Dear Listener,

The meme above was given to us by Susan E. It arrives at an interesting time as I am involved in an ongoing conversation with a dear companion and our favorite topic is: serving others. This past week I was sharing that for me, that listen is basic; listening is primary. I have come to understand listening in this way: listening is the root of service to self and others.

My companion’s concern is focused directly on relieving the suffering he sees around him. His instinct is to pray and prayer is what he has spent years refining. Except for the use of two different words -listening, praying – the heart of our experience is the same: we desire to be of service because there is such suffering in the world. Both of us feel this a an undeniable calling.

Yet there is something in our ongoing, open ended, exploration that still provokes me. I don’t know exactly what it is, but it leaves me uncomfortable. And the quotation in the meme above has touched on this mystery, this provocation where prayer and listening pivot around each other in my heart.  Hanh shares, “We listen with the willingness to relieve the suffering of the other person…”

For my companion, this is the heart of why he turns to prayer. It’s direct, his inclination. Someone says they’re suffering from this, that, or the other thing and my friend doesn’t hesitate to ask, “Can I pray for you?” and if they say yes, he goes for it. On the spot, whether in the produce department of the grocery store or on the docks at the harbor or in a text message on his phone, he speaks out loud a spontaneous prayer requesting relief from their suffering. 

It is possible that what has felt provocative to me is my own confusion around what desiring relief from suffering implies. In our practice, we find that letting go of outcome is integral to listening. My heart breaks when I witness the suffering of others around me. Of course my heart desires relief of the suffering I witness. And yet I am committed within myself to watch my desire for a particular outcome. The way it seems to me, ‘my desire for outcome’ can disrupt my ability to stay present with another.

But maybe that it is. I say ‘maybe’ because this feels delicate and un-sum-up-able. Hanh says that we listen with the willingness… 

I have witnessed, as you have witnessed, that moment of relief of suffering during a time of listening, one human being to another human being. The circumstances of the person we are listening to may not change in the slightest. And yet, in a moment of being present, of actually being in contact with one another and not running away from the suffering, relief from it – even if only for a second – is palpable.

Maybe there comes a point that the only thing we have is the question. Maybe what feels provocative to me in the back-n-forth (and beautiful) discussion my friend and I have over serving through listening and serving through intercessory prayer… maybe they pivot around one another but are distinct callings with different bents. So often, when he and I share, I sense that what we are talking about would be identical… except for… except for… except for… my own understanding (egads, perhaps it is my own misunderstanding) that prayer moves in the direction preferring an outcome: relief from suffering.

In the lightest possible way, again in a way that I am reluctant to pin down or define, I can tell you this: Hanh’s pointer about compassionate listening does open my own sight. I have experienced this mystery of listening with willingness to relieve suffering while at the same time letting go of outcome. I haven’t brought this up with my companion yet, but I would not be surprised if he said he prays with the exact same intention. 

That uncomfortable pivot point where I experience a difference between listening and prayer softens in the light of Thich Nhat Hanh’s description of compassionate listening. 

with all the attention I have at this moment, I thank you for acting on the call to serve and for serving in the manner in which you are called,