Monthly Archives: February 2011

Confessions of a Confidante (Thoughts on Deep Listening)

“All sufferings arise from wanting to benefit oneself, and all the happiness arises from the thought of wanting to help others.”   – Shantideva

How can we help others? I’ve found that one of the best ways is really simple: by listening.

A wise person said, “What people really need is a good listening to.” Each of us holds a lifetime of stories, regrets, puzzles, and a-ha’s in our hearts—and we want to talk about them. But how often do we have a chance to speak freely, uninterrupted, uncensored, not judged, not advised?

An astrologist once told me that I’m wired to be a “confidante” – one who listens to the confidences and confessions of others. She said that in order to fulfill my gift, I simply need to listen, and that true listening is “like being a nurse who holds someone while they’re puking.” Forgive the crass metaphor—but talking to a good listener can actually feel like throwing up: cathartic, emptying, and even healing.

For the nurse, or the good listener, there’s not much to do. What’s important is being there. I wouldn’t want a nurse to be distracted while tending my sickness. As a listener, the challenge is to fully show up with nothing corrupting your full-on presence. Richard Moss said, “The greatest gift you can give another is the purity of your attention.”

Deep Listening

I’m still learning how to be a good listener, and it’s a slow road. Recently a friend was going through a hard time, and we talked on the phone several days in a row. She was nearly inconsolable and I was flooded with the desire to help her. I offered suggestions, advice, reassurance, the usual Band-Aids. None of it helped. She was still in the quicksand of despair.

Finally, one morning when she called, I had no idea what to say; I gave up my Help Crusade. I simply listened. I said, “Mm-hm,” “Uh-huh,” “I see,” and “Really?” Purely a sounding board, I practiced mirror-listening and occasionally repeated what she said. Otherwise I kept my mouth shut. I listened for about an hour. I gambled that she could find her way through the crisis without my direction. And a miracle happened. By the end of it, she had talked her way out of despair. She sounded lighter, freer, unshackled. She was coming up with solutions! All by herself! I was shocked, relieved, and a little guilty because I’d hardly done anything. My only job (and, I admit, this is a hard job) was to get out of my own way, be quiet, and be present for her.

In my Sangha (meditation group), we practice “deep listening.” This is the art of listening to another person without judging, reacting, or interrupting. “Don’t even interrupt them with your thoughts,” someone once said. This means we’re being starkly, nakedly present with the person who’s talking. We’re hearing the sing-song of their voice, the stretch of a pause, the pull down into sadness, the hot sparks of anger, the bubbles of joy. We’re hearing the words and the river of feeling behind the words.

“Everyone Has a Partial Truth”

One of my heroes is Gene Knudson Hoffman. She was born in 1919 and passed away in July, 2010. I never had the good fortune to meet her, but I read about her and the movement she started: Compassionate Listening. Inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh, she wrote: “Some time ago I recognized that terrorists were people who had grievances, who thought their grievances would never be heard, and certainly never addressed. Later I saw that all parties to every conflict were wounded, and at the heart of every act of violence is an unhealed wound.”

Gene was a counselor who came to realize that non-judgmental listening was a great healing process. She titled one of her essays, “An Enemy Is One Whose Story We Have Not Heard.”

If you want to be a good listener, it’s worth reading an extended quote from Gene:

“Everyone has a partial truth, and we must listen, discern, acknowledge this partial truth in everyone—particularly those with whom we disagree.  …To reconcile, we must realize that both sides to any violence are wounded, and their wounds are unhealed. From my study of post-traumatic stress disorder in Holocaust victims and Vietnam veterans, I am persuaded that a great source of violence stems from our unhealed wounds. In 1980, I had a life-changing experience. I was on a world tour of peace centers to learn what new ideas I could bring back to the USA. Outside the London Quaker Meeting, I saw a huge sign which said: “Meeting for Worship for the torturers and the tortured”. I’d long known I should listen to the tortured—but listen to the torturers? I’d have to think about that. I soon realized that without listening to the enemy I could not make informed decisions. If I was an advocate for one side, I would never know the causes of the oppositions’ anger and violence, and I couldn’t possibly know the suffering they had endured. My choices would be half-ignorant ones. So when I arrived in Israel, I began listening to Israelis and Palestinians. I found it changed my perspectives on each. I began to practice listening to both sides everywhere I went.”

