© Mark Rahman, 2011. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
August 28, 2011

I am not sure whether the better way to say it is 'I know you are listening but I am not sure whether you hear me' or if it should be 'I know you can hear me but I am not sure if you are listening.' Either way, the physical act of catching the vibrations of the words is not what listening or hearing is all about. More than the meaning of the words is the idea behind them. That is the important work of communication, moving an idea from one isolated being to another - not an easy job considering how isolated that we skin-wrapped bags of water are. Awareness of more than the surface elements of translating our inner world into sound is a beginning into mindful contact with another human being.

When I first began my second career as a Family Advocate with the Family Education & Resource Center, I believed that I could listen as well as anyone. No special skills required. We all do it every day. But, like all things in life it tain't that simple. To listen, you have to be prepared not only to listen but to hear what you will hear. Even in practice role plays, the subject matter would throw me. I was not prepared for actually engaging in a discussion of issues that I was familiar with and thought could not affect me. Being in conversation with a living person can move your own issues and emotions out of where they are stored and, unlocked, have a power to move you this way and that.

Knowing that I could do better at my listening skills is one thing. Knowing why I should care to do so is another thing. The answer is in the isolation within which we serve out our days. We cannot experience, we cannot feel, we cannot know the feelings and thoughts of another from within our own separateness. There is hope to attain a glimmer of another person's being by the words they use, body language, the tension in the voice. Yet how to make use of the bricks and mortar of communication? The meaning, the resonance cannot be communicated directly. It is often not known to the person doing the speaking. If a person suffers guilt and responds with dysfunctional coping by turning to anger and becomes accusatory, will I hear the message in the words? Will I hear the message in the timber or in the volume? I must know how to read not between the words but beyond the words. Control of the surroundings will not break the isolation. Only being heard and understood in the core message can lessen the burden of being alone within one's self and, for a short period, be in communion with another.

There are a couple of examples that give an idea of the task before us. Here from First Kings, Chapter 19, Verses 9 through 12:

9 And he came thither unto a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said unto him, What doest thou here, Elijah?
10 And he said, I have been very jealous for the LORD God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.
11 And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD. And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake:
12 And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

Not in addition to the sound and fury, not between the sound and fury, but outside the sound and fury barely noticed, but there, and having the connection to the spiritual and divine that the more noticeable effects did not possess. One has to be prepared for the opportunity in order to embrace it.

Another vignette is about the Hubble Space Telescope. In December of 1995 the instrument was turned to a spot in the sky near the handle of the Big Dipper and left on that point continuously for ten days. The little patch of space was about the size of a dime at 75 feet. This spot could be pointed at day and night which was useful but what made it interesting was that there was nothing known to be there. All previous scans had shown it to be a dark patch. This was a gamble to see deep into the past at the earliest era of our universe. And they succeeded spectacularly. There were a large number of very early but recognizable galaxies. The empty patch of sky was alive with light and motion. We must look for the barely perceptible signal beyond the other signals all around us.

How then to find the 'still small voice'? The answer is simple and complex at the same time. We must establish common ground and quickly. This is something that cannot be faked. It is something that must be communicated in the language of what is common. Simply saying, "I know how you feel" will ring hollow as an assertion. Because we are all different, no two pairs of people will have the same common ground. In the course of the conversation the common ground must be surveyed and staked out for both parties even if it is not explicit.

How shall we go about establishing common ground? First we must acknowledge that all other people are indeed people. I believe we UUs have a principle or two about that lying around here. This is not trivial. It is not a typical attribute of human beings to see others as the same.

Then comes shared understanding. This is akin to book knowledge. Thee and me see the world as consisting of the same things, organized in the same way, responding to symbols in the same formulaic way. Without the same understanding of meanings, we could not communicate through the use of symbols.

The real setting upon which common ground is founded is shared experience. You either have the experience or you do not. You may have to make do with a lesser quality experience in the form of having lived next to people who went through a life that was similar to the person that you are talking to. When you cannot indicate your 'sameness', then you can show that you accept the validity of their frame of reference. The point is to find that common ground that will allow the other person to accept you as someone who understands not only the words of the message but the emotion and the needs. The more you have in common, the more the other person will be able to open up and the better you will be able to see beyond the words. The quickest way to shut down an open channel is to try to claim to be someone you are not. Stick with who you are, even if you think it is not going to get to a full connection.

Now for the technical lessons of the art. Two quick lessons that I got right away. Number one, if I am talking then I cannot hear them. Rule number one to self, shut up. But not too much. Once I started speaking less, I began to get 'are you still there?' Not speaking is not the same as being silent. I had to make sure that the connection was kept alive because communication is a two-way street even when only one person is talking. Second, draw out the story without leading it. I expect the story to be nonlinear. It will meander all around. Time is not to be limited if there is a message that is not easy to get out. The real issue that is at the core of the message may never be spoken. The speaker may not be aware of any deeper issue. Keep listening in a nonjudgmental way that validates the speaker's experience. Reflect the story back to them in any of several methods that are part of any standard communications class. That way the other person can know that they have at least had the words land in someones ear.

More difficult is perceiving the underlying emotions. It is easy to get that wrong. Do not project the emotions that you would have for the same story. Listen for the emotion that the words communicate. Then listen for the emotions that might go along with the story. Listen for the emotions that could be masked because of shame or other motivations. Be aware the emotions can be counterproductive, that trauma can cause emotions to be dysregulated.

Deeper than emotions are those drives that are part of the essence of our being - things that can drive emotions but have no communication method of their own: Pain, which we can interpret from outside sign, but does not have its own language. Plus other drives such as hunger, fear, lust, survival of self or the next generation. They have obvious effects but are not always given voice. 'Hearing' what is not said and what is powerful yet hidden is the true art of listening.

Let me give you a story of a composite case, pieces of which are taken from a variety of actual clients I have worked with. Mom calls and wants to know about housing options. Her son is going to need someplace to live. We talk for a long time about the special requirements. It must be soon, subsidized, safe. There are other issues about benefits and transportation. In time more of the story emerges. He has gone to the acute care facility at John George Psychiatric Pavilion. Later I find that he got there after being diverted from Santa Rita. He was at Santa Rita Jail because he had tried to kill his mother who he thought was a robot. Then I find that she has just been told that her son is to be released soon by John George as stable. They have told her that he will go to an emergency shelter if he does not return to her care. Mom is certain that he cannot survive on his own if he cannot come home. She is equally sure that he will do her grievous harm if he does return. I have heard the words about housing. I have heard the grief, anger, frustration and love. But I have also heard another message. What mom is asking is for my help to make a decision. To help her go over the options and what will happen after her choice. She is asking me to help her choose who will live and who will die. It was never stated like that but that was the core message and it had all the fear and pain possible wrapped up in it. Had I stuck to housing resources, I would never have been able to work with her. I had to hear beyond the words.

I would like to start our meditation now. Please sit as suits you, feet wherever, eyes however, and do not concentrate too hard.

Remember the common ground? Be aware of your side of the ground? Listen to yourself. This is what mystics and meditators are attempting in their practices. This is not a simple task. Especially with all the noise going on inside one's head. Seek between the words that rise in silence without attempting to suppress them. Look to see or feel the emotions that are present. Recall the emotions you have felt recently. Take them in, accept them and then go beyond. Settle as deep into your essence as you may. Make no judgment because this is you and who you bring to life each day. Listen within to find what you share with others.


(Sound of the Bell)

Blessed be.

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