Listening Up and Listening In

Antony Gormley's statue

The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief or bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing…not healing, not curing…that is a friend who cares.

~Henri Nouwen

What are you listening to?

A mundane, of-this-world, questions. These days it would be asked mostly of someone with headphones on. Listening to music. A podcast maybe, maybe the radio.

What are you listening to?

If a friend asked it prior to personal electronics, you probably were holding a drinking glass to the wall of an adjoining room. Or you were staring into the distance, concentrating, seeming to hear a sound or voice your friend couldn’t hear.

What are you listening to?


So much has happened in the last month.

Halfway through November, I finished my nine-week training for being a hospice volunteer. I’ve said before this was my second time but it’s been eight years since the first time. Dina, the volunteer coordinator, thought it would be a good idea to repeat the process, and I agreed. My first round I’d been a home care volunteer, visiting with patients who were dying while giving their caregivers a break so they could shop, get their hair done, or just go for a walk by themselves. This time, when I start in the new year, I’ve asked to do grief support, sitting with people who have had someone die, mostly recently but maybe years ago. It could be adults, kids, parents mourning a child, an individual who has lost their spouse, or someone who has lost a friend and wasn’t inside the “central circle” of mourners. The experience is universal while the individual stories are infinite.

Throughout hospice training the emphasis has been on listening—we’ve talked about it, read about it and how to encourage people to open up and talk more, done homework about what it feels like when other really do it. We watched videos about listening and did role plays where one of us was a client telling their story and the other of us was a volunteer, just trying to listen, not trying to fix it.

In the role plays you see quickly how hard it is to not want to “fix” it. But volunteers are not therapists. We’re companions, but specialist companions who only join with our partners at a time of crisis, and our goal is to be that best kind of confidante at that moment, one who sits with the person’s pain and doesn’t try to tie everything up with a bow. Because that’s not possible. Ideally, I’d be a companion who just sits in gentle awe of this wonder of nature, the many colors of grief that rise up. It is easier, more comfortable, to talk, but it is more needed to listen.

What am I listening to?

A few days after finishing hospice preparation, I kissed my wife and daughter goodbye and left for the southern tip of Death Valley to start training as a guide with Rites of Passage in what will ultimately be a two-year process. This first step was doing a nine-day vision fast. I was there with a group of nine other questers, plus the man who runs RoP, Michael Bodkin, and a second guide, Dashielle Vawter.

I’ll go into more detail on the vision fast format as done in this rites-of-passage community (made of individuals and groups such as Rites of Passage, School of Lost Borders, and Animas Valley Institute), but for now I’ll just say that this was my second vision fast and currently (this can change over time) my big “get” from the process was that listening is more than hearing the very real speech of others as a means to grease the wheels of communication (the whole concept of “communication” may need defining at some point in light of working with the dying and grieving), it also means trying to receive the implications of their words, their way of saying those words, what the rest of their body says, and what they choose not to say. This kind of listening encompasses a broader band of information than usual, and quickly jumps to bringing the same attention to the non-human world—animals, plants, overall setting, the weather, the time of day, etc.; this is all about the implications. Finally, this listening that I came out of the desert with an onus to do means bringing this actively passive—perhaps “charged” would be a good word—attention to the creative voice that rises up inside of me. This charged listening is, I think, what Buber was speaking of when he wrote about listening to the relationship between me and the Other, the space between I and Thou, the space we share and where we join and are one. This kind of listening is my attempt at experiencing G_D.

I just wrote, “What is hardest to listen to is when nothing is being said,” and then deleted it. What is, for me currently, really hardest is accepting the reality of what is actually being said to me rather than trying to guess what I think will be said, or hearing what I want to hear, either by others or by the Still Small Voice. Listening is listening all the way through, not just for a thesis, or for confirmation. When I want to be truly, actively receptive, I check my hands and make sure they’re open and relaxed, in anticipation of being handed a gift, rather than closed and holding on to something I already have. This will sound weird, but I think I’m learning to listen with my hands.

Before this last month, retraining with hospice and doing my vision fast as an entrance to guide training, I thought I knew how to listen but I’m realizing I have to start all over. And I think I might have to do this over and over again, with people, with the world, and with the blank page. To make this transition I’m attempting from job to vocation—to calling—I need to practice this bigger hearing, to hear, to listen.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.