“The first duty of love is to listen.”
~ Paul Tillich
An old friend has come back into my life. The other day, talking about something that’s wrong with my house, she didn’t let me finish before she burst in with several possible ways to fix the situation and then smiled as though to say, “See, it will be fine! I just solved the problem!”
It all came back – this habit of hers and how many times she’s “solved” my problems. I’ve done it to others, too. Most of us have. I sense we do it because seeing another person’s discomfort makes us uncomfortable — it reminds us of the leaks in our own roofs, the illnesses in our own families. It comes from a good place in our hearts, this knee jerk problem solving. But by responding to our own discomfort rarely do we truly help the other person.
During our first week at Kripalu, we learned the art of co-listening. Sit side by side; touch in some way (an arm leaning against an art will do fine), but don’t look at one another; one person talks for an allotted time — maybe five minutes at the very most; the other person listens. This listener does not nod, he does not squeeze the speaker’s arm in support, he does not “ohh” or “uh-huh,” and he certainly doesn’t give advice. He listens. After each person speaks, the listener says back what she has heard, checking to see if it jibes with what the speaker thought he was saying.
At first I thought this was mumble jumble. Then I found how hard it is not to say anything – even with body language. And finally – after Casey spoke and then I spoke about the experience of our first day off, an event that was more challenging than a day off should seemingly be – I found how powerful it is to be listened to and to listen to another. Powerful, powerful medicine. Much better than all of the pats and oohs we usually get.
Not that I don’t want advice from my friends — when I ask for it. Not that I don’t want to be patted and loved some times. But this silent, deep communion had a surprisingly deep effect.
Our teacher Suddha practiced it all of the time. She’d actually gesture to us to not get the Kleenex box or not to provide a hug when someone was crying. Her gestures said, “Give them space to be. But hold that space with them.”The one time when I became unglued, she sat by me in silence, her presence so much more powerful than most words. It’s pretty amazing to just be witnessed and HEARD when you are in pain, rather than to have people reacting from their own place of discomfort.
I knew to my core that I had not been heard in a very long time.
When my marriage was struggling – the second or third round of my marriage struggling – I found myself enthralled by the emails of another man. We were talking about art and sharing Big Thoughts, but really we were flirting and skirting the unspoken. I had myself convinced it was all okay. He lived far away, and we were just two bright people talking. But one day when I was in quite a dreary, mid-winter pain – the kind that comes when you have two kids under four-years old and a crappy job and not enough money – I wrote to him about my pain, a subject not yet touched, and he wrote right back: “I am in meetings and can’t talk now, but I wanted you to know that I hear you.”
That last phrase undid me. Completely undid me. It was like a train hitting me, bowling me over. I knew to my core that I had not been heard in a very long time. (Somewhat comically, I’d even asked my husband to get a hearing test – in earnest; that’s how poor our communication had become.) That’s when I finally knew what dire straights my marriage was in. It took someone else hearing me.
This week I spoke with my yoga mentor. (How great and beautiful that one can have a yoga mentor!) She asked something that I’ve been asked before, but she wanted an answer. Not in the moment. But in a week or two. “If you could do anything with your passion and talents and there were no limits – you didn’t have to worry about putting food on the table or making a certain amount of money – what would you be doing? Think about it. Let me know.”
“Don’t let Life get in your way,” she counseled.
In other words, she was really interested and she really wanted me to be interested. And to find the answer, I realized pretty quickly, I’d need to listen to myself. Which above the sibling fights and the computerized sounds and the playful noise of kids and the phone and the lawn mowers and the dog barking to come in and out is hard.
“Don’t let Life get in your way,” she counseled. “If a week or two has gone by and you haven’t found the time – made the time – to listen to yourself, to do the things you need to do in order for that listening to arise, then make the space; don’t let Life get in the way.”
Life in this context means the dishes. It means jobs. It means bills. It means mowing the lawn. It means driving to soccer practice. It means all of the things and all of the ways in which we fill-fill-fill our lives and don’t allow ourselves to be. In which we keep moving so that we don’t have to stop and listen.
At the end of yesterday’s yoga here in my livingroom – a somewhat funny attempt at going through the entire Ashtanga Series – I sat in meditation, imagining all of my friends and teachers from Kripalu there with me, and I cried. Big gulps of tears. The pain of their absence coupled with the joy of their presence was so great. But then I quickly reigned myself in. I had to go pick up the kids from school soon; I couldn’t stay in the space. I couldn’t hold it for myself.
Today, this moment, I am making space to listen to myself. On this beautiful late-August morning, I am trying to clear the brambles and give the soldier a rest – the soldier in me who works so hard to get through each day’s ginormous to-do list and always do the “right thing.” I am sitting in peace and listening.