When we see and listen to another person, when we really notice another being with our eyes and ears and hearts wide open, what happens? Do those tiny moments really change anything? Does the universe turn differently on its super-sized axis? Do the heavens shudder as angels stand and cheer? What changes when we listen?
I just read about a new program of the Upper Room Academy for Spiritual Formation, From the Well, in which a series of recorded audio files will be shared each month. The first one has to do with “the importance of listening in the active creation of The Beloved Community.” That phrase is bringing to mind my question. After a whole career of listening to others as they shared needs, concerns, heartaches, and personal pain, as well as sacred moments of sensing a Presence greater than themselves in a thousand different ways, does anything really change when we listen?
For several months I have been listening to a young man share his heartache as he describes the slow dissolution of his marriage over several years. I notice that I don’t say much, don’t offer advice ever, mutter “uh-huh” a lot, and mostly repeat back what I have heard to be sure I have understood his meaning. You could rightly question, “Is that all you learned from eight years of graduate school for counseling and an internship?” Or you could ask, “Didn’t they teach you how to do something about people’s personal pain?”
Good question. Here is what I am noticing after the first 30 years of practice. When I listen to suffering, my heart opens. In some moments my own heart breaks. I am actually taking the other’s suffering into myself. (By the way, I am not recommending this as a career path for you, the reader). Their pain hurts me. I do not turn away, even though some part of me would probably rather run.
I believe the Tibetan word for this act of bringing another’s suffering into the presence of our inner compassion is “tonglen.” If I am not careful I will just hurt with them. But tonglen, as I understand it, is actually dissipating the suffering by exposing it to the loving-kindness within us. The action and transformation is invisible, but I am coming to believe it is real.
So listening to hear another’s words and their meaning might already be a gift, a kind of unspoken message, “You are not alone.” And that might help the loneliness many of us feel. But I believe what is happening when I am opening my heart to another is something more, an inner act requiring courage and compassion. Is that how we create the Beloved Community, by listening to one person at a time with the ears of the heart?
The world shows us its desperate need for less violence and more compassion every day. The news stations make sure we know all about the terrible news. So when will we begin to rise up and help create more wonderful news? And how can we transform so much suffering into loving-kindness? How do we create the Beloved Community across the globe?
Maybe it could begin with “random acts of kindness.” Maybe it could begin with actually seeing and hearing each other with the ears of the heart. I walked into the breakfast room of our motel. All the caucasians were lined up for the free hot breakfast. The woman of color was adding more juice to the dispenser. I asked if she was responsible for the breakfast. She said, “yes.” I asked her name. She said “Nilda.” I said, “Thanks for doing all this.” She smiled.
I don’t know if Nilda knew that I was opening my heart to her. I don’t know if it meant anything to her. But for a brief moment it meant something to me. My life was enriched as it would not have been if I had just brushed past her to grab some food and drink. My open heart was blessed by such a simple exchange. Maybe this is how we begin to create the Beloved Community across this world: a little listening, a little opening our hearts, and sometimes a courageous willingness to cultivate our own compassion and use it to dissolve the suffering in people around us.
What changes when we listen? Perhaps a lot in the invisible world of an open heart.
For more stories like this see Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic Culture.