One of the phrases which comes up in conversations with people who are tired of church is something like, “I want to live a meaningful life, or a life of purpose.” They don’t see the church as the place to do this. Though I believe they are often mistaken, they are also often correct, because it is so easy to miss the purpose for which we were called. Churches have a history of getting caught up in our ideas, in our procedures and in our traditions. We fight over who is right. We break our belonging to each other because of small words. We have taken up arms against other religions, we have killed our own who think differently, we have associated ourselves with political power, and on it goes. Down through history, we do not have a very good reputation for love.
We are called to a much greater purpose: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and our neighbors as ourselves. To change the dynamics of the world by connecting with each other, being one body, being God’s chosen people, adding to our community each day a new person to whom we have shown love.
Practice Makes Purpose, is about how to love. Not just the word love. In fact, Paul Schroeder owns that he does not often use the word in the text of the book. The word, love, is not the point. What it looks like to love ourselves and others in practice – this is what matters. This is what gives life purpose.
And Schroeder also has a specific definition of “purpose:” belonging to that which is infinitely greater than ourselves (p. 49). He is talking about being part of God’s infinite loving action in the world, drawing people together, into heart connections, which are healing and life-giving.
Today, we look at the second spiritual practice of love, Heartfelt Listening. The problem as Schroeder describes it rings true for so many of the stories I hear today. The heart is the well-spring of living. From the heart comes our zest for life, energy, bursting with a bouquet of experiences into a beautiful work of art. When our emotions flow freely, we are lifted by their energy, their varying moods and gifts. We feel fully alive, feeling everything there is to feel.
This is to feel fully alive. But our world does not live fully alive. The spiritual masters have recognized this from ancient times. We think we must do this or understand that. We race around to every teacher to find the final answer. All from good intentions. We want to please everyone, thinking that when we are seen as wise, we will be truly wise. So we work for notoriety or acclaim. We do surveys, and audience analysis. We figure out who is visiting our social media platforms. Have we got it figured out yet? No, the numbers were down this week, or didn’t rise enough. Nothing is going viral. So we try another tool. Another source. Plans B, C, D, and so on.
All with good intentions. We want the world to learn how to love. We know it is the key. But in all our bizzyness, we swamp our heart. If we hear our hearts at all, it is like a message spoken underwater. We can’t feel. We don’t have time. So we slowly get further and further away from the deep clear lake of our heart. No longer do we feel the tingle of its cold awakening water.
We have what the ancients call acedia (ah-key-THEE-ah). We have become dry and dusty because we have neglected our hearts, our inner lives. Every challenge seems too heavy to pick up. We walk slower and slower, let the weeds grow, forget to create colorful gardens, sumptuous food, runner’s highs. We just can’t connect to what seemed to make life worth living. We don’t have that old energy anymore – and it isn’t just a problem of aging. We fill our time with a frenzy of activity to distract ourselves from the lake of our hearts which has become a black swamp, full of unfelt feelings we don’t want to acknowledge.
So what is the cure? Heartfelt listening – to our own hearts. We can never heal another until we have made ourselves whole. Healing is all about repairing brokenness. In fact in the Jewish spiritual tradition, the work of God’s people is to repair the world, to collect the broken shards of light scattered throughout creation. It is there hidden. It is our task on earth to repair the cracks, bring the pieces back together so they can shine.
Schroeder tells the story of how a wise woman did this:
Once there was an old woman who was reputed to be the wisest teacher in all the land. There was always a crowd waiting outside her hut. People would go inside with their shoulders tight and hunched, and their eyes red from sleepless nights. But when they came out, their steps were lighter, and there was relief in their eyes. Everyone went away praising her profound insight and sage advice.
One day, a young seeker went to see the wise teacher and begged her to share the secret of her great wisdom. The teacher looked kindly at the seeker and said, “My child, when people come to see me, I welcome them and invite them to sit down. I know some people have come great distances carrying heavy burdens, so I try to make them as comfortable as I can. Then I ask them to tell me why they came, and I never interrupt while they answer. Even though I know others are waiting, I don’t hurry people along or rush them to the point. I let them speak as long as they need. When they have said everything they have to say, I do not give them advice or try to solve their problems. I just say four simple words. Always the same four words, and no more.”
The seeker begged the wise teacher to reveal the four magic words. The teacher leaned forward, and with a twinkle in her eye, she whispered, “Please tell me more” (p. 41-42).
