Listening: Act IV

One of the problems, I’m realizing, is I listen to consume.

I’m highly intentional with many of my regular routines, but several of those are turning out to be only half good. After school, I ask my children about their days. During dinner, we share highs and lows. While I run, I podcast interviews with diverse thinkers. But in most of these situations, I’m listening to gather information rather than to marinate in some experience outside myself.

No wonder I have trouble praying.

An hour yesterday stuck in the car flipping radio stations confirmed much around me is noise. Partly, I’m uninspired to listen deeply because so little of what surrounds me requires it. Billboards, commercials, sit coms, pop music and most of the internet demand attention but require very little of it. More of my energy is spent managing the competition than considering the content.

As a counterpoint to all the noise, my devotion this week will be to listen to only one song. (In this case, Bach’s Preludio from Partita No. 3 in E)

Might I listen more naturally in conversation or prayer if I exercise deep listening muscles in other dimensions of life? Will constant exposure to something masterful make me more willing to turn off the chatter (around me and coming out of my own mouth)? Can steeping in music teach me something about steeping in the living words of others and in the Living Word?

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Listening: Act III

This project is not going particularly well. Or it’s proceeding perfectly.

I am not succeeding in being a good listener, but I am becoming aware of how bad I am at listening. It’s uncomfortable knowledge, but I’d rather know it than not. Maybe this is the kind of thing God was talking about when he told us eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil led to death. Knowing I am not a good listener helps me see where I am doing evil and where I could do good, but this knowledge could easily eat me alive. I’m a gold-star junkie and the fact of my underperforming could commandeer this whole ship. Project Me could become the point all too easily. Which of course would miss the point entirely.

In order to stay the course, I need to get out of my own head a little bit this week. Nature has never failed me in this context: one of its miracles is the ability to authenticate my self through being something other than myself. It’s grounding. In attending nature, I realize both that my feet walk the soil and that I am not the soil.

My devotion this week (in addition to the hard work of observing my serial failure at the previous tasks) is to park in the furthest spot from the door each place that I go.

Will the distance force me to listen to the world (such as it is) around me? Will the inconvenience remind me of the physical challenges through which others engage the world?  Will the extra seconds make me conscious of the attitude in which I enter a space? Will dragging my four year-old from the back of every parking lot finally make me stop dragging her?

In A Thousand Mornings, Mary Oliver also finds a holy challenge in nature’s dispassionate response. This blessing on the work of the week before you:

“I Go Down To The Shore”
by Mary Oliver

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall—
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

Listening: Act II (Encore)

Because it turns out soulcraft is not linear, nor accompanied by guarantees. And because I’m already learning enough from listening to realize humility is far more important than I’d care to acknowledge:

My devotion this week (again) will be to ask at least one question before giving any solution or opinion.

Can continuing this task begin to shift my posture toward others? Am I willing to change conversation from a stage for me to an opportunity for learning? Can I manage to control my selfish broadcasting for a full (mere) 12 hours at a time?

Listening: Act II

As I continue to make a discipline of pausing and watching before asserting myself into others’ experiences, I want to restrain the expansion of my will but also to become more receptive. My devotion this week will be to ask at least one question before giving any solution or opinion.

What will this task reveal about my posture toward others? How pervasive is my tendency to use conversation as a stage for me rather than as an opportunity to learn? How will having the same standard of listening across my roles of home and work make way for greater integrity of my heart?

40 Days of Listening

While Easter’s celebratory garments drape uncomfortably over my skepticism and reserve, the discipline and severity of Lent can fasten all too well. A season of self-examination suits not only my desire for a considered life, but also my habit of ending each day in guilt and a shower of should haves. I appreciate the Lenten rituals of fasting amid the inertia of indulgence, but find the northern winter over-generous in restricting my experiences of joy.

And yet, if the seasons of the church have any meaning, it’s likely in their ability to shape my life rather than in my creativity appropriating them. One of the powers of ritual is the fact of it—that however I feel, it is Christmas. However I act, resurrection has come. However I judge, love has been given. Something of the stability of my faith depends on its ability to proceed without my permission.

I’ve practiced Lent through cultivating the hope of resurrection: planting and tending seedlings in loamy pots on the back of the piano. I’ve honored Christ’s embodiment by nurturing mine: picking up energy with weekly runs and pushing out stress with regular yoga. These practices have offered their gifts and exercised the muscles of discipline, but they’ve missed something of solidarity with the tomb. Something of dark, granite silence, even loneliness and the edges of panic, are necessary to this season.

I didn’t create the tomb. I wasn’t created for any tomb. But in the age of chipper self-help projects, one more activity is no way to honor the solemn season of my faith. Part of Mary Oliver’s “Fourth Sign of the Zodiac” speaks to my ambivalence at the season.

I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.

 so why not get started immediately.

I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.

And to write music or poems about.

Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
Bless touching.

You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
Or not.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?

I do need a prod. And a little darkness is one of the few things that can get me going on something deeper than the to-do list. This is the season in which I’m most envious of Buddhist vocabulary of balance and mindfulness. I wish my tradition had rituals for engaging suffering and sacrifice that didn’t so easily become acts of violence in my own life. I wish for a Lenten practice with unity of activity and contemplation—a way to reflect while in motion, and move in reflection. I want something more than weed whipping. I want a cultivar of wisdom and peace.

As I cast about for practices, I listened to an interview with Thich Nhat Hanh on mindfulness and engaged Buddhism. I heard him say “the root of ‘communication’ is the basic word for peace” and thought: Yes. But only if the root of communication is listening. Turns out I heard him wrong (which is predictable for a Dane and a dharma talk), but the cultural plinko landed a jackpot.

When we suffer, we listen. But listening is also the root of peace.

Jesus’ moments of deepest suffering come through the gospels as times of listening. The forty days of testing in the desert didn’t produce forty sermons or even forty proverbs. Gethsemane is a nighttime venture, and the last moments on the cross are those of deafening silence. The quietest, deepest span of Jesus’ work comes to us as a sealed tomb. When Jesus suffered, he wasn’t talking.

But Jesus’ listening is also a seed of peace. His willingness to live, and die, from a commitment to listening birthed lasting, transcendent, accessible peace.

If ever a season was built for cultivating listening, Lent is it. I need to listen more. I need it for my relationships and I need it for the good of my soul. But, also, listening is fit for tombs; tombs are built to carry and contain even the smallest whisper. The tomb may, in fact, be the best way God has found of getting us to listen at all.

So I begin this Lenten journey set on listening. Maybe darkness can be the prod that blesses the feet that take me to and fro. Maybe a passion of listening can tune me to the people whom I’m supposed to be loving with my life and to hearing the Spirit trying to love mine.

Listening: Act I

My first practice reveals how far I am from the deep river of attentiveness I want to have for others. The goal is embarrassingly small.

My devotion this week will be to pause before I ask for anything, watching for at least three seconds before I voice a request.

Can I learn to see my daughter’s experience of any moment is as full as mine? How will I change when I see my son encounters my pursuits as interruptions to his own?  Will considering my husband’s posture change my tone of voice?

If you’d like to join me in this practice of listening, please do. Over the next forty days, I’ll post the devotion I’ll be practicing each week. If I encounter other things that help me hear (or understand what it means to listen) I’ll post those too, but without commentary or anticipation of comment—simply as offerings on what may be a shared journey.

If you want to join in but are restricting media for your own Lenten journey, you can click “Follow this blog via email” in the sidebar and new posts will come your inbox.