I was recently asked to speak at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fargo-Moorhead on the topic of Listening. Enjoy!
In the Benedictine tradition, those who practice follow the guidelines of the Rule of Benedict, the main religious text that is used for the daily life of work and worship. The first words of that text are important and very telling- the very first word is Listen. When Mother Theresa was asked what she said during her prayers she said, “I Listen.” and when asked what does God say to you? She said “He listens.”
Many faith traditions emphasize the importance of listening- to God, to one’s Self, to one’s heart. But how often do we actually do it? How often do we really sit still and just listen?
Most of us really only need a few basic things in this life- food, water, shelter, sunshine- and of course love. When those basic needs are met, we can be content, even happy. Tied up in that love I think is a desire, even a need, to be listened to- to be heard. In my work with suicide prevention I have seen and experienced firsthand this basic need. I lost my older sister to suicide almost 11 years ago and I still to this day, have a desire and a need to tell my story. I have found that many families and loved ones left behind after a suicide need the same thing- to be listened to. By telling our stories, over and over again, we can find a better understanding and a sense of peace. It is only when we tell our stories that we begin to see how much we are alike. We see it very clearly right now across our nation and in our smaller communities- the Black Lives Matter movement is exactly that- a group of people who want and need to be heard.
For many years, I made my living as a singer/songwriter. I traveled around the country, playing in bars, coffee shops, on college campuses and in theaters. I experienced night after night both being listened to as well as being a listener myself. I have found that when you sing for others, it’s as much about performing the songs as it is about listening to those you are playing for. Paying attention to people’s facial expressions, their body language and the overall energy of a room is a huge part of the experience. I also found that more often than not when I left the stage, there were people who wanted, sometimes needed, to share their stories with me. It’s almost as if the music- and I don’t mean only my music- opens up a safe space for people to make their own voices heard.
I found that same sort of presence and attention when I began to practice yoga over 15 years ago. I was drawn to the practice not only for the physical benefits but for how it made me feel on a deeper, more subtle level. It allowed me to slow down my mind. It allowed me to move into a space where I could feel safe and calmed by the beauty of ritual. I discovered the power of my breath and the ability to connect to it in a new and profound way. When I practice yoga, I often use what’s called “ujjayi pranayama” which can be translated as “victorious breathe”. It is usually a deeper, more powerful breath that moves in and out through the nose and creates an audible sound. It helps to create an environment for greater attention and focus.
Our world is not one for listening. Everything around us tells us that it’s not important- not even necessary. I believe, especially now that I’m a mom, that there’s nothing more important. Young people, who are so connected all of the time, think that texting is more important than making eye contact. It’s important to remember that we are listening creatures- we crave connection and we also crave silence. It’s our responsibility, as parents, leaders and friends, to teach and to show by example how to be in the world, to be engaged in it, and still be listening.
But how do we do that? How do we create space in our lives for silence, reflection and ritual?
We must first decide that it’s important to us- if we don’t have that we probably won’t get very far. We can work to make space in our homes and lives for a practice of listening to happen. We know it is much harder to listen and feel calm when the spaces we inhabit feel chaotic- so we must find a room (or even a corner of a room), that is kept clean and uncluttered, in order for us to do this work more effectively. We can also create a more open dialogue with our partners or spouses so that we feel supported and encouraged.
Challenge yourself to listen more deeply in your daily life. Disconnect from technology on a regular, if not daily, basis. Spend more time outside and in nature. When you get home from work, look your partner in the eyes and ask how their day was. Then, and here’s the hard part, actually listen to what they have to say. As it becomes more natural, begin to practice deeper listening with your children and other family members. My daughter Ruby is 4 years old and there is nothing she wants more than to be heard. The same is true for my 86 year old father, who suffers from Alzheimers and seems to want nothing more than to tell the story of his childhood over and over again. It is my job, as mother and daughter, to listen better.
As David Isay (I-say), the founder of Story Corps says, “Listening is an act of love- it’s so much more than being quiet while the other person speaks.”
In conclusion, I encourage all of you to allow the act of listening, the act of paying attention, to be a spiritual practice in and of itself. But give yourself time. Be patient and gentle with your loved ones as well as with yourself as we all learn to be better listeners.
owner, ecce yoga