Empathy is the Essence of our Humanity


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.


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.


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.


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.


Knocking at Heaven’s Gate


The stardust rose,
So ancient, glows,
A phosphorescent haze.

Though billions mourn,
You are alone
The sum of all your days.

Both boy and flower
Perfect the hour
In which you briefly bloom,

And soon are gone
Where all are one,
An iridescent womb.


More a mist
Than a voice,
More a glaze
Than a hue,
More a swamp
Than a house,
More a snake
Than a mouse,
More a germ
Than a louse,
Damp and stinking
In my thinking,
Quick to stalk
As I walk,
Lean and harsh,
Like a marsh,
Foul of smell
As in hell:
What escape?
Who can say?
Here is night.
Where is day?


Dear Brian,
With your twinkling, smiling face,
Infused with love, with tenderness and grace,
Here are my thanks for freeing me from shame,
From acid words and evil thoughts of blame.
You gave me hope, you brought me into life,
You breathed that peace that puts an end to strife,
And now as shadows fall upon the scene
I think of you and still remain serene.


I will not leave you comfortless,
A barren waste of emptiness.
I am the life, the truth, the way,
The shepherd of the endless day.
I am your soul, your friend, your love,
I am the Jordan and the dove.


I miss your presence,
I distrust your mind.
I long to love and
Know I am unkind.

I should be patient
And I run with haste.
You wait in silence
And I call it waste.

My anxious fears
Betray your youthful grace.
Forgive me, till I
Moderate my pace.

You gave me everything
For which I live,
And now our love
Is draining through a sieve.

I long to see it
Pool and spread again,
Renewed by floods of
Soft refreshing rain.


Light and peace are met
The silent trees are waiting
Sundown and darkness


What is a faithful life?
A child, a house, a wife?

Do I have one of those?
If so, do you suppose

That this is all we need:
Some comfort, ease and greed,

And safety from the fear
That closes in each year

As age and sickness loom
With shadows of the tomb?

Ah no! There is the thought
Of something dearly bought

In some perplexing way
That turns night into day,

That whispers in my heart
To take the better part,

To hear the song of love
That echoes from above,

Transfiguring our life
And bringing peace from strife,

That says to me and you
This only, You come too!


No doubt it’s very good
(I’d do it if I could)
To find something to do
Attached to me with glue.

Unhappily I find
That nothing comes to mind,
So here I stand and wait,
Knocking at heaven’s gate.

5th – 7th July 2013


Meditative Listening and Meditative Enquiry

Meditative Listening

The known life is no more than a clearing in the forest. There is another life in the shadows, treetops and margins.

This hidden life is rather felt than thought. It is mysterious, fertile, moist and passionate.

Life is a moving edge. Everything flows, nothing remains the same. Since life is so hard to pin down it is natural to feel lost or bewildered.

And it is helpful to talk about your life to a listener who intends only to understand and is sure that you will find your own way forward.

When you sit down quietly and close your eyes, you feel your life all around you. Soon you begin to know what you want to talk about.

For the listener it is like being taken by the hand and led into a new country. The listener is ready to meet you face to face and to hear your words with understanding.

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.

As the steps go deeper and deeper, you find you have something to steer by.

The Open Listening Circle

We begin in silence. Each thing that is said is first received and then allowed to fall into silence. We end in silence. Silence is all around us. Silence holds us.

As we sit here together in a circle there are four things that you might like to do.

You might like to sit quietly, listening to what other people say
and allowing it to touch your feelings.

You might like to offer one of the speakers a listening response:
saying what you heard in a tentative, empathic way
that invites the speaker to correct you, and
taking great care to add nothing of your own.

When you find some feeling stirring within you,
you might turn inwards to be with it.

And you might want to say something about this feeling you have
that is just now stirring freshly.

When you say something, how much will you say?
When we listen, how long will we listen?

You say only what your feeling leads you to say.
You don’t go beyond your leading.

And the listeners don’t break in. When you fall silent,
we wait to hear if more is coming. In this way,
we help you to say all that you are led to say.

If nobody says anything, we will have a very quiet time together.
Even so, many things will happen in the silence.

Meditative Decision-Making

Like every community, you will need to make decisions. How is this to be done? You will need a form of meeting that makes space for every voice.

Nothing can be done until a clerk has been appointed. Everybody must agree who will be clerk. You may also appoint an assistant clerk to share the work and to help make sure that every voice is heard.

Any member of the community may send an item for the agenda. These items are sent to the clerk before the meeting along with any relevant information.

The meeting begins with a period of silence before the clerk introduces the first item. A further silence follows.

Into this silence each person may speak only once; and after each person has spoken there is a silent pause.

When all have spoken who wish to, the clerk writes and reads out a draft minute, in an attempt to express the spirit of the meeting.

Now each person may speak once more. Nobody is to bring anything new at this point, but people may say that they hope the minute will be accepted, or say what still troubles them. Each speaking is received in silence.

