Liberation through listening:

"I was able to choose a better path"

Meditation through listening

Most of us know that a crucial condition for friendship is the ability to listen.

So too for prayer, which St Teresa of Avila describes as “nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends.” (1)

Just as listening to each other involves listening beyond the words being used to what is really being said, listening to the silent voice of wisdom and peace within ourselves involves listening beyond the immediate noise of our thoughts and feelings, a tuning-in to the centre of our being.

A little while ago, a school teacher going through our four-week Meditation Foundations Training shared how the simple practice was helping her to handle a tendency to be outspoken and confrontational:

 

"I was in a meeting the other day and a colleague, who is also a friend, said something I strongly disagreed with and I felt very angry.

 

After the meeting, we were alone for a few minutes in the staff room together as we fetched our coats. I was still boiling inside. I wanted to tell her exactly what I thought.

 

But I didn’t. I was able to recognise my angry thoughts and feelings, and step back from them a little. I was able to say to myself, “Don’t speak now. Find a time tomorrow when your feelings have calmed down.”

 

Everyone I work with would tell you how unlike me this is!

 

I only began meditating two weeks ago. But for the first time I can remember, instead of immediately saying what I wanted to say, I was able to pause. Some part of me was calm enough to see that speaking right there and then would likely spark a big argument and harm our relationship.

 

I was able to listen to what was going inside me, and instead of just reacting, I was able to choose a better path forward."

Listening deeply is one of the most precious gifts we can offer each other.

To be truly heard means so much more than someone simply hearing our words. It involves an affirmation of the person behind the words, an acknowledgement of the otherness of the other.

The first advice given by St. Benedict in his Rule for a school of love in community, is to “Listen carefully,” to “attend with the ear of your heart.” (2) 

In meditation, as we learn to acknowledge and attend to what is going on within ourselves with peace and kindness, we are increasingly able to acknowledge and attend to others with peace and kindness. We learn to recognise and let go of our biases and assumptions, our fixed ideas about each other and the world.


Freed of our well-worn habits of intellectual and emotional response, we are able to listen deeply, to “attend with the ear of the heart,” to ourselves, to each other, to God.


What does this deeper listening look like?

This well-known story about the prayer of silent listening captures it well.

 

An old man would sit still in church for hours on end. One day a priest asked him if God ever said anything to him in his prayer.

 

‘God does not talk. He just listens,’ the old man said.

 

‘Well, then, what do you spend all this time talking about?’ the priest asked.

 

‘I don’t talk either,’ the old man replied, ‘I just listen.’

Deeper listening allows us to meet the perspectives of others.

Whatever our view is, others look at the situation differently to one degree or another. We don’t negate our own experience, feelings, needs, or preferences. We step into a field of openness in which problems can be seen and a multiplicity of perspectives can be met more peacefully and generously.

The open, peaceful attention we cultivate in meditation helps us to meet small situations, like who is going to do the washing-up, or tougher situations like the political or religious, less defensively, with less rigidity about how things should be. Whatever the “rights and wrongs” of a situation, we are more aware of how it might be affecting both of us.


The world is always infinitely bigger than it seems to a closed mind. It is always bigger than our memory and opinions.

We will always have views and opinions, of course. But our clinging to them keeps us stuck in a tight, confined place.

In any moment we can say our prayer word and follow our breath, notice and let go of our concerns and preconceptions, and meet the person we are with and the world with greater openness and peace.

If you decide to practice deeper listening in a conversation, notice how your body relaxes when you do, how you become more present and at ease. When we are open, others tend to relax their own defensiveness.

The graciousness of deeper listening brings us into a field of open presence in which no one is excluded.

Speaking about listening to God, the twentieth-century Trappist monk Thomas Merton writes:

 

The true contemplative is not one who prepares his mind for a particular message that they want or expects to hear, but who remains empty because they know that they can never expect or anticipate the word that will transform their darkness into light.

 

They do not even anticipate a special kind of transformation.

 

They do not demand light instead of darkness.

 

They wait on the Word of God in silence, and when they are “answered,” it is not so much by a word that bursts into their silence.

 

It is by their silence itself suddenly, inexplicably revealing itself to them as a word of great power, full of the voice of God. (3)

Imagine how different our world might be if we could listen to each other like this – how suddenly, inexplicably, we might come to see that the person opposite us is a divine word, full of the voice of God.

Christian meditation - a new way of seeing for a new way of being

If you feel inspired to meditate, you’re very welcome to join one of our free online meditation sessions or read one of our practice guides.

School of Contemplative Life
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