Listening

Sarah Richards
August 7, 2016

Listening

“Voice still and small, deep inside all, I hear you call, singing.”

When was the last time you slowed down enough to listen for a still, small voice? During my recent relaxing, nearly off the grid vacation, I realized that for me at least, slowing down is necessary to listen to that still, small voice, but it’s not guaranteed—when I slow down, sometimes I fall asleep. When I slow down, sometimes I read a book or watch t.v.. Even sometimes with guided meditation, I’m relaxed, I may even be centered, but I’m not listening—to either the teacher or myself. Deep listening—to ourselves, to others, to the world around us takes effort, it takes attention.

Retired UU minister Richard S. Gilbert writes:

Listening, the lost art, the gentle art. In my wiser moments I know that “one-half of language is to listen.” While I spend much of my time talking, I also do a fair amount of listening. It is hard to say which is of greater value. I do know that greater discipline is required to listen than to talk. To speak comes naturally for most of us; it is our default mode. We speak at the drop of a hint that there is someone who will listen.[i]

Gilbert recounts a story about this tendency:

“The pupils of the Tendai school used to study meditation before Zen Buddhism entered Japan. Four of them who were intimate friends promised one another to observe seven days of silence.

“On the first day all were silent. Their meditation had begun auspiciously, but when night came and the oil lamps were growing dim one of the pupils could not help exclaiming to a servant: ‘Fix those lamps.’

“The second pupil was surprised to hear the first one talk. ‘We are not supposed to say a word,’ he remarked.

“‘You two are stupid. Why did you talk?’ asked the third.

‘”I am the only one who has not talked,’ concluded the fourth pupil.

Gilbert explains:

In the Quaker tradition we have “liturgical silence” in which one listens to the spirit before one speaks. However, as G.B. Shaw once said about the original form of Quaker worship, “I believe in the discipline of silence and could talk for hours about it.” I know what discipline this requires, for even when I am listening to another, I am often distracted, thinking ahead to what brilliant thing I am going to say in response. Listening, then, has a spiritual dimension. It suggests that I am not the center of the cosmos, but rather one source of words among others. It implies that I have no monopoly on wisdom, that true wisdom may be found in listening.[ii]

The children’s story Red Knit Cap Girl, begins “In the forest, there is time to wonder about everything. Red Knit Cap Girl wonders about flowers, butterflies, leaves, and clouds. But most of all, Red Knit Cap Girl wonders about the Moon. “Could I ever get close enough to the Moon to talk to her?[iii]

After several futile attempts, the Girl consults with Owl, who tells her, “The Moon is too far to reach, but if you want, she will bend down to listen to you.” So the Red Knit Cap Girl devises a plan to show the Moon she’s looking for her—she enlists her forest friends in planning a celebration. They make paper lanterns and hang them in the trees, light them up, and sing for the Moon as they wait for her. They wait and wait for the Moon to appear. But she is nowhere to be seen. The Red Knit Cap Girl and her friends consider several reasons why the moon doesn’t come, and wait some more. When a gust of wind blows out one of the lanterns, a star appears in the sky, and Red Knit Cap Girl figures it out—she and her friends rabbit, bear, squirrel and hedgehog take deep breaths and all blow out the paper lanterns together. “The moment the lights are blown out, all the forest grows dark and quiet. And…the Moon comes out at last. “There you are!” says Red Knit Cap Girl. The Moon smiles and says, “You have made it dark enough to see me and quiet enough to hear me.” Red Knit Cap Girl whispers to the Moon. The Moon smiles quietly. Together, they listen to the sounds of the forest.[iv]

Let us now, like Red Knit Cap Girl and her friends, make space for listening. With your feet on the floor, your back straight, and body relaxed, hands resting on your legs… Take a few deep breaths, in through the nose and out through the mouth… Now as you breath out, gently close your eyes or lower your gaze, and breathe normally… Focus on the rhythm of your breath… Listen to your breathing, your heartbeat… Listen to the sounds of others’ breathing, to other sounds in the room or outside… [long pause] Return your focus to the breath… Feel your feet on the ground, your hands in your lap. On your next exhale, gently open your eyes.

So there is listening for the still, small voice in silence. There is listening to the sounds of our physical environment, wherever we may be. Richard Gilbert reminds us that “”Life speaks to be heard,” says the poet. “Sound is a living thing.” There is no sound, no language, no music, without the listening ear. Without silence between notes, there would be no music.”

