“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.”
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.