At the end of September, I attended my first week of residency in the Certificate in Spiritual Direction program at Columbia Theological Seminary. It was an intense, emotional, and illuminating time spent with lay people and clergy who, like me, felt our ministries could benefit from training in the practice of sacred listening.
When we listen with our whole heart, our mind and body, we put aside our own needs, agenda or opinions to be fully present for the other person. Spiritual direction is often represented by the image of three chairs, indicating the interrelationship of the director (or spiritual friend), the person being cared for, and the Spirit. It is a special and holy place to be a witness – and to be witnessed, as I can attest after receiving spiritual direction for the past two years. Like prayer or meditation, listening is a spiritual practice that helps reconnect us to the Spirit.
As you can imagine, this is not always an easy discipline. After a week of daily group spiritual direction practice, I was emotionally drained. My “listening ears” were tired. Holding space, maintaining a posture of attention (which includes body language), and being present for other people is hard work. Withholding judgment or opinions is even harder. Culturally, we aren’t accustomed to doing these things. We multi-task, even if it’s just in our heads, while listening to others. And of course, well-meaning family, friends and even therapists are quick to dispense advice. Even the internet is full of articles on the best and worst ways to handle issues facing most of us in daily life.
“Don’t try to steer the boat.
Don’t open shop for yourself. Listen. Keep silent.
You are not God’s mouthpiece. Try to be an ear,
And if you do speak, ask for explanations.”
Sitting with another person’s story can trigger our own emotional pain, and be tiresome or even boring. We attempt to deal with our discomfort by telling the other person how to resolve their issue, by shifting the focus back to us, or by tuning them out. When I feel fatigued listening to someone, I ask myself, “How would Jesus listen to this person?” and it helps renew my energy and compassion. Jesus preached and taught, but he also asked questions. He listened. And he noticed the actions, behaviors and intentions of everyone he encountered. Jesus was one with the Spirit, but we can model his noticing, his attention and care to those he saw, met with and offered healing to in his ministry.
Being fully present for another person and listening with our whole being is a form of healing work. Think about the times you really felt listened to, and how that lifted the burden you were carrying, or how it led to you to a resolution you needed without anyone telling you what you should do. Sometimes what a person doesn’t say is just as important as what they do say. Our intuition helps fill in the gaps. Silence often tells us more than ten minutes of chatter.
There are many parallels in my work as a Reiki healer. Although I do have discussions before and after sessions with my clients, our sessions are generally held in silence. For an hour, without speaking, I hold the space for healing energy to restore well-being and balance. I observe the ebb and flow of energy, as well as physiological responses in the client’s body. I tune in to to the energy resonances in my hands to discern where they are most needed at that moment. I listen with my intuitive ears for any messages or insights that Spirit offers to help further the client’s healing process. And all the while, I’m aware of my thoughts (the endless to-do list in my head) or my desire to assess and intervene, which must be surrendered in order that I not unintentionally impede the healing process.
Sacred listening restores the other person’s dignity and self-worth. It affirms their connection to Spirit and their own innate wisdom. When we fully engage with someone, listening with devoted attention, we are loving them back to wholeness.