Listening to music, too, can be a way of slowing down and connecting at a deep level. Mindfulness coach Patrick Groneman says,

[M]usic touches the qualities of our experience that are otherwise beyond words. Wisdom, insight, love, fear and joy can all be communicated through subtle textures and vibrations of the musical palette.…listening can be an act of empathy….. Music can also be a mirror to help us better understand our own inner-world of thoughts, emotions and feelings. Vague inner-textures can find clarity of shape, catharsis and release through the teaching that is always available in music…— listening can be healing.[v]

I remember a time in my life that I listened to music with my whole self, in the years just after my father died. I was an undergraduate living at the River City Housing Co-op, and every so often I would shut the door to my room and spend a few hours with Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony and Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?” albums. Sometimes moving to the music, sometimes motionless—I guess according to the mindfulness coach, I was unintentionally self-medicating my grief and sorrow. Some time later, I used to put Dan Fogelberg’s “Home Free” album on the record player before I went to sleep, and then turn it on first thing when I woke up, so I could lay in bed listening to “To the Morning.” It lifted me up. I’ll bet there are a lot of stories among us similar to this, of the empathetic, cathartic effects of deeply listening to music. If you’re like me, you don’t often slow down and take the time to do it with our full attention. It’s in the background as we work, or on the radio as we drive. Well, here’s our chance—I invite you to sit as before, feet on the floor, hands resting on your lap, back straight… Breathing slowly, close your eyes or lower your gaze…. Listen to the music. [music plays] Now bring your feet on the ground, your hands in your lap. On your next exhale, gently open your eyes.

Silence, music, words. What about slowing down to listen to other people, those who are close to us, those who are really “other” others? Quaker educator and author Parker Palmer has developed methods of group listening, called “circle of trust”—distinct from group discussions—that I learned while in seminary, and have the great good fortune to be able to practice in two groups now: one a “Peer Discernment Circle” with folks at the same stage of ministry, and the other, a much more simplified version of Palmer’s “circle of trust” method is the “Continuing Conversations” hosted by the Race Unity group of Carbondale, held every Tuesday evening. The format is simple, but it takes some getting used to: each person gets to tell their story, or reflect on the evening’s topic, or if they choose to, to stay quiet. There is no interruption allowed. The circle of trust guideline is: “No fixing, saving, advising or correcting each other. This is one of the hardest guidelines for those of us who make a habit of helping others. But it is vital to welcoming the soul, to making space for the inner teacher.[vi]

So there is no follow up or questioning of the speaker, we simply go to the next person and they say their piece. Each person shares just once, or if time allows, twice. This method encourages deep listening, because you’re not in a back-and-forth, scoring points discussion. Break time is when folks have the chance to have one-on-one conversations, following up on what was said in the larger circle. Knowing that your story is not going to be challenged, but will be listened to helps form trust and respect across differences of race and generation.

As an external processor, when I first encountered this method of communicating, I found it frustrating and restrictive. Now I value it greatly—it helps me slow down and listen to not only to what the speaker is saying, but the underlying emotion and unspoken messages. Many times, listening in this way has helped me to hear my own thoughts more clearly, too. Everyone is welcome to these Continuing Conversations about and beyond race.

Come to think of it, several of our Committees here at CUF practice this kind of listening—albeit briefly—when we do “check-ins” – each person shares what is on their mind, or in their heart, bringing themselves into a circle of listening, acceptance and trust. There is another opportunity for us here at CUF to practice this method, in the theme-based Covenant Groups that we plan to re-establish this Fall. Every group member will have the space and time to speak or stay silent, all will have the opportunity to deeply listen to each other, and themselves. This is the core of individual spiritual development and also of building relationships, the essence of all of our UU principles. Really listening, we can discern the worth and dignity of people we might otherwise disparage; really listening feeds our impulse to justice, equity and compassion in human relations; really listening connects us to the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Richard Gilbert’s reflection on listening ends with this poem:

Listen! Listen to what others have to say.
There is wisdom in all you meet.
Listen to the sounds of nature.
It speaks and sings and makes music
For those who pay attention.
Listen! Listen to the impulses of your spirit.
Take time to hear your inner yearnings,
That still, small voice drowned in the raucous shout.
Listen! This is a noisy world.
Perhaps, this year, we will listen[vii].

May it be so. Amen.

[i] Gilbert, Richard S. “Listening” http://www.uua.org/worship/words/reflection/118484.shtml accessed 8/4/16.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Stoop, Naoko, 2012. Red Knit Cap Girl. New York/Boston: Little, Brown and Company. np.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/patrick-groneman/mindfulness-practice_b_3894331.html accessed 8/12/16.

[vi] http://www.couragerenewal.org/touchstones/ accessed 8/12/16.

[vii] Op Cit, Gilbert.