Our Wellspring retreat on Saturday was a joy – coming together, finally, in person instead of through e-mail. Much as I treasure the convenience of sending off messages into cyber-space (and trusting for the most part that they get where I think they’re going), I value even more the faces and voices, the group interaction, the process of listening to one another with attention and love. In the morning we talked about different spiritual practices, encouraging participants in their search for a daily practice that’s meaningful and doable. This year we added a new exercise to illustrate yet another spiritual practice – the art of listening, the spiritual discipline of offering our complete attention to the other, listening from the heart without comment or advice or fixing.
Our first reading this year is Parker Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness, where he writes beautifully about allowing the shy soul the safe space it needs. It works well as the first assignment, since the afternoon of the retreat is spent listening to each other’s stories, and Palmer’s description of being together in a circle of trust reminds us of the need to listen from the heart. But there’s another book I recommend as well, one given to me years ago by a Quaker friend. The book is called Listening Spirituality, Volume 1, by Patricia Loring. Every time I go back to it I find new wisdom.
In the chapter on listening as a spiritual practice or discipline, Loring says, “It is a powerful discipline for the ‘listener’ to try to listen without agenda, without the compulsion to help, abandoning the need or desire to appear knowledgeable, wise, or comforting. There may be no more tellingly difficult spiritual practice than the effort to receive what is being said by someone else hospitably, without editing, without correction, without unsolicited advice.”
This kind of listening is easier for some of us than for others. I think of how our normal conversations go – jumping in with whatever comes to our heads, speaking more than listening, waiting for our “turn” to get in our two cents. But in our Wellspring group, we’re trying to change that pattern. I know I’m still trying to change it in myself. I was raised in a family where intellectual strength was a virtue. Dinner conversations meant lots of talk and ideas, laughter and friendly argument. I’m still trying to hush the interior voice that wants to interrupt, to get people to listen to my story, my ideas, my memories. I’m practicing listening from the heart, hearing the other person’s story without having to interject anything. It isn’t easy, but it’s worth the effort because I learn so much more this way. My hope for our Wellspring group is that we create a safe space where we can all be heard and where we can all be better listeners as we journey on our spiritual quest together.