In a conversation with Krista Tippett, David Isay (StoryCorps) reported that Dan Rather once asked Mother Teresa what she prayed for when she prayed. Mother Teresa replied, “I listen.” Rather then asked, “What does God say?” to which Mother Teresa answered, “He listens too.”
What is it about listening?
I practiced as a psychotherapist for over thirty years. I learned a great many techniques and methods along the way. But the most important thing I learned (and sometimes forgot) was what I learned at the very beginning---to cultivate listening. This seems like the most obvious thing. How could I be an effective psychotherapist without listening? It is harder than it sounds.
During my training I also learned how to diagnose, how to recognize interpersonal patterns, how to quickly understand the problems I was addressing. Unfortunately, sometimes those skills mitigated against good listening. It became easy to assume that I knew what was going on, sometimes before I even saw a client or family. I could look at the intake information and begin to form a diagnostic impression. I could watch the interactions of family members in the first session and already identify common patterns that I had seen (or read about) before. I felt I knew immediately what was going on.
In some ways this was a good thing. I could take action more quickly. But, more often than not it was a bad thing. If I felt I knew, I didn’t have to listen anymore.
At some point, I realized that what I knew were often my theories, frameworks, and diagnostic categories rather than the client or family’s story, a sacred text of sorts that unfolded gradually and delicately over time. And it unfolded only if I was listening.
I learned (from Harold Goolishian and others) that more than anything else, good listening is dependent on “not knowing.” By that I mean, if I assume that I don’t know anything about the person, and follow my curiosity respectfully, I will not only learn who that person is, but that person will also learn who he or she is. Good listening facilitates good talking.
In spiritual matters, to listen while “not knowing” is also essential. To listen closely is to wait; it is to be open; it is to be patient; it is to attend; it is to be present; it is to trust the silence as much as the words; it is to allow what seems like darkness to reveal its light. Mother Teresa listened. God listened as well. It is in the listening that the connection is made. Two are as one.
One of my favorite books on spiritual practice and contemplation is The Cloud of Unknowing, which was written by an anonymous monk in fourteenth century England. In an early chapter preparing the novice, the writer says, “For, when you begin it [spiritual practice], you will find that there is at the start but a darkness; there is, as it were, a cloud of unknowing…if you are ever to feel [God] or to see Him, it will necessarily be within this cloud and within this darkness.” He goes on: “When I speak of darkness, I am speaking of a lack of knowing…whatever is altogether dark to you because you do not see it with your spiritual eye. And for this reason, it is not called a cloud of air, but rather a cloud of unknowing between you and your God.”
With persistent practice, careful listening and rigorous watchfulness “Then will he perhaps send out a beam of spiritual light piercing the cloud of unknowing…”
Seaburn is a novelist. His latest work is “Chimney Bluffs.” Much of his writing is based on his background as a family psychologist and an ordained minister. To learn more, click on his picture above.