Everybody needs empathy.
Everybody needs to receive empathy from others.
Everybody needs self-empathy.
Everybody needs to offer empathy to others.
Without empathy, we are nothing.
Our practice, then, must be quite simple – as simple as possible. All we have to do is sit down quietly and listen to our feelings. There is no practice more certain, more elevated or more human than this.
Little by little, as surface agitations die down, we touch our true feelings. Once we are aware of these deeper feelings, we are able to discern the feelings of others.
When you sit with your own feelings, I call it meditative communion. When you discern the feelings of others, I call it meditative listening.
Meditative listening may happen in many settings: in a listening partnership or a listening circle, at work or in everyday life.
THE LISTENING PARTNERSHIP
It is easy to ask a friend to be your listening partner.
When you meet, you divide the time equally. For half the time you are the listener. Then your companion listens to you.
When it is your turn to be listened to, the time is for you. You use it however you like. You say whatever you want. You may say a lot or very little or nothing at all. For some things are private. You will not say them now, perhaps not ever.
The listener is always discreet and treats the things you say as confidential.
The listener is careful not to run ahead of you and makes no attempt to penetrate your reserve.
The listener is always on your side and accepts you just as you are.
There is a natural cycle of meditative listening: feeling and conveying, following and receiving – and so back to feeling.
At first you may be silent, closing your eyes, slowly becoming aware of what you are feeling.
You say things as they come to you, conveying small clusters of meaning in words or images, sounds or gestures.
The listener takes in each cluster, sensitive to the wordless feeling behind it.
The listener says the cluster back to you, plainly and accurately, perhaps in your own words. This invites you to turn back to your wordless feeling, to ask inwardly: “Do I feel heard?”
When you feel heard a silence falls.
In that silence more may come.
Often it is something deeper: you can feel it
just now forming at the edge of being.
Sometimes what comes is the next piece of the story.
Sometimes it is a feeling for the whole story.
Sometimes it is like grace, like a breath from another world.
Empathy is like a riverbed, shaped and re-shaped by the stream of listening, and in which it flows.
Listening is as old as the campfire, as old as the well.
THE LISTENING CIRCLE
It is easy to invite a few friends to form a listening circle.
You tell them that this will be a space for empathy and self-empathy. You agree where to meet and for how long. You will share expenses.
Then the day comes. You meet. And nobody can tell you how to do this. The time belongs to you all equally, to use in your own way.
The Listening Round.
In a listening round the time is divided equally.
One person speaks. The person next on the left or right offers meditative listening responses, exactly as in a listening partnership.
Each listener becomes the next to speak.
The Open Listening Circle.
The open listening circle is more subtle.
When you begin to speak in the open listening circle you may ask anybody present to offer listening responses. You can ask for the listening you need.
Or you can leave it open to anybody present to offer a meditative listening response – whoever feels moved to respond.
The cycle of meditative listening is the same in an open listening circle as in a listening partnership: feeling and conveying, following and receiving – and so back to feeling.
After a while you fall silent, feeling that enough has been said for now. And the circle is silent with you.
Everything depends upon these windows of silence. Silence is what makes this listening meditative.
In silence something heard can be received.
In silence something new can come.
In silence, somebody else prepares to speak.
The listening circle is many things. It is where we learn to be with our own feelings and the feelings of others. It is a place of love and tenderness, of friendship and community.
LISTENING IN EVERYDAY LIFE
The practice of empathy can’t stay forever in private. We have to bring empathy and self-empathy into all our situations – to be aware of feelings, not only at special times, but throughout the day.
Very often I pause for a few moments, opening a little window through which I sense my feelings. And maybe something will bubble up which turns out to be just the thing I need.
I offer little bits of listening to others, for very often empathy is welcome.
And I notice that these actions are contagious. What one does, others soon catch on to.
We listen to ourselves in solitude, we listen to our friends, and we listen in everyday life.
We listen for the sake of others and for our own sakes. In the end, there is no difference.
Listening is born in silence, in awareness and acceptance. In coming to accept myself as I am, I come to accept others as they are.
The way of empathy is a way of silence and love.
I sit quietly with my feelings.
Day after day, I clear a little time to be alone, and I notice what I am feeling.
