authority. He became very angry when I suggested that whether we follow or disagree with such authority, we are equally responsible for our personal decision, and that we cannot deflect our responsibility for our decision in either case. This is one example of how anger readily results from hearing something to which we are unwilling to listen.

Listening to oneself is a dimension of solitude, in which we allow what is deeply within to rise to the surface of our awareness. It is a matter of feeling all of our feelings, then letting go of them, as if letting them float away. What is deepest can then emerge, our sacred core, which I believe, orients us, more than anything else, towards understanding and compassion, wisdom and love,.

One form of reaching this awareness gradually is just the most basic form of meditation, simply to pay attention to our breath. I have noted before that in many languages, the words, breath, wind, and spirit are the same word. They suggest that our spirit is our core self, and our spirit is also what we live and breathe by. It is the vision and values we actually live. It is the script we actually follow in our life story.

One Eastern form of meditation suggests the repetition of the sound om/aum, which is sometimes thought of as the sound of the universe. It is the creative energy from which all flows. The ancient Greeks talked of the music of the spheres, the idea that the universe is singing. In all ancient monastic traditions, there is also a form of chant which reflects a similar view. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, the creative energy is found in Aislin the lion, who sings creation into being.

One aspect may well be that to echo the sound energy of the universe is to come into harmony with all that is, to be a truthful reflection of reality. It is to listen to and embody the truth of life. In our view, we are such a reflection and embodiment, when we move in the direction of truth and love, wisdom and compassion. An interesting corollary is that it is through music and story and the other arts, as well as silence, that we are best able to hear the sound of the universe, that we are most able to come in touch with our own heart. It is perhaps our heart, our inmost core, that flows from the universe, as does all else. To be in touch with that core, to pursue the journey within, is perhaps to experience at once our own sacred uniqueness, our connection with the sacred uniqueness of all else, and our origin in the communion of all beings that is the universe.

May you come more and more to listen to you own heart and its sacredness, and discover the sacredness and interconnectedness of all that is, and live in harmony with its music.

Norman King, December 19, 2022
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