This week I am reminded of something one of our volunteers said many years ago. We were holding our monthly volunteers’ meeting, sharing our recent listening experiences, and practicing. Long time volunteer, Susan E., and her listening partner – forgive me, I have forgotten who this was, if it was you please let me know – shared of how they had been profoundly affected by a guest. Astounded, Susan tried to share with us what had transpired. Sitting in the circle of volunteers, body leaning forward, elbows on knees and hands held out as if to make an offering, she admitted that no matter how long she had been listening, she could still be surprised by a guest and left bewildered, How could listening still feel so new? After so many years of practice, how could I not know how to do this?
I have paraphrased the line above. This memory lives within me and has become one of my listening myths (by myth I mean sacred story, of course). The feeling of not knowing how to do this holds a kind of sweet purity, an innocence, that paradoxically comes only after extended devotion.
As an organization we have been practicing listening for close to 11 years and a good handful of us have been there from the beginning. On average, our volunteers have close to 5 years of service under their belts. If we think back on the very first shift any of us took at the LP, there was probably a level of anxiousness or discomfort over imagining we didn’t know how to do this… this thing called listening. We wanted to listen and we wanted to listen well.
What we didn’t know on that very first day was that… there is nothing to know and no way we could know in advance what we will be exposed to as listeners. We can’t know what will be required of us ahead of time. And living with that, practicing that – practicing not knowing (or, if you prefer letting go of outcome) – is integral to being present and deeply listening.
When Susan shared being undone in a moment of deep listening, the truth of being confounded by what can never be known… touched our whole group. There is an enigmatic knowing in our not knowing. We can’t practice what we don’t know, but we can be open. We can be welcoming. We can simply be okay with being bewildered. It is, in some way, the path of devotion.
You may not consider yourself devout. But if you take shift after shift at the LP, if you do this thing that can never fully be known, and do it will a compelling commitment, you can consider yourself devout. I do.
The poem below, Love, by Czeslaw Milosz, feels appropriate today (click here for a recording of this short sweet poem).
all our gratitude,
Avie & Marcia
Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills.
A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.
Then he wants to use himself and things
So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.
It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:
Who serves best doesn’t always understand.
~ Czeslaw Milosz ~
(New & Collected Poems 1931-2001)