Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace
What is the sound of suffering? Or of grief, or worry? What is the sound of joy? Or of hope, or abiding peace? What is the sound of a life being made whole? Or of forgiveness, or a heart growing larger?
I’m asking here not about the sound we hear with our ears, not about things we understand with our thinking minds or tell about with words. I’m asking about the sound we hear with something other than ears, sound we follow with our deeper-than-thinking minds and could not describe with all the words in all the languages that ever were, sound that is not a “thing” at all, actually, but a resonant, vibrating, intuitively beholdable no-thing.
“I feel so alone,” someone says, with a tremble in his voice. We know the meaning of those words. We note the tremble. Yet we may still be hearing only partially. Hearing wholly, holy hearing, entails something more: listening with the ears of the heart, the ears of viscera, the ears of bones.
“To some extent,” Donald Winnicott once said, “I listen with my throat.” And while I can’t say I know beyond all doubt what Winnicott meant, I can say, beyond all doubt, that there is a listening, a sensing, a knowing, that happens below the jawline.
Listening with Spiritually Integrated Psychotherapy
Let us say, then, that there are two kinds of listening. A listening we do with our minds. A listening that maintains some point of reference with what we already know. A listening that knows the word for the thing we’re hearing, the category, the classification system. A kingdom phylum class order family genus species kind of listening. A left-hemisphere, egoic-mind kind of listening.
And another kind. A right-hemisphere, non-egoic kind. A listening without reference to what we already know. A listening deeper than thinking. A listening that is less something we “do,” and more something we become absorbed in.
Spiritually integrated psychotherapy is about both kinds of listening. It includes the first kind of listening, a listening for things we’ve trained ourselves to listen for. This person I’m caring for, what is her way of being in the world spiritually, what are her spiritual resources, what are her spiritual struggles? What is sacred to her? What is it that gives her life value and meaning? Listening in this way, for things we know we’re going to listen for before we even start listening, is an essential element of competent practice, and spiritually integrated psychotherapy, and I’m all for it. I teach other therapists to listen this way. I wrote a book about it.
But spiritually integrated psychotherapy is about the other kind of listening, too, the kind we can’t book-train ourselves to do, the kind we can only life-train ourselves into doing. It’s less a “doing” kind of listening, an active listening, and more a “being” kind of listening, a receptive listening. It’s about listening from the heart, listening from the deep mind, listening without having an idea what it is we’re listening for. It’s listening for the sound beneath sound, sound we hear from the place in us where silence abides and there are no words.
With this first kind of listening, we are listening for how we might increase the impact of a client’s healthy spiritual perspectives or practices and lessen the impact of any harmful spiritual perspectives or practices. With this second kind, we are listening for God. Not a god we can identify with scientific certainty or describe with prosaic precision. But The God we hear intuitively, viscerally, and about Whom, or Which, we can speak only poetically and with sighs too deep for words. This is The One in Whom we live and move and have our being, The One Whose voice we recognize as a vibrating, resonating pulse in all things, all moments, and all persons.
Except when we don’t. And it is the “when we don’t” that is the source of the sound of suffering. It is our not hearing the Sound of God, it is our exile from the awareness of the Infinite, Ever-Present, Divine Goodness, that is the source of human sorrow and, arguably, the thing people coming for therapy most want our help with.
The poet Sally Atkins begins her poem “Tell Me, She Said,” this way:
Tell me, she said:Sally Atkins
What is the story you are telling?
What wild song is singing itself through you?
In the silence between there is music;
In the spaces between there is story.
The word “person,” by the way, comes from Old French. It means “to sound through”: per, through + sonare, sound. The listening we do in spiritually integrated psychotherapy is for the wild song sounding through the person before us, and through ourselves, and in the space between us, a space which, when we hear it deeply, is no space at all, but a seamless, single, sonic Whole. We never fully understand what we’re hearing – if we understand it, that’s the first kind of listening, and the first kind is never enough to understand fully — but we can allow ourselves resonate in response to It, and in that resonance is connection and meaning and healing.
Sally Atkins’ poem ends with these lines:
Pay attention:Sally Atkins
We are listening each other into being.
And that’s the truth, isn’t it? It is by paying attention, paying attention in a way Simone Weil equates with prayer, paying attention to the sound of another person, to the sound of their suffering and to the music, the story, the God, that is ever sounding through them, that we offer ourselves as vessels of healing. It is by the mystery of prayerful listening, by the Mystery in prayerful listening, that people are continuously restored to lives of meaning and wholeness.
Those with ears to hear, let them hear.
- Spiritually Integrated Psychotherapy: Two Kinds of Listening - December 8, 2019