Nobody can tell me how to do this. I do it in my own time, in my own way. It is wholly individual.
What will happen, when I leave the silence free to work, I cannot say.
Little by little a sense of peace may come, a sense of stillness.
Once in a while there may be something more – a breath of healing, a moment of insight, a way forward.
It is like coming home.
Today we are surrounded by voices. Each voice has something to say about the emptiness, unease and uncertainty that fester in our hearts. Each voice urges upon us some road to happiness. Each voice calls us to some path, some answer.
The answers are not in any of this. They are not outside us. The answers lie within.
Yet it is hard to find them alone. Perhaps it can’t be done. And for this reason it may be helpful to find somebody who can offer you spiritual accompaniment.
What do I mean by the word “spiritual”? People use this word in many ways. I mean something like this.
When I join a group or community, taking my lead from its traditions and values, I call this the religious turn.
When I go to a doctor or psychologist, looking for a correct evaluation and for medical or pseudo-medical treatment, I call this the diagnostic turn.
When I look outwards, seeking to act in society or to build a better world, I call this the political turn.
There is value in all these.
But sooner or later it is borne in upon me that I am part of the problem. I begin to look into my heart. I call this the inward turn.
Now I ask hard questions, “Who am I? What am I like? What in myself am I hiding from?” I try to be truthful with myself about my own feelings. Whatever shares that inward truthfulness, I call “spiritual”.
What is spiritual accompaniment?
In spiritual accompaniment, somebody who is familiar with the landscape of feeling keeps somebody else company, whose feelings are clouded, narrowed or lost, who yearns for deeper understanding, struggles with a moral uncertainty, or trembles on the threshold of an unknown path.
Spiritual accompaniment is about listening with empathy and compassion, while somebody turns inwards to wait upon the wisdom of the heart.
Spiritual accompaniment invites us to shed our stories, and to feel directly what life is like.
Spiritual accompaniment frees us from the grip of false standards, and invites us to value the truly precious things in life.
Spiritual accompaniment is about accepting things as they are, and being at peace with change.
Spiritual accompaniment is profoundly relational. We are in this together. We walk side by side. And that is what is so helpful, that we share the inward turn.
Meditative Listening is a project of pure empathy. It sits squarely within the Person-Centred Approach. It is deeply conservative in its loyalty to the classical principles of this school.
Meditative Listening is a form of Focusing. It relies on one’s willingness to let go of yesterday’s news; and instead, turning inwards, to wait upon the promptings of the heart.
Meditative Listening is a form of Experiential Listening. The listener does not only respond to the underlying feeling, but receives one by one each small cluster of feeling and meaning.
Meditative Listening unites Focusing and Experiential Listening in a single, continuous cycle.
Above all, Meditative Listening is idiodynamic. It is founded on the hypothesis that the movements of life in a human being are profoundly individual. Every soul is a unique eco-system.
Not only do people have thoughts and feelings, but in each person the processes of thinking and feeling move forward in their own way.
If we barge in with noise and interference, we will scare all the little animals and birds into hiding. The leaves will wither and the trees will fall. The soil will be blown to the four winds and washed into gullies by the winter rains. And when we have made a desert, perhaps we will call it peace. So we walk quietly and we sit very still.
This idiodynamic principle does not come from psychology or philosophy. It comes from the arts and humanities, from literature and especially from stories. For no story is about a type of person. Every story is about an individual, just this one and no other.
For this reason, Meditative Listening is a “no teaching, no guiding” school.
We do not guide the inner process. Instead, we follow along with sensitive, delicate alacrity. We do not teach this way of being. Instead, we aim to set up conditions in which learning will emerge by itself.
It follows that Meditative Listening is elusive to convey. Yet the living of it is peaceful.
You are here to listen, only to listen. When somebody feels deeply heard, the inner development arises by itself. It does not come from you. So listening is deeply peaceful.
Feeling heard, anybody falls silent. Silent because one thing has been heard. Silent because the next is not yet come. In silence, life moves forward.
What is this moving forward which sounds so mysterious? It is an abandonment of derivative thoughts, conventional emotions and helpless passivity. It is a movement towards independent thought, genuine feeling and free agency.
So this is the immediate lineage of Meditative Listening. It is one way within Focusing and the Person-Centred Approach. It is not the only way.