The Presence of Listening
A guest post by Victoria Houser, PhD student at Clemson University.
Like most people, I tend to think of myself as a rather well-rounded listener—supportive, engaging, silent when necessary. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve met anyone who openly acknowledges that they are terrible at listening. We recognize listening as a powerful trait, one that sets us up to connect and flourish inside relationship with each other and with the world. We love the feeling of being understood, seen, known, and loved. Listening well means seeing, knowing, understanding, and relating well. Powerful, indeed.
What does it mean for us to really listen to the quiet currents that run through our lives? I would like to suggest that listening happens at the deepest level in the spaces where language and speech do not occur but simply are.
Now, hear me out (no pun intended); listening is not so much an act as it is a presence. It is a presence we cultivate with ourselves as well as with others. Picture a room that has significance for you. The space of that room is filled with memories, feelings, pain, ideas. The room has a certain presence within it; the space itself is shaped by your experiences within the room. Listening, in this sense, is like stepping into a room with a person, like stepping into the presence of memories, feelings, ideas, and even pain. Listening is the act of being present with another. The space where we are fully present, alive, and in communion with each other is the space where listening occurs.
Over the last month, I’ve slowly been reading through Martin Buber’s book I and Thou for a project I’m developing. Buber can be a bit ephemeral and overwhelming to read (not unlike other German theologians from the early 1900s), but his mystical approach to the sphere of spiritual and material relationship breathes life into the spaces where we dwell with each other. These spheres can be represented in our lives through many forms—our connections to people, animals, flowers, trees, and so on. The material and spiritual realms merge in places where we are truly present with ourselves and others. Buber illustrates these spheres of relationship through the lens of the Thou, in which Thou is not a thing, but a place, a feeling, an essence, a presence. The Thou is the eternal current which runs through our being, connecting us with the material and spiritual spheres of our relationships.
Buber explores this through discussing the nature of our position within the relational spheres, or the places where we find connection with each other and with the earth: “In every sphere in its own way, through each process of becoming that is present to us, we look out toward the fringe of the eternal Thou; in each we are aware of a breath from the eternal Thou; in each we address the eternal Thou. Every sphere is compassed in the eternal Thou, but it is not compassed in them.”
Yes… this is more than a little dense. Basically, what Buber is gesturing toward here is the idea of an essence that runs through each person like a current; an essence that meets us in the still places of life and an essence that we carry and can respond to each other with. We don’t have to conjure up responses to the world or to each other when we are able to extend the response of the thou—this is the space where listening occurs. But this act of listening begins with an attunement to the thou we carry.
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The act of listening finds itself inextricably linked to the act of being mindfully present with others. This is what we yearn for in our deepest, most desperate moments—to be connected to others, to be known and seen. Yet, we cannot expect to give and receive that which we do not have and practice.
What does it mean to be present with ourselves? In the moments where I find myself a little dry and unable to be fully present with other people, I know that I need to find a space where I can check in with myself. There are some very practical ways to find this space, and at the top of the list are walking and meditative writing. This sounds simple. It is. Therein lies the glory of the meditative act. The more we can simplify our approach to listening to ourselves, the better we will be when we show up to listen to others. Being able to simply identify what is happening internally gives us the option to extend ourselves to others. How can one be present in any moment of another person’s soul if they are unable to attend to the matters of their own?
Moving and listening to the current of your life is a prerequisite to being fully present with another. So, find the movement and rhythm that allows you to be fully present with yourself—perhaps by walking, running, climbing, writing. This never looks like one thing, which is why it can be difficult to describe and even more difficult to achieve. I personally feel the most connected and present with myself when I am able to reflect on the simplest forms of joy—such as my morning cup of coffee. But this does not mean that coffee is the answer to everyone’s connection with self (although, sometimes I think it might be). Finding that connection is part of the process of being present with yourself. It is both the act of becoming as well as the act of being present that brings us into the space of communion with self and others.
I’m not convinced we can answer other questions about the world and our position within the world until we teach ourselves to be present with ourselves. Until we find a space where we do not use language so much as dwell in it ourselves, we cannot dwell with others. Once we tap into these currents of listening, our capacity to hear expands. The world of relation opens for us, offering a communion between thous. This listening, this presence, offers us the capacity to empathize with our world wholly—it shoulders a great many sorrows and joys that seemed impossibly large to our wayward spirits. Here is where we find rest with our kin.