The Spirituality of Listening

The Spirituality of Listening

What is the relationship of spirituality to listening? How does this relationship fit into our understanding of communication? Why is it important?
For over twenty-two years, the premise of my work has been that listening is a sacred art and a spiritual practice. Even though historically these terms have most frequently been ascribed to religion, doctrine, and dogma, modern usage adds spirituality to this definition. The common saying, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” is an example of this expansion in current times.

Spiritual listening is at the heart of all relationships–it’s the antidote to that missing piece, that longing for connection, belonging, and communion which seems to be so common in our culture today.  This type of listening creates a sense of community.  When we are open, curious, and attentive to others in this way, we discover a deeper, sacred connection; we are in relationship.


To “listen” another’s soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery may be almost the greatest service that any human being ever performs for another.

—Douglas Steere

“Listening presence” is another way to describe the spirituality of listening. It’s a way of being in which stillness and attentiveness provide space in which a person can speak and know that they are being heard. It’s from this space that we can listen across our differences. When listening deeply, we recognize the life force or spirit of another, and we find ourselves able to understand each other, even others whose backgrounds or opinions are different from our own.

When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.

—Martin Buber

Each of us may have our own way of defining a spiritual experience. Most will describe such experiences as those moments when we get in touch with our sense of wonder, awe, and communion; these moments transcend time and space.  They often take your breath away.  Spirituality connects us to something beyond and greater than ourselves as individuals. It’s an un-nameable, unknowable, invisible force that gives shape and meaning to everything it surrounds.


When was the last time you had a great conversation – in which you heard yourself  saying things, you’d never said before, and received things you hadn’t thought of – that made your heart sing – and that you remember days and months afterwards.

—John O’Donahue


Some of the most visible examples of spiritual experience occur in nature – a glorious sunrise or sunset, glittering stars in the night sky, the majesty of rock formations, the magical silence of snow falling. We feel them in the arts while witnessing a masterful performance of music, dance, or drama; we can also feel them with people, such as the eyes of a newborn baby, the joy of discovering soul friends, or the sense of connection as the New Year is celebrated across the time zones on our planet.


We can also be touched by spiritual connection in everyday life – when we wake up to what’s right in front of us in the present moment. Such a connection can occur when you’re in the middle of a routine task, and suddenly you know there is something special unfolding – maybe it’s a hummingbird appearing outside your window, the taste or smell of a freshly peeled orange, the feel of warm water as you wash your hands, an unexpected moment of silence. It feeds your inner life, honors something you value, just makes you glad you are alive.


Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.

—Mary Oliver


As we describe these moments it becomes clear that listening occurs in dimensions other than direct communication with others. Spiritual moments are often sourced with our five senses – sight, smell, taste, hearing and touch, as well as our intuitive sense.


This exploration is offered as a series of prompts, to expand the way we think about listening and spirituality. You may want to read through them all first, and then return to add your own experiences and questions.


Listen to your body

What is your body telling you? Is it time to rest, eat, move? Does it need to stretch? Dance? Play? Is it too warm, too cold? Are there aches and pains that need tending to? Think about a time when you were grateful for your body. What was that like?  What would it take to feel connected to your body again?


Listen to the earth

What is nature telling you? What do you see? What do you smell? What do you hear? What is the land telling you? Notice vegetation, and keep looking. Remember to look upward as well. What are you resonating with?

Think about the distinction between looking at a window – describing it in detail, perhaps, and looking through a window – which opens up a whole new world to experience.

—Mary Sharratt


Listen to your soul

What is your inner voice telling you? Check in with that still place deep inside of you, where you begin to remember who you are, and get in touch with your own deep wisdom. Listen for what wants to be said next. Breathe. Practice patience. Pay attention to the yearning of your soul.


I am listening in a different way. Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say, watch and listen, you are the result of the love of thousands.

—Linda Hogan


Listen to the silence

What is the silence telling you? What do you hear when you find yourself in stillness? Surrender to the emptiness. Let go. Journal, meditate. What do you notice beyond the silence? Open yourself to new possibilities.


Stillness is our most intense mode of action. It is in our moments of deep quiet that is born every idea, emotion, and drive which we eventually honor with the name of action.

—Leonard Bernstein


Listen to your heart

What is your heart telling you? What do you notice when your heart breaks open? Create a space in which you can unfold.  What makes your heart sing?


Listen to your mind

What is your mind telling you? Where are you stretching? What are you being called to learn now? Whose voice are you listening to? What are you reading?


Listen to your emotions

What are your emotions telling you? What are you feeling? Take time to dwell there. Be present. Have a sense of curiosity about the emotion. Reflect on the experience.

Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay closest attention. They are not only telling you about the secret of who you are, God may be speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where you should go next. 

—Frederick Buechner

Listen to your life

What is your life telling you? What are you present to? We each have deep wisdom in us. What if we held ourselves in reverence? Listen to your life, the mystery of it, the ups and downs, and the grace. Be tender with yourself and with others. Remember that we are human beings, not human doings.


I want to truly live my life instead of watching it go by because I’m too busy to enjoy it.


These prompts begin with the words listen to.  You might also want to revisit them using the terms “listen for” and “listen with.” Use this as an opportunity to imagine all the different aspects of listening that we have forgotten or neglected.


This article is being written in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, when most of the world is in some form of shelter in place. We are having a lived experience of how inter-connected we are, which gives new meaning to Martin Luther King’s saying that what affects one directly affects all indirectly.  I am encouraged by the new meme around why we wear masks.  I am wearing a mask to protect you, and you are wearing a mask to protect me. Caring for each other with kindness and compassion. What is all of this teaching us? Are we at a time of deep awakening? Are we being called to find new ways of being human? How are we going to show up?


Our true work is to look after each other, to protect each other and to be of  benefit to one another.

—Bill Gates

The following practices are designed to facilitate this new way of being.


Reclaim the importance of timeouts.

Include a certain period of time for rest and restoration each week. Maybe it’s a half day or just an hour or two. Start with something that feels like a stretch, but not impossible.  Create space for silence and stillness. Use this to reset your pace, rest your mind. Listen for what wants to happen. Allow yourself to flow with the creative nature of life. You are being called to yourself.  The heart of creativity is a calling forth. It is getting in touch withyour center, the core of your being. What is yours to do, what is the gift you are being called on to share?

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action.  And because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique.  And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it.  It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how it compares with other expressions.  It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly.  To keep the channel open.  —Martha Graham

Revisit your relationship with social media.

Take digital time outs on a regular basis. Put your phones away, turn off your computers, go offline. Let go of multi-tasking in favor of uni-tasking. Try a spiritual practice of silence, meditation, or slow walking, outside if possible.


Take time to listen to the birds,

the waves,

the wind.

Take time to breathe in the air,

the earth,

the ocean.

Take time to be still,

           to be silent,

to allow God to fill you up

with deep peace and love.

Mairead Maguire


Invite the great Mystery into your life. Create more space for love and freedom to emerge.  Hold space for the patterns that connect. Spirit and soul dimensions are sources which make everything flow in new ways. Slowing down we find our rhythm, our own natural rhythm. Spiritual listening is embodied listening, in which we become a listening presence to all of life.


Being heard (listened to) is so close to being loved that most people cannot tell the difference.

—David Augsber