The Art of Listening - in meditation, dialogue and improvisation
I love to be understood. And I am pretty sure, so do you! When we feel truly understood something deep inside relaxes; we breathe more calmly and smoothly. At times we may even cry, so good does it feel to be heard. Our hearts open to the other and we are more present; alert to new possibilities of being in the world together. We stop trying to be heard and understood - such a relief!
During the last years, through my studies of NVC (nonviolent or compassionate communication) and coaching I have dedicated myself to cultivating the art of listening. Essentially it is about openness and receptivity; a quality of curious, heart-based, body-based presence. Other qualities that belong to it are attention to detail; being non-judgemental; willingness to accept uncertainty, not knowing where it is going to go and trusting intuition. Sounds like a description of mindfulness meditation, doesn’t it? It could also be an introduction to improvisation, something I studied at Music College many years ago and still love to do.
With regard to communication it also helps to be aware of a few basic principles, such as trusting the other’s resourcefulness and keeping advice-giving at bay. One of the most powerful changes that have made communication much more satisfying for me has been learning to listen to the deeper needs that are being expressed, often hidden behind judgements. When these underlying, universal needs, such as wanting to matter, to be heard, to contribute are given some space to be felt then the space between people starts to sing and hard edges soften.
A couple of days ago I went to a meeting of mindfulness practitioners interested in academic research. I was invited to make some contribution to the subject of mindfulness and creativity, an area that is receiving some research interest.. I decided to start my short contribution experientially, asking people to engage in some movement improvisation. It was a small room, filled with tables and chairs. So we did an improvisation, consisting of standing and sitting, where you have a choice of how long you sit or stand and how often you change position. ‘Be aware of yourself and at the same time maintain a broad awareness of the whole group’ I instructed the group. ’Enjoy the whole happening you are a part of, the particular configuration of shapes at any moment and how it changes. Be curious about what makes you change position.’ Soon the atmosphere in the room became enjoyably charged, as we ‘listened’ to ourselves and others in this open and attentive way.
In the reflection afterwards some people said that they found it easier to be mindful in movement than in sitting meditation, and particularly within a playful context. Others said that they felt not only alert and calm (as in sitting meditation), but also connected. to others. We talked about the potential transformation of an element of self consciousness (in the meaning of shyness or awkwardness) into losing a sense of separate self, experiencing the release of being part of something bigger.
The wholesome heart of a dream
I’ve noticed that synchronicity comes into play when I start to give passionate attention to something that matters to me. Currently, in the last phase of my coaching training, I am thinking hard about how to describe what I am offering to potential clients. Last night I found this passage in my current bedside novel: A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson. Hugh is 84 and on a road trip with his granddaughter Bertie, visiting the graveyard his wife and other family members and friends are buried in.
‘A woodland burial,’ he said. ‘No name, nothing, just a tree. An oak, if you can, but anything will do. Don’t let your mother be in charge.’
Death was the end. Sometimes it took a whole lifetime to understand that. …… ‘Promise me you’ll make the most of your life,’ he said to Bertie.
‘I promise,’ Bertie said, already at twenty-four knowing it was unlikely she would be able to do so.
I read and reread that last sentence, with a sense of both sadness and determination. Am I really making the most of my life now? Are others? What does it take to ‘be able to do so’? In the middle of the night I woke out of a dream,....read more
Going on retreat
What shall I write to you about this month, my dear mindfulness loving readers? What do you long for? What made you take the time to open this email? A yearning for peace and spaciousness perhaps, a lessening of the urge to get to the bottom of that interminable ‘to do’ list? Or could it be the desire to feel sharply alive, enchanted by the sight of a plum tree in blossom against a crisp blue sky, spontaneously uplifted from the humdrum of daily life? Or do you want some respite from a nagging sense of loneliness? Are you longing for a sense of belonging and love to pervade your body and mind leaving no room for doubt? Or perhaps you need some perspective, seeing beyond the aims of the ‘small self’ that’s wearily trying to feel secure? ....... read more
Let in the good
Last weekend I met an old friend at a birthday party. She didn’t look too happy and it turned out she had just split up from her boyfriend of seven years and had moved into a bare housing association flat on her own. The job she had been so pleased to get following the completion of her PhD turned out a disappointment and there was lots of tension with her colleagues. Years ago she had done a couple of mindfulness courses (one with me), but had somewhat got out of the habit of practise. Her depression had come back and she was at the end of a course of talking therapy. Had it helped her, I asked, and she said: ‘Not really’. She looked me straight into the eye. I sensed her pain. What could I say to her, apart from expressing my empathy with her loneliness and depression and wish for love and harmony? Generally I try not to give uninvited advice. But somehow I felt moved to...... read more
More on needs
Pen perched, I sit in the sunlit bay window waiting for inspiration for this second instalment of the Mindful Living newsletter. My head is full of the cold and I can’t think clearly. The more I push myself: ‘Come on, think! You said you’d write something about feelings and requests. Surely you can remember something interesting and educational from the last couple of course sessions, to share with your readers?’ the more blank my mind feels.
So I change tack. I ask myself: ‘What do I need right now?’ ‘Ease and kindness’ the answer comes. Of course! I let myself experience the relief of insight and feel warmth spreading through my heart; the forehead un-wrinkles and I breathe more fully. I let go of my fixation with the end-result of having to produce an interesting article. Ease and kindness – this feels good. I could sit like this for a long time, doing nothing. But hey – I am actually writing. Writing about the present experience fits beautifully with ease and kindness. Suddenly I am aware of the aftertaste of the hot lemon, ginger and honey drink I just had. I smell the green sweetness of the wide open tulips..... read more
This month we started the 8 wk ‘mindful communication’ course and it is proving to be the highlight of my week! Using a mixture of mindfulness practices and workshopstyle explorations we have built a warm, open and sensitive ambience in which explore some of the more tricky communication issues in our lives.
We looked at Observation (or lack of): How we are so tempted to create a bite size and biting (i.e. judgmental) story around our experience that then defines our reality. ‘My boss deliberately ignores me’ went round and round in Jane’s (not her name) head, together with possible explanations as to why this is so. We tried to tease out what kind of behaviour would be observed by a camera in the office: the bare facts. We got to: ‘Her face is neutral and she mostly interacts with the whole group, rather than any individuals.’ By asking the question ‘what did you actually see and hear’ we brought mindfulness into play. A large part of mindfulness practice consists in noticing, through the senses, what is happening in the moment, free of judgment. It activates a calmer way of being, and that seemingly occurs even when being mindful in hindsight, remembering what we saw, felt, heard in past moments. By tapping into that mode of being Jane created a larger perspective and started to have more of a sense of choice.
But she was still pretty worked up about the situation, still rehearsing her story about what she thought her boss was thinking. She is not alone in.... read more