Kay Lindahl, CLP
Spiritual listening is at the heart of all relationships. It is what we experience when we become a quiet, safe container into which the speaker is able to express his or her most genuine voice. There is a communion of souls. The way we listen to each other sets a tone for everything that follows. We often think that our speaking, the words we use, is the most important part of our communication. Yet it is the quality of our listening that has the greatest impact in any conversation. Quaker writer Douglas Steere says: “To listen another’s soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery may be almost the greatest service one human being ever performs for another.”i
What makes listening spiritual? It is the art of becoming a listening presence, a way of being in which stillness and attentiveness provide the space for people to speak authentically and know they are being heard. It is from this place that we can listen across diverse backgrounds, cultures, religions and belief systems. It is about being a presence for understanding rather than for judging. When we are open, curious, and attentive to others in this way we discover a deeper, sacred connection; we are in relationship.
Spiritual listening leads to new understanding as we connect to each other at the heart level and discover common ground and new possibilities. To listen without judgment, open, expectant, eager to hear, we cannot be thinking about our response, or what we are going to do next. We must learn to become a listening presence for what wants to emerge.
Hospitality is another element of spiritual listening. In the words of Roman Catholic priest Henri Nouwen: “Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings. The beauty of listening is that, those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you.”ii
Spiritual listening is a non-linear experience. When we go down deep we get to something like the tap root. There is a sense of oneness there, unity without duality. We enter into the space with our full selves, hearts, minds, bodies, souls. We begin to remember who we are.
Access to this space comes through the practice of silence and stillness. Spiritual masters of all religions teach the value of stilling the mind and centering the heart. It is from this space that we become witnesses for each other’s deepest hopes and dreams, yearnings and sorrows; our souls connect.
Becoming comfortable with silence is not easy in modern society. We live in a world of noise, constant stimulation and 24/7 contact with what is happening anywhere on the planet. We unconsciously avoid silence and become anxious when there is no noise; yet there is a richness to silence.
Science is proving the value of stillness in our lives as well. New research indicates that silence releases tension in the brain and in the body. Two minutes of silence are more relaxing than two minutes of relaxing music, reported in the Journal Heart. In a 2013 study on the impact of noise on the brain published in Brain, Structure and Function, it was discovered that with two hours of silence a day, control rats developed new cells in the hippocampus, the center for emotion, memory and learning. Silence can grow our brains! The more comfortable we become with silence it shifts from something empty, lonely and to be avoided to something rich, filled with life and yearned for.
Following is an extract from the message of His Holiness Pope Francis on the occasion of the 50th World Communication Day celebrated on the 8th May 2016.
“Listening is much more than simply hearing. Hearing is about receiving information, while listening is about communication, and calls for closeness. Listening allows us to get things right, and not simply to be passive onlookers, users or consumers. Listening also means being able to share questions and doubts, to journey side by side, to banish all claims to absolute power and to put our abilities and gifts at the service of the common good.
Listening is never easy. Many times it is easier to play deaf. Listening means paying attention, wanting to understand, to value, to respect and to ponder what the other person says. It involves a sort of martyrdom or self-sacrifice, as we try to imitate Moses before the burning bush: we have to remove our sandals when standing on the “holy ground” of our encounter with the one who speaks to me (cf. Ex 3:5). Knowing how to listen is an immense grace, it is a gift which we need to ask for and then make every effort to practice. “
Spiritual listening embodies all of our senses as we offer ourselves to another freely and without expectation, providing the opening for deep communion. It is an exchange from the deepest level of our humanity, we feel at home with one another, resting in the grace and peace of our relationship.
i Douglas Steere, Gleanings: A Random Harvest (Nashville, Tenn.: Upper Room Books, 1986) 83.
iiHenri Nouwen, Listening as Spiritual Hospitality, Henri Nouwen Society website, March 11, 2016.