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Deep Listening

Updated: Sep 19



Deep listening. It is an evocative term, conjuring a sense of profound and reverent attentiveness to what lies beneath the surface. A simultaneous reaching out and receptivity from the belly of being; alert for the scent of what is behind, below, above, between the words spoken. Listening as a spiritual discipline. Listening to gesture, breath and tone. Listening to rhythm and to mountain, to wind and to weeping. Listening to stars and grass and street protests, to hunger and to grace. To passion and to grieving and to laughter. Listening for the "sound familiar" within a stranger’s voice. When I was training in medicine we learned to attune our diagnostic ear to the inner chambers of the heart, to perceive the subtlest rumble or rub, to describe and even imitate the whisper-soft murmurs and whooshes of the body’s coded language. At first it was an exercise in frustration, but then somehow, with patience and persistence, a new ear was opened, one that was able to decipher the code. When my acupuncturist places her fingers on my wrist to read my pulses, it always seems more like a listening than a touch... as if there are special ears in each of her fingertips that hear the quality of chi the way I used to listen to the character of my patients' heartbeat. Now I strive to listen with the same acuity to the hearts of those who come to me for counseling and prayer; attend to the diagnostic murmurs and rumbles of an often broken-hearted world. And at the same time, I seek to hone my listening to discern the hum of divine connectivity — “that of God” — within all of Life. I must learn to place my careful fingers so tenderly on the pulsebeat of Being that I may sense even the rustling portents of it’s dreaming. This is listening with the mystic’s ear, the ear that knows the hearer and that which is heard are one and the same, are one with that infinite creative Is-ness that imagined them both into expression. To listen from this place requires the cultivation of Silence. As theologian Dorothee Soelle described it, “the silence of the mouth, the silence of the mind, the silence of the will.”[1] It is through this practice, and through the intention of spiritual availability, that the “third ear” begins to open. Here is the spaciousness to listen deeply, to offer the fullness of our attentive presence in service to the revelation of another’s wholeness. I believe this is true not only in our personal encounters, but through our reverent listening to the world — to Earth herself, and to the voices of her many children. To listen with the deepest parts of ourselves to what is deepest in Life. In this place is the ability to move from the stagnation of dualism into an ever-fluid reciprocal dance of paradox. Expanding the boundaries of my understanding to encompass the both/and of the human condition fosters compassion and humility, lets me get up off my judgment and come more quickly to forgiveness. When I remember that each of us is both a glorious emanation of the Divine and a bundle of stumbling imperfection, I can be more patient with the process of our individual and collective becoming. In mystic Judaism the rebbes teach to find and bless the divine spark in every person, “for by seeing the goodness and pureness in others, even when they are unable to see it in themselves, we open a space for them to become who they are truly meant to be. Our compassion has the power to heal and lift them up.”[2] My friend Rev. Deborah Johnson has pointed out that unconditional love doesn’t mean you don’t have conditions, but that you keep loving beyond the conditions when the other person fails to meet them. We can make a spiritual commitment to “keep open the door of our hearts,” as Howard Thurman poetically advised. To love as a sacred discipline. In a paradigm of oneness, our forgiveness not only heals and liberates us, it transforms the collective heart. And if there is more love, more heart-openness in the collective, there will be less tolerance for injustice, less tolerance for violence and domination. [1] Dorothee Soelle, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance. Fortress Press, 2001, 74. [2] Estelle Frankel, “Sweetening the Judgments,” Parabola, vol. 28, no. 1, Feb 2003, 21.

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(photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash)

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