This blog post is one of quotes and comments. With fascinating bits of scientific research results, combined with illustrations by Amy Schnapper that gently lead the mind beyond the verbal realm, Kay Lindahl, founder of The Listening Center, distills the wisdom of long experience of study, practice, and leadership in her The Sacred Art of Listening: Forty Lessons for Cultivating a Spiritual Practice—published by Skylight Paths. Listening is also about conversation and spirituality.
This is a book that I recommend. Although it is not all at the level of the gems presented here, it has a lot to offer. Please do not assume that all that I find highly beneficial is quoted below. Each lesson is exquisitely illustrated (I took real time only for the first one, which I found deeply and beneficially engaging—and all the illustrations are variations on the same basic idea). Lindahl compares listening to hospitality. She writes insightfully about focus, mindfulness, and change. She recommends the golden rule and regards humankind as brothers and sisters in a global family; and she is gentle about her language that refers to the Source or God. I have quoted nothing of these discussions among my excerpts here. And she seasons her teachings with many stories of herself and others that are not included here.
The first entry is full of insight.
“Perhaps one of the most precious and powerful gifts we can give another person is to really listen to them, to listen with quiet, fascinated attention, with our whole being, fully present. . . . Listening is a creative force. Something quite wonderful occurs when we are listened to fully. We expand, ideas come to life and grow, we remember who we are. [Then there is a sentence that leads me to wonder about the role that indwelling spirit in each conversation partner plays in this interpersonal process.]
“. . . . The way we listen can actually allow the other person to bring forth what is true and alive to them. . . . Some people seem to need to talk. They go on and on, usually in a very superficial, nervous manner. This is often because they have not been truly listened to. Patience is required to listen to such a person long enough for them to get to their center point of tranquility and peace. The results of such listening are extraordinary. . . .
“Listening well takes time, skill, and a readiness to slow down, to let go of expectations, judgments, boredom, self-assertiveness, defensiveness. I’ve noticed that when people experience the depth of being listened to like this, they also begin to listen to others in the same way.
“Listening is an art that calls for practice. . . .” (11-12)
Lindahl observes how nervous most people get when silence falls in a conversation after ten to fifteen seconds. Silence “can alter our perceptions and ability to see what is happening. It can give clarity . . . . One way to practice silence is to get centered within yourself. Take a few deep breaths before speaking. Ask what wants to be said next. . . . We are used to being present in our heads, our minds, our intellect, so the innermost self may take a while to surface. Take the time. (17-18)
“All too often, we just brace ourselves for the next wave, rather than enjoy or be present with the one just passing by.” (20)
Here’s a story that I couldn’t resist inserting. “Recently I heard about a culture that has no crime. When someone does something disruptive to others, the whole village gathers in a circle. The offending person sits in the center, and each person in turn shares what they appreciate about him or her, their good deeds, their personal qualities. Then everyone goes back to work. Nothing more is said about the disruptive behavior. The results is a culture without crime.” (34)
Lindahl sometimes seems to use the words “heart” and “soul” as synonyms. (I regard the heart as the person’s motivational center, their more or less integrated cluster of attachments to the values that they actualize by their choices.)
Risk-taking. Not my favorite topic. “Listening from the heart allows for silence and reflection. Conversation slows down and there is time to relax and feel a sense of peace.” If we express ourselves openly, we risk others’ disapproval. But “the rewards of taking that risk are extraordinary. First, I experience the wonderful feeling of fully expressing my true self. Then I feel the intimacy and sense of relatedness with another.” “When I practice this sacred art [of listening] . . . I find myself appreciating other points of view rather than being suspicious of them. I find others opening up to me in different ways. I feel more connected.” (41-42)
We’re hearing a lot about safe space these days, and how reasonable concern can be both trampled on and exaggerated. I find Lindahl’s words mature. “What defines a safe space? . . . When I think I might be confronted about something or if I have to make a controversial decision, I will usually be busy planning my response instead of listening to the issue as it is presented. This changes if I know that there are guidelines for the conversation—that it’s not going to be a free-for-all. . . . One of the first steps in creating safe space is finding a common commitment [or goal]. . . . Commitment, respect, and love make me feel safe to talk. . . . Offer the opportunity for each person to say whatever he or she needs to in order to be present. Risk begin vulnerable to deepen the possibility for connection. The trust that is generated from this process becomes a foundation for the rest of the conversation.” (44-46)
Watch out for the ethical challenge here (smile)! A Quaker saying: “It is a sin to speak, if you’re not moved to speak. It is also a sin to not to speak, if you’re moved to speak.” (56)
Here’s great hope for a dawning spiritual renaissance. “A recent survey, using the PsychoMatrix Spirituality Inventory, points to a deep interest and need for people to talk about the crucial issues concerning the meaning of life and the nature of death. These conversations call for small group settings or circles in which people share their stories. Listening deeply to Source, self, and others is at the heart of this need. An undercurrent of sacred experience appears to be ready to surface.” (60)
I read the next quote as a complementing from today’s sometimes unreflective emphasis on diversity of types by a balancing emphasis on uniqueness of individual personalities. In this sentence she says “particular.” On the next page, she writes “unique.” Diversity consciousness is about sociological categories. Relationship is something different. Lindahl calls us “to find ways to honor and respect our differences through hearing the nuances in each particular voice.” (65)
I love thinking about times like this. “Think about a time when someone was truly listening to you, not just figuring out what to say next, wishing you would hurry up, or mentally reviewing a to-do list. He or she was just there, listening to you. Time stood still. A sense of the sacred was present. You felt understood, refreshed, whole, connected. . . .
