I grew up an Anglican, aka Episcopalian in the United States, where the service has a regular pattern and ritual. The style of service is sometimes referred to as “bells and smells” which is a lighthearted way of describing the multi-sensory experience. Certain sounds are cues to do certain things. For example, if you hear the organ you stand, if you hear a bell ring you immediately do a sign of the cross on your chest and if you hear the preacher say “in conclusion” you immediately wake up. It is a very moving and spiritual experience for many people. To some it can also feel a little like Pavlov’s dog, sacred salivating, a conditioned response without much mindfulness.
One of the common phrases you hear in an Anglican church is when the minister says, “Peace be with you.” And the people respond, “And also with you.” So there was an old priest who really struggled with all the new technology. He was set up with a lapel microphone for the first time during a service. He was fumbling around with it, tapping it and inadvertently turning it off and on. As he got more and more frustrated, he called out “there’s something wrong with this microphone.” All the people replied on cue, “And also with you.”
I’m speaking about listening today, listening to yourself, listening to others, and listening to the earth. When you listen deeply you get beyond the conditioned responses to hear what is truly being said. This sort of listening has healing power.
Conversations with God
Do you have conversations with God? Lily Tomlin said, “Why is it that if you talk to God, you are praying but if God talks to you, you are insane?” Maybe you miss the simplicity of prayer the way it used to be. Maybe you crave to be understood and guided by something greater than yourself. We all long to be listened to, whether it’s a friend, a doctor or a divinity. Communicating with the God or Higher Power of your understanding is a very sane thing to do. It just might take some different forms than you imagine.
Let me suggest a way to think about listening that will connect you to the spiritual, no matter whether you have an understanding of God or not. Let’s call it spiritual listening.
What is spiritual listening? Spiritual listening is when you get beyond the surface noise to a deeper connection with yourself, with others and with life itself. It’s a deep attunement to the energy around you. Have you ever noticed that listen is an anagram of silent? They share common letters and they share a common theme. When you are still and silent, you hear things that you hadn’t noticed. Wendell Berry described it as dancing “to a music so subtle and vast that no one hears it except in fragments.” So subtle and vast! Spiritual listening is hearing the subtle in the vast and the vast in the subtle.
Everything in the universe has its own sound, even if we can’t hear it. Our human hearing puts us in the middle. The sound coming from the planets is too low for us to hear. It is cosmic bass, The sound of the atom is to high for us to hear. It is cosmic treble. Sound wise we are in between the micro world of the universe as a whole, and the macro world of the atom, the vast and the subtle.
It’s like putting your ear to a shell and hearing the Ocean. Human consciousness has the imagination to hear all the sounds of life echoed in all other sounds, as if to remind you that nothing is really separate. You might hear the vastness of the ocean in a small shell, or else you might feel the subtlety of an emotion like wonder in a full orchestral symphony.
Where does spiritual listening arise? It seems to include but go well beyond the ears. Spiritual listening begins with awareness of reality exactly as it is before the noise crowds it out. It’s beyond the ears and beyond the five senses. Maybe it’s the sixth sense, or the third ear if there is such a thing. It’s the witness within you that notices you hearing and connects you to intuitive wisdom.
Listening to Yourself
One of the things that gets in the way of listening to your own body is routine. We so often live our lives like Pavlov’s dog. You hear the alarm clock and wake up, hear the start of the 7am news and eat breakfast, hear the musical fountain and go to bed. Your body never gets a chance to tell you when it’s hungry or tired. You’ve drowned out its wise alarms with routine. It’s no wonder that when it comes to serious conditions or problems in the body, you miss the body’s cues. Your body is used to being ignored. By the time you go to the doctor, treatment is more difficult than it had to be.
It’s an interesting experiment to spend a day without knowing the time. Just eat when you are hungry, stop eating when you are full and sleep when you are tired. Learn to hear the signals from your body. When you have a twitch in your eye, you probably need some extra sleep. When you have heart palpitations, you probably need a vacation. When you’ve lost all feeling on one side, you probably need to get to the Emergency Room. Learn to listen to your body. It is wise beyond its years. If you feel sore, your body may be telling you to take a day off working out. If you feel heavy and slow, your body may be telling you to eat lots of raw and healthy foods. Routine often sets you at odds with your body. Have a mindful routine, but don’t be trapped in your routine like Pavlov’s dog. Listen beyond the routine to what your body is really telling you.
