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Deep Listening to Self

Deep listening is our theme for the month of October. The words of Etty Hillesum distill this concept for me. She says that one of the most important pieces of the spiritual journey is learning to listen to “everything reaching you from without… and… everything welling up from within – the development of an intuitive awareness of what is most essential and deepest in ourselves, in others, in the inter-connectedness of life.” Deep listening is focused, non-judgmental, open, honest, reflective, quiet and looks beneath the surface of things.

I will begin this week with “Deep Listening to Self” because the spiritual path is very simply a personal, individual, interior journey. It is the pursuit of self-awareness….knowing yourself, your emotions, your conditioning, your filters, your triggers, and so forth.  Knowing those aspects of self is the foundation of one’s relationship with God and with all else.  In addition, self very often gets in the way of hearing the Divine. We need to know ourselves well enough to know when the voices in our heads are our own ego, needs and desires and when they are nudges, direction from Spirit.

When we think of listening we rarely think of listening to ourselves… our deepest selves. We listen to a friend sharing their troubles, we listen to music, we listen to the television, we listen (hopefully) to God. But listening to ourselves is an art form in and of itself that, if I had to guess, we don’t do very often. Maybe we don’t know how. From little on our parents and teachers have said “Now, Kaye, listen to me…” I don’t ever remember anyone telling me to listen to myself, my heart, my soul. Do you?

Of course, the key to any kind of listening is being fully present and aware in the moment. Staying present in the moment with ourselves difficult because we’re so easily distracted. Oooh, look! Shiny!!

Once two friends were walking down the sidewalk of a busy city street during rush hour. There was all sorts of noise in the city; car horns honking, feet shuffling, people talking. And amid all this noise, one of the friends turned to the other and said, “I hear a cricket.”

No way,” her friend responded. “How could you possibly hear a cricket with all of this noise? You must be imagining it. Besides, I’ve never seen a cricket in the city.”

“No, really, I do hear a cricket. I’ll show you.” She stopped for a moment, then led her friend across the street to a big cement planter with a tree in it. Pushing back some leaves she found a little brown cricket.

“That’s amazing!” her friend said. “you must have super-human hearing. What’s your secret?”

“No, my hearing is just the same as yours. There’s no secret,” the first woman replied. “Watch, I’ll show you.” She reached into her pocket, pulled out some loose change, and threw it on the sidewalk. Amid all the noise of the city, everyone within thirty feet turned their head to see where the sound of the money was coming from.

“See,” she said, “It’s all a matter of what you are listening for.”

(from Doorways to the Soul)

So, what are we listening for when we listen to Self? Feelings, bodies and self-talk.

FEELINGS

Mark Nepo in Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, says, “[F]eeling is the constant listener who leads us, beyond our readiness, into the difficult and majestic ways we are called to be alive and called to voice each other’s aliveness.”

Do we listen for our feelings or do we attempt to drown them out? Constant distraction is a way to drown them out. I’ve known a few people over the years who preferred being workaholics to actually dealing with their feelings, their grief, their struggles at home, or whatever other shadows they were avoiding.

Humor is another great way to avoid our feelings. I think we all do this sometimes. And maybe you’ve known someone who couldn’t ever be serious? They used humor to deflect every serious conversation, every deep topic. The question is are we aware when we do this and will we take the time later to really listen to the feelings that were emerging that we didn’t want to share?

I’m not necessarily saying we walk around with our hearts on our sleeves, but that we pay attention when something rubs us the wrong way, or when we feel hurt, or when we shy away from a conversation, or when we feel shame or anger or fear. Listening to our emotions, without judgment, to hear what they have to tell us is so important to living a healthy life.

BODIES

Deep listening to our bodies is as important as deep listening to our feelings. In fact, sometimes can help inform us about the feelings we’re feeling and what it is we need. Is our stomach upset because we’re anxious and worried? Is our neck tight because we’re tense and stressed? Are we hangry (yes, it’s a new word) and need food and sleep!

How closely do you listen to your body? There are many, many stories of people who could tell that there was something not right with their bodies. They would go to the doctor insistent that something was wrong and be told that they were fine. Some give up. And some continue to seek medical practitioners who would work with them, trusting their intuition about their own bodies, until the source of the issue was found.

SELF-TALK

What do you say to yourself? Do you recognize with gratitude all your body and mind do for you? Or do you participate in negative self-talk, berating how you look and telling yourself how stupid you are? Do you have compassion for yourself?

Jack Kornfield tells a story about Cynthia, a binge-eater, who was obsessed with the feeling of emptiness and felt she was worthless and ugly. She had spent years in therapy uncovering the pain and lack of love in her adoptive family, but she still suffered from binge eating.  Time and again she turned to food “looking for magic” but again and again all it brought was suffering and shame.

When she came to Jack with these struggles, he asked her to bring compassion to her body when the shame was strong. It was a very long, slow, agonizing journey. Because her self-hatred was so intense, she could only say, “May this suffering body be healed, may this sad heart be free.”

Eventually, when reaching for food again, a compassionate awareness would arise and she would be able to say, “Oh, I don’t really want this. It will only lead to pain and sadness.”

Through listening to the depth of her pain, and changing her self-talk, and letting go, did she finally come to a deeper place of understanding and compassion for herself and others. 

So, here’s some homework for all of us to help us be intentional about listening to ourselves. Daily, take a few minutes to sit quietly with yourself, bring awareness and compassion to the different parts of your body and what they might be telling you about your physical, mental and spiritual health and what it might be asking of you.  Then with gentle awareness, non-judgmentally, honestly, and compassionately, tune in to your feelings about situations in your life. Ask yourself: Do I need to continue to replay these stories in my head? Do I have to hold on to these losses, these feelings? Is it time to let this go?

Our bodies, minds and souls are intimately connected. The listening we bring to ourselves helps us to lift away the layers that separate us from our True Selves and the Divine.