In hearing or reading about how we as a nation talk to each other---how little we listen and learn---I was brought back to a blog entry I wrote in 2009 after the Fourth of July parade about listening. I wrote about listening in the context of "focusing" a kind of meditation that I fitfully practice. But "listening" is also central in the writing of another author that I "listen" to: James P. Carse and particularly his book, The Silence of God. I have written about Carse before.
This book is the best thing I have ever read on prayer, on faith, and on the power of listening and being heard.
At any event, I thought I would run the entry again because it captures so great a weakness that I suffer and should, above all else, seek to remedy. It is the principal spiritual challenge I face.
Yesterday, on the Fourth here in Bisbee, we had a large crowd at our house, watching the parade, eating, and talking. It was a fun day all around and the fireworks last night were spectacular.
Our house is on the parade route in Warren, one part of Bisbee. When we lived here for 10 years before we lived in "Old Town" or old Bisbee up the road and on the canyon walls.
Part of the time during the parade I spent some time talking with an old friend who has lived in Mexico for a long time and I was asking her about her thoughts on whether and how I should proceed with my Spanish.
In the middle of this conversation a young couple came in who were volunteering in the Bisbee area, gathering signatures for the single payer option (Medicare for All) and also working as volunteers on the border. The couple had been invited in by some of our friends in the yard who knew them. They had recently come from Atlanta where the wife had earned a master's in nursing at Emory.
Of course when they mentioned health care reform, I was off to the races again, pontificating about my own experiences and great wisdom in these matters. It was quite a performance: me talk, you listen, and they were polite, pleasant and altogether too willing to let an old timer have his say. And somehow later, when I was kicking myself for going on again, one more time, an experience I had gone through several years back came to mind, an experience that taught me a new way of looking at listening.
I practice "focusing," a method of meditation developed by the psychologist Eugene Gendlin at the University of Chicago over a number of years and outlined in his book Focusing in 1978. Focusing is sitting quietly with a problem, waiting for a felt bodily sense of unease that, if we allow it to happen, can turn into a word and even more. The trick is to let the body and the brain lead us to an awareness that is already present in our body but one which we have not been touch with.
But there is another side to focusing and that is listening. Focusers work in pairs and the listener or the trainer is required to listen acutely or fully. Focusing with a listener is not required, however, but it is helpful. In truth, sitting quietly and waiting for a felt sensation is also a profound kind of listening.
I had mentioned in one session to my trainer that when I listen "fully" I tend to feel like I drop out of view and I resist it. My trainer (in North Carolina) reminded of my remark and tied it to my desire to be more present to Carole each day. My trainer suggested that we focus on this fear of fully listening in my life.
I thought we were going back to pick up a cold trail, but I had come to trust her instincts and I quickly said that my fear of listening was probably linked to my vanity, a vanity in striving to keep my concerns always front and center in any setting or relationship. Yet when I focused something unexpected and revealing turned up.
When I focused on the bodily sense surrounding this vague and unnamed fear, I quickly noted that the fear was manifested by a felt sense of a 'lump' or 'fist' or 'deadness' at the center of my stomach, a lump of frozen flesh that seemed to be tied to the listening itself and not anything specific about Carole or about my need to be the center of attention.
In focusing further I gradually became aware that listening intently in any situation set off a fear of losing myself, triggered a fear that by listening so completely I might go up in smoke. In giving myself over I would give myself up. Yet in physically grounding my fear I discovered a felt shift of ease, a 'soft awareness' that I was present when I listened fully.
My trainer, in reprising the session, noted that she said that she had found that my fear of intently listening as a kind of trap door that threatens to drop me out of sight (I had put it this way before focusing) was not her experience at all.
Instead, the opposite was the case.
She said that when she truly and openly listened, she came alive, much more so than at any other time. She has found that by truly listening, instead of our selves dropping away, we drop in on ourselves, into our truer and deeper self, a larger self that is not so defended.
This is an amazing insight, a bringing to the surface of another one of those false dichotomies that we (I) live with. I had caught a glimpse of that larger awareness in my own focusing sessions. I had believed, falsely, that if I give someone my undivided attention then I will drop out of sight if not out of existence altogether. But the truth is that when I listen totally, to myself or to others, I drop into existence.
I tend to forget this wonderful truth, a truth I need to remember and remember again.
One final point. Listening is an ubiquitous activity in all of our lives, one that few of us do very well. We listen with divided attention.
But Focusing would have us change this, by encouraging us to listen not only because those whom we listen to deserve this kind of attention but also because we ourselves deserve this kind of attention.
In Buddhism you meditate regularly, religiously, to gain enlightenment and meditation is, for most of us, a very rare experience. But in Focusing you take a ubiquitous activity like listening and you learn to do it well and with great intention and in the listening you find yourself by attending to what is actually being said by another. This intentional attending is itself a kind of meditation.
That's a rather interesting difference between two approaches that share a faith in disciplined efforts to awaken ourselves from our daily sleepwalking with fuller awareness and attention.
So maybe the next time someone brings up health care reform I will shut up and give them my undivided attention and find myself sitting in Bisbee having a wonderful time instead of dreaming of a long-gone world that will never be back.