My one-word comeback in all cases used to be “Huh?” But more aware now that I live in a universe where so many things are speaking on so many levels, I’ve decided it is probably unwise to ignore voices, no matter how irksome, because they may bear wisdom.
According to Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, “Listening creates a holy silence. When you listen generously to people, they can hear the truth in themselves, often for the first time. And in the silence of listening, you can know yourself in everyone. Eventually you may be able to hear, in everyone and beyond everyone, the unseen singing softly to itself and to you.” **
In Small Group Ministry, at the San Francisco Unitarian Universalist church, I trained to listen in silence and to encourage new group members to listen the same way. At first I found paying silent attention difficult, for it went against a lifetime of habits I had learned to incorporate as a social being – nod, sigh, “oh” and “ah.” While not tempted to interrupt, I did want to ask questions. And being a “good person,” I would sometimes think I should offer help or advice. Although being a silent listener or being listened to in silence can feel hard, it is worth exploring because “cue-less” listening allows the speaker to go deeply into her own thoughts without watching for cues that her words are winning approval or causing disapproval. As I said, not easy at first, but at the heart of silent listening is trust that one is heard and courage to speak one’s truth.
As a Worship Associate in my church, I gave a four-minute reflection called “Listening with the Third Ear.” Eventually I expanded that talk into a sermon I gave at the Petaluma UU Fellowship. Speaking for more than four minutes allowed me to add more ears and call my talk “Four More Ears.”
My third ear corresponds to “The Third Eye” – the ear of the heart that hears the heartfelt. It’s the third ear in which resonate Paul Tillich’s words: “The first duty of love is to listen.” And these words from David Oxberg: “Being listened to is so close to being loved that most people cannot tell the difference.”
As for the fourth ear, I am not sure all people need it. For me, it’s a cautionary ear because some information may be just that and not a clue to a deep truth. Thus the work of the fourth ear is to redirect information that is just information back to ears one and two.
My fifth ear turns inward and operates in the pause that allows a reaction to become a response. It listens for the sound of childhood pain that once would have been a cry but with language has turned into something else, usually cruel and instant. When I can hear my own pain and identify it as from the past, I can acknowledge it without reacting and continue to fully hear the other person.
My sixth ear is another ear turned inward. It listens for stories I’m telling myself about the other person and prevents speech I might regret later. One of the reasons I try not to listen from story is that I know how it feels to be responded to from the story rather than in that moment. Once, a friend decided that I suffered from low self-esteem. Thus whatever I said, she responded with words of reassurance. Rather than feeling better, I felt irritated, annoyed and alone. We’re no longer friends.
When I think about being fully present with others, all ears operational, I include the clerk at the DMV, the men and women I meet on the streets and, of course those closest to me, the ones it’s often really hard to listen to. Choosing to relate this way means accepting a total person, not picking and choosing aspects that suit me, hoping over time to change the parts I don’t like.
Listening to the whole person becomes a holy act. “Our listening creates sanctuary for the homeless parts within the other person. That which has been denied, unloved, devalued by themselves and others. That which is hidden.”**
* “Music makes an altar out of our ears. A single struck tone, a note blown from a flute, can flush the body with goodness.” W. A. Mathieu, Sufi musician in The Musical Life.
** Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen is Clinical Professor of Family and Community Medicine at the UCSF School of Medicine and Director of the innovative UCSF course The Healer's Art, which was recently featured in US News & World Report. She is Founder and Director of the Institute for the Study of Health and Illness, a ten-year-old professional development program for graduate physicians. She is the author of the New York Times bestseller Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal. Her newest book, My Grandfather's Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge and Belonging is a national bestseller.