The sun is Saharan hot, warning me to set my beach chair close to Arlene’s lounger to find a slice of the circle of shade cast by the umbrella. She is listening to a pod cast on her cell phone, her half closed eyes signaling some deep stuff is riding the audio.
Sitting shoulder to shoulder I can’t help but notice her blissful smile. Curious about what she is listening to that absorbs her so completely, I manage with some finger gesturing to ask if I can share an earbud and get in on the broadcast.
The message pours into my ear and flows directly to the heart.
The program challenges the listener to offer compassion and empathy to an ever widening circle of relationships, expanding as, the Buddhists entreat, to an embrace of the entire globe. The gentle voice of the program’s host describes an interaction with a friend who is sharing the pain of a hurtful incident springing from a relationship gone sour. She listens; she does not offer advice or recommendation or opinion. Instead, she asks her friend, “Where does it hurt?”
The teaching moment for me lies in the question she asks versus my outreach in similar situations. Although well-meaning and loving in its intention, typically I would say, “let me help you.”
I’m so sorry you’re hurting, tell me about it, hmm, yes, I see, I have a story for you about something similar that happened to me…perhaps this advice will help… come, let me hug you.
All good stuff. It’s called “helping.” But the very nature of offering a helping hand to another is an example of duality, separation in the disguise of empathy. There is a subtle judgement involved; a kind of ‘bedside manner’ that I offered, soothing, but under the surface a sense of “me talking to you.”
True compassion and empathy, the gentle voice continues, is inherent in your expressed interest, unmistakable and genuine; your listening, fully focused, hearing what is being said in the space between the words; and being with your body, fully present and experiencing the response to your question, “where does it hurt?”
The transformative moment comes when fully realizing the healing power of deep listening. When we ask, ‘where does it hurt?’ genuinely interested in learning about the pain, fully committed to listening intently and absorbing the pain without filtering and interpreting, we need not speak to clearly communicate, I feel the same pain; we are one. That is compassion. That is true empathy.
The sun has moved and so must I before slightly pink becomes painfully red. I return the earbud to Arlene and reality bites: I am not the Dalai Lama. I aspire to see the world in a drop of the ocean but alas, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz defy the sentiment.
Still, for a brief moment in a patch of shade on a hot Florida beach, I am touched with the spirit and merge with the ocean waves washing up on the beach where I was born.
Listening is more than a communications skill; it is a capacity that arises from receptive presence and awakens our awareness. As we learn to listen inwardly, we begin to understand and care for the life that is here. And as we listen to others, that same intimacy emerges. Tara Brach