Did you know that you listen at a rate of 125-250 words per minute, but think at a rate of 1000-3000 words per minute? This means that for each word you listen to, you are thinking ten other words. This is a problem. Your thoughts are often getting in the way of your listening. You hear through a grid of self criticism and judgment. You hear a doctor say, “There’s something wrong with your kidney” and you think to yourself, “and also with me.” From a spiritual perspective you are so much more than the parts of your body. Wellness is not the absence of disease and pain, but the presence of all that makes like whole and fulfilling. The one who witnesses you hearing sounds and taking in messages reminds you of your unchanging divine wholeness that goes beyond any disease or limitation.
Listening to Others
Most of us, even the shiest and most introverted people, long to be listened to. It has healing power. When you open your heart to another person, drop all judgments and assumptions, give up trying to solve or fix problems and just be there, you become a healing presence.
Too often our words and solutions are so laden with our own assumptions and judgments that we aren’t listening at all. Someone’s words trigger a memory of our own or an idea of our own. We head off on our own tangent rather than following the lead of the person we’re with. You would think that silent listening would be the easiest thing in the world, but apparently not.
I heard a beautiful story about a conference the Dalai Lama was speaking at. The man hosting the event was sitting to the right of the Dalai Lama. His 20 year old daughter asked the question, “Why do we get the angriest with the people we love the most?” His Holiness was so present to the situation that he didn’t answer the question. He simply invited the woman to come to the front. He took her by the hand, and then he took the hand of the man, her father, on his right. He stood in silence for several minutes holding both of their hands. They described a feeling of warmth running through their bodies. It turned out that the man had a problem with anger, with regular outbursts of irrational rage. He was so transformed by this experience that he was able to get his anger under control from this time forward.
When someone is speaking to you, give your undivided attention. Listen with all of you: listen with all your body and listen with your heart. Pay attention so completely that everything else disappears. Don’t just listen to the worlds. Listen to their body, to the sound of their voice, to the silence between the words. When you are completely present, you hear more than words. You hear feelings that can’t even be put in words. As you listen deeply you become a healer for yourself and others.
Listening to the Earth
As well as listening to yourself and to others, learn to listen to the earth. For she too has wisdom and healing power. Mary Oliver wrote the poem “The Summer Day”.
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Do you remember the incredible stories of animals surviving the Sri Lankan Tsunami in 2004? It seems that they heard the vibration waves under the earth that arrived hours before the Tsunami itself. They instinctively ran away from the vibrations which led them to higher ground. Animals certainly have some sense abilities that people don’t have, but our senses are more acute than we realize. We drown out these cues of danger with the distraction and noise of our inner drama, and fail to listen.
Listening to the earth would save humans from some of the danger of natural disasters. It would also help us to get the ecological problems in perspective. Back in June, 60 days into the Gulf Coast oil disaster, The Louisiana Senate passed a resolution for a day of prayer. They called on the people of Louisiana to pray for divine intervention because mere mortals had failed to solve the problem. They were basically listening for a miracle as a last resort. As comedian Jon Stewart said, “The oil is under a mile of sea and 2 1/2 miles of solid sediment earth. I think God has done enough to prevent these spills.”
The earth has spoken loud and clear. So much healing would come to the earth if we humans learned to listen to her chesty cough and give her a break. If we listened to her patterns rather than using her for our routines, the earth would rejuvenate.
Whether its your body, another person or the earth, the message is the same. Listen to what’s on the inside.
Let me end with a fun story that captures the power of listening. A small boy was obsessed with his new drums. He played all day and loved every moment of it. He would not be quiet, no matter what anyone else said or did. As you can imagine, this created quite a problem for neighbors. Various people were called in by neighbors and asked to do something about the child.
The first adviser told the boy that he would ruin his eardrums if he continued to make so much noise. This reasoning was unconvincing to the child. He didn’t care about the future. The second told him that drum beating was a sacred activity and should be carried out only on special occasions. He didn’t buy that either. The third offered the neighbors plugs for their ears; the fourth gave the boy a book; the fifth gave the neighbors books that described a method of controlling anger. Like all placebos, each of these remedies worked for a short while, but none worked for very long. Eventually, a wise person looked at the situation, handed the boy a hammer and chisel, and looked at the neighbors while he said, “I wonder what is INSIDE the drum?”
Listen to what is happening inside, and you will create a path of healing for yourself and others. Namaste.
For Further Reflection
Do you have conversations with the God of your understanding?
In what ways do you think that listening is spiritual?
What is your body telling you?
What is the earth telling all of us?
Books and Resources
Listening Below the Noise; A Meditation on the Practice of Silence by Anne D. LeClaire