Gene traveled to areas of conflict all over the world, listening to divergent sides and sharing what she heard in order to promote understanding and peace. You can read more about Gene and her Compassionate Listening Project at http://www.compassionatelistening.org.

I dedicate this blog to my dear friends who serve as my “confidantes.” They know who they are. I am so grateful to them, my mirrors, my witnesses, showing their deep love by showing up without judgment. Like me, they are privileged listeners. They get to learn from my mistake-ridden experience. They get to keep the shiny little shards of wisdom that fly off of my machinery as I grind through the rubble-treasure of my life. They get to know me in all my grimy, sparkly, repulsive, adorable humanness, and maybe they see their own sweet paradox reflected. Maybe they see that it’s okay to be what we are. And give it voice.

A Heart Gone to Seed

Today my friend is laboring to bring her daughter into the world. As I imagine her breathing through the contractions, enormous belly compressed and released in an ancient rhythm that every woman’s body knows, I notice that my own body feels remarkably weightless and thin. I am one of those women who never outgrew my 16-year-old form; there’s no mama frame here. Today, as my friend’s voluptuously pregnant body makes itself into a mother, I feel the unmotherly lightness of my own being and realize what I’ve left behind: the desire to give birth.

For the first half of my life, I wanted a brood of kids—thirteen at least, I told my first boyfriend. He was alarmed, but he humored me. I saw us living on wide acreage, children running across the porch of a sprawling house, catching grasshoppers in tall yellow grass. I saw myself showing little replicas of myself how to sow seeds of cucumbers and melons. I saw the smallest girl squatting, splashing in a giant watering can, squealing with glee. I saw piles of children climbing onto our big bed for story time, cherubic and chaotic and crazy-good as a heart gone to seed.

What happened to that dream? I must have dropped it, child by child, in the sterile halls of academia. All the years I spent curled over textbooks, cramming for exams, editing essays until there was no breath left in them—those years must have drained the juice out of my mother instinct, dried up my uterus. I must have discarded the dream in Women’s Studies classes, where I learned the impacts of mothering and working and marriage and divorce on women. I wanted to avoid falling prey to the curse that afflicted my grandmother, my mom, my aunts. They were fantastic mothers who got short shrift when it came to creative expression, job training, and alimony. And when the kids and husbands left the nest, the nest became a poorhouse.

I set aside my vision of a family farmhouse and channeled my lifeblood into writing and art. I created stories, poems, articles, paintings, and the occasional quilt: progeny I could fuss over and present to guests. I poured my soul into two-dimensional offspring, molded them to my will and sent them into the world. I was disappointed when they didn’t live up to my expectations, ecstatic when they were praised.

My Zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, has said that whether or not we have children, we each continue in our actions and words. We live on in those who touch and hear us. I see this when I share my writing and find it quoted or shared in wider circles. And I know this when I spend time with my nieces—three adorable girls who run at me for tight hugs and let me hold their petite hands and tickle them and invent stuffed-animal worlds. We pile onto the couch and tell stories; the girls repeat what I say, making it their own, and I see how I will continue. I’m alive in them and in anyone else who takes my words in, or receives my touch, or loves me.

When the unborn mama in me longs for a child whose hair she can brush and braid—when she wonders if her hands and breasts will ever fulfill their true purpose—when she dreams of continuance more wet and visceral than words on paper—I will go and visit my nieces, or my friend who is laboring today, and her new baby girl. I’ll hold the little one for a while, gaze into her face, and rest in the bliss of pure goodness, where all is forgiven, in that place beyond longing and dreams.