If all accept the minute, it is signed and recorded as the decision of the meeting.

Otherwise the clerk writes and reads out a revised draft, taking account of the responses to the original draft.

But nobody has to accept it. If anybody present is unhappy with the minute, further changes may be made.

After that, if anybody is still unhappy, an open listening circle may be formed in which people offer listening to one another. Then the meeting may be resumed, to see if everybody present can finally agree to record a united minute.

If anybody is still unhappy, the matter is carried over. That is fine. People go away and reflect or talk to one another, and in time a consensus emerges.

Often a difference of views will melt away in a meeting of this kind, as a wider sense of the issue emerges, and a united view forms of what is to be done.

This way of making decisions may seem slow and clumsy, but is secretly fast and elegant, because nobody is left behind.

Meditative Mediation

Sometimes there is bad feeling between members of the community, rather than a difference of views. Mediation is called for, and a formal meeting is a bad place for mediation.

It is better to call together an open listening circle, specially formed for the purpose of mediation. The people who are in conflict come, and a group of people who feel able to stand back from the conflict and to listen in a friendly way, with understanding but without judgement.

In such a circle, the people who are at odds can express their feelings freely. As each one is heard by the people in the circle, little by little their bad feelings unfold and soften.

Now they are ready to hear one another, so that conflict tends to die down and even to melt away.

The Inward Turn

It is all very well having a friend who is happy to listen to you for an hour now and then. But often you are alone. What happens then?

It is hard to say. The world of feeling is individual. Nobody can tell you how to go there. What is needed is not a method that somebody shows you, but patient search for a way that is right for you.

Sometimes you may need to do something vigorous to let out all the energy that is pent up inside you.

Sometimes you may need to be in nature, in the woods or by the sea. Or to lose yourself in activity – gardening, sailing, writing, painting, working, music-making, cooking or whatever. And while you are otherwise engaged, the inner world quietly remakes itself.

Sometimes you may need to be quiet and still. You pray or you meditate. Or just gaze dreamily out of the window.

Sometimes walking may be all these things. You can walk off the burden of strong feeling, soak yourself in the passing scene whilst things go on underground, and at times turn inwards, quiet in spirit while active in body.

Little by little you find ways to be at peace with the inner world.

Meditative Enquiry

Now I will say a few words about my own practice.

Day after day I find time to be alone. I sit down quietly and close
my eyes. Gently, I bring awareness to my feelings, noticing whatever sensations are present in my body.

I ask myself what the feelings are like. What is their quality, their character, their texture, mood or tone?

What is in this pattern of feeling? What in my life stirs up these bodily sensations?

I move freely to and fro between three elements,

feeling as such,
words or symbols which say what the feeling is like, and
my sense of what the feeling is about.

Little by little,

feelings change,
words or images are refined, and
new understandings come, or I see what I have to do.

It is like coming home.

This Life, This Life

Life is short. Each hour is precious. Each day comes only once. Our years are finite but indefinite.

The essence of living well, therefore, is to find a balance-point, neither clutching desperately at time nor squandering our days.

We must make the best use of each hour as it comes. What is the best use? That is for you to say. I can only remind you of certain values which seem to be secure.

In relation to other people:

Friendliness, empathy and sincerity.

In relation to life:

Making the most of each hour, each day, each year.

In relation to yourself:

Friendliness and self-empathy.

When your sense of right and wrong is vague, permissive, complicated, cloudy or relativistic, you are sure to suffer and bring suffering to others.

When your vision is clear, simple and true, happiness follows.

In any situation, one may ask:

What am I feeling?
What are you feeling?
What is between me and being friendly?
And am I wasting my time?

These simple questions will not make life easy, for life is never easy. But they will shed a clear light on many situations.

The Meditative Journey

Finally, I want to say something about the effects of meditative listening. They are of two kinds. 

As you sit with your feelings, your troubles tend to sort themselves out. You see what you have to do and you find you can set about doing it. In this way, you accumulate a fund of clear, open, active energy. 

And little by little, almost imperceptibly, a kind of wisdom grows. You come to have some understanding of your feelings and their slow evolution, some understanding of other people and the world we share. You come to accept your feelings, to accept other people and the world. 

Acceptance and understanding come together in a sense of inner peace. 

This inner peace is not mere tranquillity, since it is rooted in understanding. And it is in its nature that it gives rise to compassion: to a sense of tenderness and care for others, a wish for their happiness and a sensitivity to their suffering. 

So we may say, tentatively, that the practice of meditative listening leads to the emergence of peace and love. 

But the practice is very humble. As time passes, you will be more and more conscious of your failings of peace and love. Conscious, yes – but with tenderness, accepting that you are an ordinary human being, and with a certain wise forbearance.



I tend to feel more and more that the only thing worth hoping for is a kind of inner peace that makes love possible.