“In my listening workshops I often present an exercise in which each person has the opportunity to respond to a different question. The instructions are to repeat the question and then reflect for at least twenty to thirty seconds before speaking. On one occasion, a participant reported that he had an answer immediately, so he was sure he’d spend the rest of the time counting up to thirty. During the silence, however, he noticed that he continued to ask himself the question and looked deeper inside for a response. In the end, he was surprised at what he found himself saying. His was a profound experience, which he described as “speaking from his soul.” . . . . It is important to slow down our thinking process, take time to reflect, listen to the still, small voice at the essence of our being, and open up the possibility of understanding. It not only takes time to listen like this, it takes practice to remember to do so. The blessing comes in feeling profoundly related to others, especially those whose beliefs are different from our own.”(68-70)
It is common to hear warnings that we should not to make assumptions. But we cannot help making some assumptions. Here Lindahl specifies the warning in a very helpful and clear way. “We are making assumptions when we take for granted that we already know what the speaker is talking about or what the other person is going to say. The result is that we stop listening to understand and begin listening to our own internal conversation about what we imagine is being said. Another clue that an assumption is getting in the way of our listening is when we have an emotional response to what is being said. . . . (74)
Listening enables us to question insightfully. Here’s a dramatic change of attitude that was triggered by a couple of positively oriented questions. “In my conversations I like to ask people meaningful questions . . . . One day a friend and I were talking about a community project she was working on. Nothing was going right. All she could see were problems. As I listened I began to hear that underneath her complaints was a deep passion for making a difference in her community. So rather than focus on solving her problems, I said, “How did you get involved in this project? What was it that appealed to you? Tell me about your hopes and dreams for this community. As she responded to these questions she began to find new possibilities for taking action, and her original enthusiasm and excitement were re-ignited.” (77-78)
Here’s a somewhat embarrassing description of my own listening, put in scientific terms. It affects my spiritual communion as it does my being with others. “According to the International Listening Association, research studies indicate that we spend about 45 percent of our time listening, but we are distracted, preoccupied, or forgetful about 75 percent of that time. The average attention span for adults is twenty-two seconds. Immediately after listening to someone talk, we usually recall only about half of what we heard. Within a few hours we remember about 20 percent of what we’ve heard. Less than 5 percent of us have had any training in listening skills. As a manager of a large business said once, “I have always prepared myself to speak. But I have never prepared myself to listen.” (89) Now I’m minded to prepare myself to listen to the spirit.
Here’s a quote from one of my all-time favorite spiritual poets. “The Sufi poet Hafiz offers this wisdom: ‘How do I listen to others? As if everyone were my Master speaking to me.’” (90)
I find it excellent that Lindahl observes that sometimes people can be together while each is at the same time in solitude. “Solitude is about being with myself—alone. Solitude gives me a sense of quietness and peace, a feeling of stillness and joy in my heart. It is from this place of listening in silence that I start to recognize the voice of God. The more I listen, the more I trust that voice. I begin to know myself in the process. I am inspired to action.” (107)
Researchers “asked teachers to wait at least seven second [after asking a question] before calling on someone. What the teachers and administrators discovered was that the students who rarely raised their hands began to do so, and the quality and depth of each response increased noticeably.” (110)
At last, I am becoming less interested in the intellectual side of life and more interested in the relational dimension. I find that just remembering the word wisdom helps me exit the mind as my home base as I enter the true self, the deeper self, the soul. “As you practice reflection, notice that what you want to say (the ego) matters less than what wants to be said (the soul). . . . Rainer Maria Rilke’s advice to the young poet was “Live the question now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some day into the answer.” (112)
Lindahl shares the story of how she grew tolerant of her daughter after the daughter joined a fundamentalist Christian group. She learned to listen openly. “And when I translate what I say into her experience, language that she understands, we find our common ground. It’s like being an interpreter of a foreign language.” (118)
Now I understand how easy it is to interrupt someone. “My mind always seems to be way ahead of the speaker. This is not surprising, since the average person speaks at the rate of 120 to 150 words per minute, but our brains can process more than 500 words per minute.” (119)
My last selection makes me think of the father in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. “Each person learns at his or her own pace and desire. Until a person is ready, what we can do is listen from our own hearts, with no expectation that he or she will then listen to us in return. . . . Marriage experts explain that the worst thing we can do to our partner in conversation is to try to solve all of his or her problems . . . . We demonstrate that we care when we are content to just listen. The quality of our listening does more to impact the relationship than anything we can do or say. . . . A mutually enriching conversation, a true dialogue, is more about “being”—being oneself and being present with another, being open to some new understanding—than it is about “doing it right.” (125-26).
Thank you very much Kay Lindahl, for your decades of devoted living so generously and helpfully expressed for us! May your career in time and eternity continue to flourish!