Last week, I wrote about listening from the heart. It has the threefold sense of tuning into our own inmost core, to one another, and to the sound of the universe. The counterpart to listening from the heart is speaking from the heart. It means speaking as truly and deeply as possible. It is possible only to the extent that it is preceded by listening from the heart. To speak superficially or falsely is to speak off the top of one’s head or out of the side of one’s mouth.
The inability to communicate emotionally, and so to be unable to love, is reflected in the sixties song by Simon and Garfunkel, The Sound of Silence. It sings of people talking without speaking, and hearing without listening. Physician Gabor Maté speaks of a toxic culture and of how even well-meaning people are pushed to sacrifice their authenticity for what is socially acceptable, and to push others to do the same. He speaks of compassionately listening to and trusting our own heart as a path to refinding our authenticity.
I have often referred to Erich Fromm. He writes: “Love is possible only if two persons communicate with each other from the centre of their existence, hence if each one of them experiences himself or herself from the centre of their existence. … 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.”
What these comments suggest is that we can only speak from the heart if we are in touch with our heart, with the core of centre of our authentic self. This is what Thomas Merton calls our true self as distinct from our false self. The false self for him is the self that lives only on the surface of life, the self that sees itself only in competitive opposition to others, and the self that identifies with the ideological image portrayed by society. A challenge of a lifetime is to come into touch with our true or authentic self, beneath all else, and let that sacred self, as much as possible, flow in to our words, our actions, our lives. Perhaps this is most basically seen as a flow of wisdom and compassion, a flowing from a listening heart.
We have in English the expression: “Don’t breathe a word.” It is an implicit recognition that speaking is a form of breathing. In many languages the words, breath, wind, and spirit are the same. It suggests that where we breathe from and where we speak from are similar. Words, spoken or sung, can move us only if they come from deeply within, from the heart, from the guts, rather than the surface. The Hebrew prophet, Isaiah once spoke of people who honour the divine with their lips, but whose hearts are far away. The king in Hamlet says similarly “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: words without thoughts never to heaven go.”
Certainly, from one perspective, words are most simply vibrations or sounds in the air, flowing on the outward movement of breath. Yet, they may have quite a different impact if they are sung rather than spoken, if they come from our deepest silence rather than our surface noise, or if they express something of who we are rather than the information we possess.
A young student once told me of her experience of working with people who were unable to walk, to feed themselves, or to speak. But nonetheless, she sensed a profound contact simply through the eyes. This example gives a sense of the tremendous energy that may be present and embodied in some way when we communicate with one another. When we say goodbye to someone who is leaving for a time or who is dying, we want our words to contain us, to hold all our feelings, so that we can give them to another. It is as if we took our whole self and wrapped it up in words, as we would wrap a gift, and offered it to another. (We may of course do the same with our hostility.) We may perhaps think of words in terms of the underlying energy that flows into and through them.
That energy will be different depending on where it originates within us. If our words are not “off the cuff,” but well up from the deepest level of our being, we may be said to be speaking from our heart, from the centre of our existence. They may be said to come from that place in us where we flow in our uniqueness from the life process and even from the universe.
Lawren Harris, the Canadian “Group of Seven” painter, spoke of painting, not the branch of a tree, but the urge to its growth. By this I think that he meant that he tries to convey a living reality, the life energy that flows through the tree, not merely an inanimate object. Harris also wrote, “I try to get to the summit of my soul and paint from there, there where the universe sings.”
Perhaps our deepest and truest words are those that echo the song of the universe, a truth that sings through us but is not our own. Perhaps this truth energy that flows through all that is–but so often fails to reach into and through our words and actions–is best described as compassion, a respectful furthering of life, even at its most vulnerable. In this sense, each of us is a unique word, sung out of the immense Silence. Our life task could then be described as one of hearing, respecting, and responding to the unique and sacred word that is each of us.
May you tune into the deepest truth and value of who you are and may that truth flow into your life in words and melodies of compassion.
Norman King, December 27, 2022