Most of us consider listening a great virtue. We love having others listen to us with interest and care, and we hope to be good listeners ourselves. But for most of us, listening is hard. To listen well, we must become aware of the mental static that runs interference: our emotional reactivity; all the ways we interpret (and misinterpret) each other; our haste to prepare a response; how we armor ourselves with judgment.
Learning to listen involves stepping out of our incessant inner dialogue, and using what St. Benedict called the “ear of the heart.” This deep listening offers a compassionate space for healing and intimacy.
One of my meditation students, Kate, discovered the power of listening in her relationship with her mother, Audrey, a wealthy, successful, brilliant, and yet narcissistic woman. Those who knew Audrey well kiddingly referred to her as “the center of the known universe.” A well-known writer, Audrey treated other people as orbiting satellites, audiences to regale with stories; their role was to let her shine in her own reflected light.
Audrey could be lively and charming when holding forth, but she was exhausting to be around. As soon as they could, both of her daughters settled on the opposite coast. Kate’s older sister rarely returned for visits, and while Kate came for holidays, she kept her stays brief. Their step-dad loved his wife, but he and Audrey had drifted into a routine that lacked intimacy. Some of Audrey’s friends still tolerated being a captive audience, but as she aged she became increasingly isolated.
Kate came to one of my Conscious Relationship workshops to focus on her marriage, not on her mother. Yet, by the time she left, she’d become acutely aware of her mother’s woundedness, and of the possibility that deep listening might lead to healing. Her inspiration was the image of a fountain.
During the workshop, we envisioned our inner life and spirit as a fountain that becomes clogged with unprocessed hurts and fears. As we ignore our painful feelings or push them away, they impede our flowing aliveness and obscure the pure awareness that is our source. By not listening to our inner life, we cut ourselves off from reality. What remains is a diminished self, an unreal other.
However, when we confide in someone and they listen to us, really listen, the debris naturally begins to dissolve, and the fountain of aliveness is again free to flow. And, when we really listen to another, we help them come home to this same aliveness.
It’s important to remember that this process takes time. As we begin to listen, we often come face to face with the distasteful tangles—the jealousy or self-consciousness or anger that have been clogging the fountain. The conversation might seem superficial or dull, nervous or self-absorbed.
Yet, a dedicated listener hangs in there without getting lost in resisting or judging. This unconditional presence can be a healing balm that gradually helps the speaker’s tangled defenses relax so that his or her natural vitality and spirit can emerge. Perhaps you’ve noticed this when someone is really listening to you. You feel calmer, whole, “more like yourself”—more at home. Like an unclogged fountain, the deeper waters of humor, intelligence, creativity, and love begin to flow.
Kate left the workshop with the intention of experimenting, and when an opportunity to attend a professional training session near her mother’s home presented itself, she decided it was time to try deep listening with her. She made arrangements to stay for ten days, her longest visit with her mother since she’d left for college.
Now, Kate really listened during their time together. As we’d practiced, she listened inwardly to her own tension without judgment when she felt resistance, then reopened to whatever her mother was saying. In the same way, when she felt unimportant, impatient, bored, or judgmental, she brought mindfulness and kindness to her own experience. By doing so, she was able to bring that same open and clear space of presence to her mother.
Kate admitted that at first, it was hard. “I had a panicky sensation,” she told me. “It was like I would drown if I didn’t get away, if I didn’t find a way to have some of my own space. She takes up so much room!”
Yet, Kate found that if she kept a sense of humor about it, she could breathe, forgive her own reactions, and keep coming back. Then she would coach herself to deepen her presence: “Now … what is happening? My mother is talking, and I am quiet. There is endless time. I hear it, every word. And what is beyond the word? . . . I hear who she is.”
As Kate listened for what was behind her mother’s words, it got easier for her. She began to hear desperation, as if her mother was insisting over and over, “I’m here, I matter.” Taking in her mother’s pain, Kate felt her heart soften with care.
Through her own quiet, steady presence, Kate communicated, “You are here, you matter.” And her mother started to relax. Kate knew this, because there were longer pauses between the stories and commentary—her mother sat back more in her chair, looked out the window, slowed down, and seemed more reflective.
Several days before Kate was scheduled to leave, her mother began to tell her that she felt alone and unappreciated. Kate was able to respond with sincerity, gentleness, and honesty. “Mom,” she said, “it’s because you don’t listen to people.”
Her mother froze, but to Kate’s surprise, didn’t get defensive. Kate had been so truly present, and had offered such uncritical sympathy, that a trust had emerged—this was not an attack, but a caring reflection of truth.
Her mother wanted to know more: “Please tell me, I need to know.” And Kate told her. She explained how it had been for her sister, for their dad, and now, for her step-dad. “When you don’t listen, people feel like they don’t matter, that they’re not known. And it’s true—you can’t know them if you don’t listen. You can’t be close.”
Audrey looked at her daughter with a sorrow and understanding that pierced Kate’s heart. And in that moment, something changed. Maybe the pain of alienation had broken through her defenses, or maybe this was simply her time, but Audrey started to listen.
Others noticed, too. After her sister’s next visit with her mother, she told Kate, “For the first time in my life I felt like I was a real person to her … that I existed!” The change was most poignant with Kate’s stepfather, who began to enjoy the long dinners and evening walks that had been abandoned shortly after their marriage.
Audrey was no longer speaking to demand the world’s attention. She was speaking and listening in order to belong with other people, to share their lives. Because Kate had listened and let her heart be touched, her mother’s fountain had begun to unclog. Her life could once again flow from its source.
Adapted from True Refuge (2013)