What did the wise woman do? She listened long enough that the seekers began to uncover the emotional wealth of life inside of them. They felt her listening as permission to be whole. And they were whole.
Listening has power to heal. Have you ever experienced it? The whole discipline of Psychology is essentially the practice of good, patient listeners, who ask questions for you to uncover your inner life and light. Brene Brown describes the healing this way: “[It] is the energy that is created between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment” (The Gifts of Imperfection). This energy heals us, makes us whole.
The spiritual path is a seeking after peace and joy. Paul encouraged the people of Colossae to seek the peace of Christ (Col. 3:15). Isn’t that, in the end, what we all seek? Here Schroeder has some helpful words. He suggest that we misunderstand peace and joy. We think peace and joy are the opposite of sadness, anger and fear; that peace can only exist in the absence of these. Instead, he suggests, that joy is the feeling of being fully alive. And being fully alive is experiencing all life has to offer. Joy, rather than a continuous state of happiness, is being fully alive to all the emotions our human life has to offer, living in the currents of energy they bring coursing through our bodies. And the peace part, is knowing that whatever we feel is okay. We welcome whatever we hear our hearts saying.
It is connected to Compassionate Seeing, where we accept everything we see. In this case we accept everything we feel. We listen for and hear what our hearts are saying.
What is the practice of Heartfelt Listening? Like Compassionate Seeing, it has two movements. First, we ask ourselves ‘what am I feeling?’ This is not an easy question. After living for generations in a culture which is about accomplishment rather than feeling, we just don’t have the tools. I have found a particularly good resource in Nonviolent Communication of Marshall Rosenberg. Basically, the book is about how to become aware of and to communicate our feelings.
But the key to noticing what we are feeling is to pay attention to what our body is telling us. Notice the clenched jaw, the butterflies in the stomach, the reddening face, the shallow breathing, etc. Feel what the body is doing.
Which leads immediately to the second movement of Heartfelt Listening: ‘What is this feeling telling me?’ Take the time to feel the feeling and wonder, investigate what it is telling you. Do you feel threatened, disrespected, admired, amused? What are these feeling trying to do for you? Not against you, but for you? Are they a warning that you are not safe? Are they a reminder of something you love and deeply value? Our feelings are often a better indicator of what we truly value than our thoughts. (Please get the book and read it for more techniques in doing this!)
Before we leave this discipline, a homework question for us all: Did Jesus practice heartfelt listening? How do you know? What about some of the other Biblical Great Ones? I remember the first and easiest Bible verse I ever learned: Jesus wept (John 11:35). He felt deeply with his friends. Look it up. Find out what was happening there. Was Jesus listening to his own feelings? Was he standing in his friends’ shoes and feeling their feelings? Another memory verse: let the little children come to me (Luke 18:16). What about when he prayed so passionately in the Garden of Gethsemane? Do you remember his disappointment that his disciples could not feel with him, practiced no empathy but slept? Or think about Jesus picking up a whip and turning over tables, herding people out of the Temple. Was he reaching into his deep lake of feelings? Or was he maybe feeling with the God who he knew so well?
I find that as I think about these stories the difference between hearing what my own heart is telling me, and being able to feel the feelings of someone else, are deeply connected.
This week in Boston, a huge march erupted in response to a small free speech rally. I heard participants say, “I felt so much anger at the white supremacist racism. I had to speak out. I needed to be in their face.” The events in Charlottesville a week ago tapped a nerve. People who were not there, whose families were not directly impacted, connected to the anger. But did it bring about the things that make for peace?
This question troubles me. I wonder what would happen if we focused on the listening, rather than on the speaking, on both sides. I doubt it would solve everything. But when we listen deeply to our own hearts, we get in touch with the anger, or rejection there. When we combine this with Compassionate Seeing, imagining what it is like to live in the other’s shoes and accepting what we see – when we do that while we listen to our own hearts – empathy is born. And empathy, feeling the pain of another, brings to the table the energy of connection.
Love your neighbor as yourself. As we take the time to know and love our own deepest feelings and the values they represent, we can be good lovers of neighbors, who are human as we are, who have the light in them too, covered up by years of…, well of what? That is what we are called to ask.
Please tell me more.
References are to Practice Makes Purpose: Six Spiritual Practices That Will Change Your Live and Transform Your Community, by Paul Schroeder.