A few days ago someone listened to me. It was the first time anyone had done so in maybe 15 years. It has had a profound effect on me.
It may seem strange me saying this. Let me explain…
I was with someone and started talking about being with my mother as she died. It is something I have talked about to many, many people over the last 25 years. I said many of the same things I had said to everyone else. As I talked I glanced at the other person as I had done everyone else. And something hit me like a bolt of electricity…
This person was totally and utterly with me. Through their eyes they held me unwaveringly, with the most amazing care and warmth. I suddenly realised they had moved towards me and gently placed a hand on my knee. I felt them as being right in with me, with no boundary. I felt totally held. And shaken to my core.
So I sat there, as the sea of their eyes washed over me and through me. And I felt overwhelmed by the kindness, the intensity and intimacy of it. I was being given permission and acknowledgement. I found myself talking more emotionally than I’m used to about my mum, as I talked of her last hours and minutes, me holding her hand. And I felt the person next to me holding my knee in the same way that I had held my mother. The truth of this hits me with tears as I write this.
And so I talked, for a good 20 minutes or so, and something rather wondrous and magical happened. The caring, the warmth, the being in with, the intimacy, didn’t go. This person did not back off from me by even a millimeter. For even a fraction of a second. For 20 whole minutes. And as I talked, some tears came. And I felt the heart that was in with me open, and let my tears fall through it unchecked. I looked at their eyes often for confirmation, and was met with an open heart, and a feeling that I know very well. That I call love.
And as I talked they occasionally said things too. They asked if it was ok them being in this close, which I felt as the most gentle care. And they said a few things that showed my shared experience was being heard. And with gentle sighs and Ah’s somehow mirrored my feelings as I relived my mum dying terrified, her 5 stone body torn asunder by cancer.
And something else happened as I talked about my mum… I felt a tender, young part of me… uncertain, shy, not knowing if could believe or trust… checking to see if the other person was still with me, and shocked when it was. Then more uncertain… because of the rarity of it.
The shyness and anxiety were old friends and did not hold sway… I am too used to expressing my deepest emotions for that to happen.
It was the love, closeness, warmth, love, and care that held sway, for 20 timeless minutes. And the open-eyed wonder of young me, the me inside.
We then continued to share for some time. And I also listened, hopefully with as warm and open a heart. On the surface it was just two people chatting. In reality it was deep sharing and listening, with total intimacy, closeness, oneness, without boundary, the feeling of home that we all seek. I have rarely felt anything so mutual, and so pure.
Since then I have had a mixture of feelings. There has been inside a deep relaxing, a softening of my entire body, a feeling of having been fed, of being loved. An affirming of love, and a deep ok-ness about life and the world. I have not felt as easy in this for a long, long time. The next day I ran 2 miles easily, and moved fluidly and with newfound energy. I have felt gratitude, and the relaxed sense of the oneness, connection and intimacy has stayed. Not just with this person, but with my surroundings, with the world. I feel grateful for this.
I have also felt a strong hoping for more of this. Of course I do. How could I not after such an experience. I have also been anxious. There fear of being abandoned, of not getting more, of the other person going back to their life (which they did) and me being forgotten (which I’m guessing they almost certainly won’t). It would be so easy to aim this fear at the other person, but it only took a short time listening for it to tell me of the lifetime of not being listened to deeply, and the resultant deprivation, the feeling of being unloved, the separateness, and loneliness. Of course I’m going to feel anxious and scared. Also I find if I embrace difficult feelings, they may be revealed as an honouring of the importance of something or someone precious. As opening to grief is a measure of our love.
The first thing that strikes me about all this is the rarity of this kind of listening. I have only been listened to like this just 5 times in my life. Three times 3O years ago by zen teachers for about 5 seconds, once 15 years ago for about 2 minutes by a famous therapist, and once 15 years ago by a man called Francois, in a timeless place that may have been 15 minutes, maybe an hour. And now this.
As a therapist and in my personal life I have sat with and listened to 100’s, maybe 1000’s of people for countless hours, as they relived the most horrific abuse, car accidents, bombs, war, etc. And in all but a very few cases none of them knew at all how to listen to themselves or others. And they virtually all have said they have never been listened to like this before by anyone. This is a huge sample of humanity. Carl Rogers, one of the greatest psychotherapists, a supervisor and teacher of 1000’s of psychotherapists, and the greatest advocate of listening in psychology, said at the end of his life “I used to think that to [really listen acceptantly] was easy. It has taken me a long time to realise that for me, for most people, this is extremely hard. To listen acceptantly no matter what is being voiced, is a rare thing.” (Baldwin 1987).
The second thing is that these are some of the most important experiences of my entire life. They are oases in a desert. They have stayed with me and fed me as I broke my emotional world wide open, and cried for many 1000’s of hours on my own. Being listened to in such a deep way is more important than anyone seems to realise.
Thirdly I see listening deeply to our inner emotional world as true intimacy and where we find the love we all seek. Thich Nhat Hanh simply says “Love is listening”. My experience of me listening always opens me to the love and connection. And it has been almost never been mutual. I have rarely met anyone who had even a basic understanding of how to listen. We all seek intimacy and love, but we go about it in the most damaged ways. Carl Rogers explains lthe way to go beautifully, and I try to here. Eugene Gendlin also gives a lovely path that is virtually the same as mine.
Lastly, something else hit me today. I have been offering and sharing this kind of deep listening for 30 years. I’ve only today realised that most people haven’t noticed or felt my listening. And it’s not because of me getting it wrong, it’s them! It is so outside their experience of life that they have blocked out their ability to feel it. It’s not what people think they want or need. They are just too busy with more important things… They’ve forgotten what the 100’s of babies and small children I’ve connected with and listened to know, it’s where the love is.
I think this last realisation is a core part of my relaxing over the past few days. A feeling of relief and being able to let go deeply of a trying. I have lived my whole life for the values I have written here, and when others don’t seem to notice or understand, I have doubted myself, and wondered what I am getting wrong.
The most important things in life can be forgotten as we grow up, can seem the most ephemeral, and best not talked about. I am reminded of Antoine de Saint−Exupery, as he starts his book, The Little Prince… The most important things can not be seen with the eyes.
So the person who listened to me has done me a huge service. They have affirmed something I have known to be real, and lived for my whole life. I am so, so grateful. And I hope in writing this I have done justice to their listening. Thank you.
“Love is listening” Thich Nhat Hanh