Several years ago we started a small practice group with some friends to work with the alphabet of spiritual practices in our books Spiritual Literacy and Spiritual Rx and with the 26-part film series based on them. We had the only copy of the series in the States at the time, but since then, happily, we've acquired the distribution rights, and the series is available from the Spiritual Literacy Project section of this website.
We discovered that seven people took seven approaches to each practice, whether it be compassion, gratitude, or wonder, so rather than coming together to do a particular exercise, we decided to practice on our own and use our meetings to share our experiences. For this process to be meaningful, we soon learned, we had to really listen to each other.
In The Sacred Art of Listening, Kay Lindahl writes about what we tried to achieve in our group: "There's something beyond technique when two or more people are deeply listening to each other. It is an awareness that not only are we present to each other, we are present to something that is spiritual, holy, sacred."
But this kind of "deep listening" goes against the cultural grain. Lindahl cites research studies by the International Listening Association which report that we spend about 45 percent of our time listening, but we are distracted, preoccupied, or forgetful about 75 percent of that time. The average attention span for adults is about 22 seconds. Immediately after listening to someone talk, we usually recall only about half of what we've heard; within a few hours, only about 20 percent.
Clearly, we all need to get better at listening. Here are some approaches our group found helpful.
l. Start with a ritual. At the beginning of our meeting, we lit a candle to signify that this was a time for focused attention. Some of us carried this practice home, using candle lighting to heighten the feeling of intimacy during a conversation with a child or partner.
2. Listen for understanding. Our group sat in a circle and one by one, we reported what we have learned from our spiritual practices about ourselves, the world, and God. We each tied to give our full attention to the speaker. We found it easier to do so when we were not distracted by planning what we were going to say (we did that beforehand) or by figuring out how we were going to respond (we had a no cross-talk, no comment rule). We agred that we were not there to analyze, judge, or try to fix another's experience. Lindahl writes: "You do not have to agree with or believe anything that is said. Your job is to listen for understanding."
3. Listen and speak from your heart. We've learned in our group that we could describe our yearnings and admit our failings. We knew that our circle was a safe place for such honesty because the others were hearing us with open minds and loving hearts -- and perhaps most importantly, they were not going to evaluate what we said. In that open space, our true feelings could emerge in due time.
We also agreed not to comment outside the circle on the sharing to outsiders or even among ourselves. We talked in the group about what a spiritual practice was teaching us, and we knew we needed to come to that realization on our own. Sometimes affirmation is just as limiting as disagreement for it can influence you to never change your mind.
This style of listening without comment is not always appropriate. Obviously, there are occasions when you need to be engaged in dialogue and your responses are expected. But try this approach to listening at least some of the time. Be truly present to the speaker. Don't be distracted by your plans, assumptions, judgments, or need to respond. Experience the deep communion that is possible as you deeply listen to another.