I wasn’t able to write to you last week and I missed it, I felt its absence, and I missed you all. Writing these letters is part of my own listening practice and I felt like I missed an LP shift. How does it strike you when you aren’t able to serve? It can be poignant to not serve once you have felt that inner calling.
So as I sit down to write to you today, what comes in this moment is: I don’t know where these letters come from. I sit down most weeks to write a letter in support of listening and those who practice it. What I don’t do is sit down and tell you what I know. I don’t know anything about listening.
I mean that in a very specific way, in a way that bends language and begs for myth and metaphor to be the respected means of delivering what otherwise can’t be said without limiting it or inadvertently putting unfortunate and restrictive boundaries around it.
Let’s try something, you tell me what you know about listening. I’ll start by throwing a few guesses out there (please respond to this letter with yours): it’s good, listening is good. What else? It is a loving way of being present with another. It can be challenging. It can be rewarding. It calls me out and asks me to grow up. It is joyful, or can be, even when the one with whom we are listening is saddled with suffering.
Okay, now we’re entering some of the mystery. Said in mixed company, metaphorically the company of those who haven’t yet seen the value of ‘just listening,’ to remark that there can be joy even in the face of suffering just doesn’t compute for some folks. Like we’re somehow taking joy in another’s pain – which couldn’t be farther from the truth. Listening often leaves our hearts broken and raw and in shock of what we each bear up under in any given moment. And yet at our meetings this is something that comes up regularly – listening, being in actual contact with another human being, is joyful for both listener and guest.
Listening is joyful even when the other or ourselves are in the throes of suffering. The joy of listening is not dependent on what or who we are listening to.
What do you know about listening? I suppose, by default, we have been asking ourselves that question every time we sit and listen to another. We know that you can practice all you want… but you still won’t know in advance what will be asked of you to bear when you make yourself available to another human being as their listener.
This is partly why I chime with the refrain: I don’t know what listening is, I don’t know where these letters come from. Listening strikes me as so basic, so essential, that it actually boggles my mind to define it. Listening, is mind boggling. When the mind is boggled… something else happens to the heart (oh dear I hate to put words on it, again for fear of limiting it, but when the mind is boggled the heart blooms. And I’m not telling you what to feel, I trust you understand).
Going on what we’ve been witnessing for these years of service, just about the only thing that can be said is: Listening is essential. What I mean is that listening is an orientation that comes from, or exists at, a level that can’t be broken down any further. Want to take listening even deeper and you’ll discover that… you are listening. You aren’t don’t something more basic. Listening is at the base. Listening is an essential element of human connection and health.
This mystery, the elemental or essential quality of listening, is compelling to me today. I suppose, if I’m honest, it is compelling to me most days, but as I sit to write to you – and I think about all the letters I’ve already written to you – I’m touched in particular by how listening is both basic and yet limitless. In the way that listening has shown itself to be countercultural, that it is basic might explain why so many step right over it without giving any time to the act of listening. In our culture of ‘more’ and of expertise and of mastery, who wants to focus on the basics? Our society acts as if the basics are beneath us.
To use a bit of logic here, logic used strategically against logic, without a base there’d be nothing to stand on. Listening is beneath us. It is what is holding us up.
There seems to be no end of sharing this sacred art of listening. In 11 years we haven’t exhausted it yet. It, listening, has the opposite effect: it transforms and expands us. It is multifaceted and yet ever and only itself. Basic and limitless. That still doesn’t tell anyone what listening is but that is the best that I can do within the limits of language.
Of course, I’ll do my best again next week with yet another letter on this limitless essence we’ve committed ourselves to practicing.
with gratitude and joy indescribable,