Last week, I referred to Erich Fromm’s conviction that people should experience themselves from the centre of their existence. Only then can they communicate with one another from that centre. Such communication in depth is, for him, the essence of love. It may be interesting to explore the connection between being present to ourselves and being present to one another. In a noisy and scattered age, often swallowed up in externals, noise, and busyness, this is quite a challenge.
Fromm emphasizes that the ability to be alone with oneself is the condition for the ability to love–that is, to relate meaningfully to others. He cites meditation as one practice that fosters this presence to self. He goes on to say that a person must be concentrated on everything they do, “in listening to music, in reading a book, in talking to a person, in seeing a view.” If a person is fully present, whatever they are doing takes on a new dimension of reality.
This notion of being present to ourselves and present to our immediate situation, and to others with whom we are at the moment, is a recurring theme, in many traditions. It is often expressed as living fully in the present.
I like the image of tuning in to our deepest inner voice. We hear many voices, as well as a great deal of chatter, within us. We do hear voices both of affirmation and of put-down. It can be helpful to try to name these voices, to discover who is the speaker. Often the speaker of negative voices within ourselves may come from a harsh voice heard in childhood. The more positive voices may come from those who have been kind to us. Beneath all of these is our own voice, which may take time to tune into.
This inner voice is often characterized as a still small voice. This expression indicates that it is a quiet voice. It can easily be drowned out by louder voices. It is best heard in stillness. These would be times without agitation or much motion or emotion. They would be times of quiet, of silence. I believe that these are the times when we can hear that inner true voice of ourselves.
I may have mentioned before my experience of a spontaneous writing session, in which emerged for me the image of a child behind walls. The following morning, on awakening, I had the vivid sense that I needed to speak to that child. I asked, “Who are you?” I was astounded to hear what came immediately to mind. “You cannot find out all at once. You must visit me often, and as you do, the walls will gradually come down and you will learn to speak with my voice and love with my heart.”
That image had emerged from a kind of poem to my younger brother, Mike, who had died many years earlier from a chronic heart condition. It had ended with the words: “Perhaps your death and my sorrow/ and your friendship and mine/ and all the friendships and sorrows since that time/ will lead a path behind the wall/ and free the child within.”
The walls are perhaps the hurts, and fears, and hostilities, and the feelings connected with them that surround our core self. If we live within those walls, we will be forever homeless, absent from our true self. In silent solitude, in stillness, we may allow ourselves to feel all our feelings, and to name them as truthfully as possible. Yet we may sense beneath and behind these walls is our inner self, the core of sacredness. When I reflected a little further on the image of the child behind the walls, it struck me that the voice of that child is the voice of our inmost self, and precisely of that self as it emerges from the universe, and whatever energy is behind and within the universe.
I once heard a talk by David Steindl-Rast who is at once a psychologist, a Benedictine monk, and a Zen master. He looked at the Latin roots of two words, “obedience” and”absurdity.” In its roots, obedience does not mean to do what one is told. It means to listen fully, to listen with our whole being and to listen from our heart, our core. It means tuning in to the meaning of each given moment. Absurdity, in its root sense, means to be totally deaf, to fail to find the meaning of our life at this moment. It is to experience life as meaningless.
Steindl-Rast further stresses the importance of silence. Silence, he says, creates space around things, persons, and events. It allows us to consider them gratefully, one by one, in their uniqueness.
Here again, we see the inseparability of listening to ourselves and listening to others. Listening to all our own feelings and naming them truthfully, without being trapped by them or seeing our identity in them, allows us to experience our sacred and worthy core beneath them. So also listening to others involves us to tune in to their inner sacred core, to listen to the person beneath the words and body language. It is a listening that lets go of our agendas, our preset responses. It is the attempt to be totally present, beyond the baggage or needs and threats. As St. Benedict expressed it, it is listening with the ears of the heart.
May you learn to listen to your own inmost sacred and worthy core, and tune in to that of others. May you learn more and more to respond from that inmost place, even when you are in opposition to yourself or others. May you uncover and dwell in your own inner home, and also be a home for others.
Norman King, May 8, 2023.
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