To listen is very hard, because it asks of us so much interior stability that we no longer need to prove ourselves by speeches, arguments, statements or declarations. True listeners no longer have an inner need to make their presence known. They are free to receive, welcome, and accept. – Henri Nouwen
In these first several months of 2020, as we adjust to new routines and face new circumstances, our sense of time is prolonged. While some of us are working harder than ever before, many are working less or not at all. Even though the choices for distraction seem infinite, those of us with more time on our hands have been wondering what to do. More time gives us the chance to listen and connect with others. We also have the time to listen to that one person who easily gets ignored and shut out – ourselves.
Under normal circumstances, we don’t often spend time by listening to our inner voices. Reflection and introspection have become lost arts, considered time-wasters by our action-oriented culture that prefers to ‘just do it’ rather than ‘simply be.’
When life stays busy, we focus on the outer self that we present to the world, that public person the rest of the world knows. With the hustle and bustle gone (or at least reduced), we can revisit our inner selves. What an amazing opportunity…and what a terrifying challenge.
It’s always a risk to face oneself. You don’t know what you might find. Sometimes wonderful things come up – clarity, spontaneity, joy. There’s nothing like the spark of a great insight or a rapturous realization. Other times, our minds take us to places we avoid: old, dead dreams. Failures and wounds. Feelings we don’t want to feel.
I have a mean inner voice that berates me for not doing enough. I wilt under its disappointment, and it drives many jealousies and resentments. These are some of the darker parts of me that I prefer to keep buried.
But wisdom is born out of reflective listening. What do we learn when we sit with ourselves? I learn what really matters to me. I’ve turned away jobs that offered great security at the cost of my spirit. Other times, I’ve avoided meaningful opportunities because I was too afraid to pursue them. Listening to my heart has told me that sometimes I’m like a bird in an invisible cage, trapping and stifling myself in bars of my own construction. I create my own walls. I’ve also learned, listening to myself, that I will always find my way because of a deep wellspring of strength and determination – that common wellspring of humanity that we all tap into when we need it. Listening to myself also teaches me to listen to others, and connect with a greater community that gives me love and support. Life is an ebb and flow of mysterious experiences; the closer I listen, the better my choices and decisions.
Time alone is a spiritual connection, but when the mood is somber, it can be very hard. Here are some ideas to make it easier:
–Focus your attention on a question or prompt that nourishes your spirit. I’ve been inspired by Ross Gay’s Book of Delights, a collection of essays about the joy of taking delight in small, ordinary things. I’m writing down my own daily delights: the bunny rabbit that munches on the weeds in my back yard, fresh fern shoots, my neighbor’s laugh, the gorgeous colors of French lentils in sunlight, dancing to Sly and the Family Stone…. Nature and people bring so much delight, and it is powerfully regenerative to the spirit.
–Have fun with your imagination. Let it run wild. As with the daily delight, dwell on something joyful, fun, playful. It could be a fantasy of what you’d do with the lottery. It’s never a waste of time to imagine. For all matters serious and light, the imagination takes us to places we can never think our way to. Our imaginations, not our rational minds, bring us our creative breakthroughs, eureka moments, and flashes of insight that move us in a different direction. They’re our very own stargates and transporters.
–Practice mindfulness to stay calm and grounded. This means we notice and observe our thoughts, but don’t get wrapped up in them. Rather than judging or evaluating our thoughts, we neutrally describe what we’re thinking and feeling. Mindful observation can give us the courage to stay in the moment when the moment gets tough. This is very hard for me; I need more practice! I try to notice my thoughts with the promise of acceptance and total gratitude. “I’m feeling sorry for myself and complaining, and that’s okay. It’s natural. It’s what’s happening this moment, and it will pass.”
–If the emotions become difficult and painful, you have a choice about whether to sit with them, or break the connection. If my thoughts take me to a dark place, I acknowledge first, “It’s just a thought.” Thoughts are thoughts, not reality. Then I decide whether I want to face my thoughts and feelings or go hear the voice of a friend. If I leave them, they will be waiting for me another day, when I’m ready to face them. If I turn to a friend, the TV, the garden, my work, or whatever, I’m not a coward. I’m taking care of myself.
Like individuals, organizations have so much wisdom to glean from the stillness of the moment. In my consulting practice, I encourage people to use reflective inquiry skills to find their own answers, to discover the solutions to their problems, and to re-connect with people and teams suffering from breakdowns in their relationships. All disconnections between oneself and between people lead to diminished performance. In many workplaces, we are a shadow of what we could be. Yet, the wisdom is in the room, so to speak. My job is to help people unearth what they already know to be the right thing to do, which becomes crystal clear when we listen – deeply.
Sitting with yourself, or with your team, with your colleagues – what are you discovering, or perhaps re-discovering?