Tag Archives: listening

Listening to the Undergrowth

Where there is undergrowth, there is life. It may not always reveal itself to the eye, but it will be available to the ears if a person is quiet. This isn’t just about beautiful remote places, but about the undergrowth on the edges of urban spaces, lanes, roadsides, the hedges on fields that are otherwise lifeless monocultures…

We humans have the bad habit of taking our noise with us – be that in earphones, over-involved conversations, or the noise that goes on in our heads. A person doesn’t have to move in careful silence to hear what’s around them – in fact conversation is still possible. What’s needed is more presence. If we fold into the little world of the verbal exchange we’re having, everything around us can go unheeded. If we’re first and foremost present in the landscape, and the conversation is secondary, then the landscape opens to us in new ways. Obviously if you can’t hear at all, this line of thought will be useless to you, but any sound sensitivity can made use of.

People who walk with me have to adapt to this! I will interrupt absolutely anything to point out wildlife, because the wildlife won’t wait for polite opportunities. I’ll break conversation threads for clouds and buzzards, plants and effects of the light. I delight in walking with people who do the same and will leap out of a conversation to alert me to a plant or some other point of interest. (Nods to Robin, if he’s reading this.)

The loudest sound in the British undergrowth is often the blackbird, foraging amongst the leaves. Attention to the sound will lead you to the bird, who is likely close by. Other ground foragers – thrushes, robins, wrens, can also become visible by this means. It is possible to see small rodents if you track them by sound. They tend to be quieter than birds, and sometimes all you can do is track the disturbance of the undergrowth where the rodent passes through.

Mammals tend to know we are around and will often move away from noisy humans before we get any chance to see them. However, if you can move through a space without disturbing it, you may get audio cues about mammal activity. It’s not as easy to see wild mammals as you might assume, but sometimes the sound will give them away. Many deal with humans by being still – in their silence and immobility, we don’t register them, often. But, a moving animal makes sound, and you can hear the movement over the terrain in that sound sometimes, and it is well worth paying attention to.

Of course listening also opens up a world of bird song, wind sound, sometimes water sound and animal cries, but that’s another story.

Compassionate Listening

Last week I read The Heart of Life, by Jez Hughes. It’s a rare thing – a book I think everyone ought to read. Jez is a shamanic practitioner, and in this blog I’m going to pick up on one of the healing techniques that he talks about: Compassionate Listening.

I know from conversations here and on wider social media, that I’m not alone in finding interventions from other people tiring around matters of health, and that I’m just as likely as anyone else to want to respond to suffering with useful intervention. So what can we usefully do for each other? So many books about healing offer a sense of shame and guilt – the idea that my negative thoughts or past lives are responsible for my feeling as I do, and if only I could be more positive, it would all be fine! Oddly, this idea has never caused me to feel more positive, and when I’m depressed, it usually helps to push me further under. I’m glad to say there’s none of this in The Heart of Life – it’s a very human sort of book.

Compassionate listening is just that – hearing what the other person needs to say about their experiences. Paying close attention, making it clear that you recognise and comprehend. If something is fixable, you have to be able to start by properly identifying it. If it’s not fixable, sometimes saying ‘that really is shit’ is the best we can do for each other.

Listening helps to overcome isolation. All illness is demoralising, and reduces people. If we can be heard, then we know that it doesn’t matter that we’re less useful right now, or need caring for, we still have a place. It’s easier to ask for help when you don’t feel that people are primarily relating to your utility. It is often helpful to know it’s not just you, especially around emotional distress in face of the world. There are many problems we’re better faced to overcome as communities. Listening is the first move towards being able to come together to act.

There’s more to it on an emotional level though. Listening means allowing the other person to speak. It means no one is telling them there isn’t time for this right now, or that it doesn’t matter, or something else is more important. I’ve been told to push though pain and distress countless times, and told that my suffering was less important than other things that were going on. When this happens, it locks something inside me. Practical solutions become less available, but it also causes a grief, a wounding, a sense of devaluing, if I need to cry, but no one around me thinks it matters. This is not a good place for a person to be. Endure enough of it, and you will lose your sense of person-hood.

Being listened to allows us to be people. It allows us to own and express whatever hurts, which provides rapid emotional relief all by itself. Then we just have to deal with what’s wrong, not with the struggle of hiding it and pretending to be ok. We get to matter. Someone cares enough to hear. The act of putting pain into words is releasing, and can often give back a sense of having some control over the situation. To cry, and be acceptable, is a very powerful thing.

To listen, you don’t have to be able to solve everything. You don’t have to patch things up for the other person or magically make it ok. You don’t need answers, or wisdom, or the means to change anything. Just by putting your body in a situation, and stopping, to witness, to recognise, to allow a space for hurt to be acknowledged, helps.

I think it often doesn’t help that amongst Pagans there is a suspicion that we ought to be able to use magic to fix people. People who self-identify as healers can find the long term sick really problematic. So we end up blaming people for their negativity and refusal to heal, rather than face the hard truth that maybe we don’t have anything that can help them. Listening  is good. Listening is a balm we can all bring to each other. Making time to hear does change things.

More about The Heart of Life here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/heart-life

Learning to listen

Listening is a skill, and a sorely underestimated one at that. For a bard, or a druid, hearing is essential to learning, at a pragmatic level and also at a spiritual one. We often say in ritual things like ‘without peace, the voice of spirit cannot be heard’. The peace required for hearing, is a very personal one.

It’s very easy not to even notice how much noise we make – not just with speaking, but with our thoughts and actions. To be as close to silent as a living entity can get, it is necessary to be still, and in control of breathing. This is harder than it sounds. I’m in the process of trying to teach my nine year old just to notice the amount of noise he actually makes when he thinks he’s being quiet. As someone interested in wildlife, he needs the skills of stillness and silence, but most children are not encouraged to develop these disciplines to any significant degree.

 When we still our bodies and the chattering noise of normal thought, we can hear all that is around us, far more effectively. We also stand some chance of hearing our own inner voice, the quiet self that is not merely reacting to stimuli and bumping from one experience to the next. However, much of the time when it comes to listening to others, we aren’t in a position to be still and silent. We must do our best to hear while working, and moving. The more time we make to be still and quiet in our listening however, the more deeply it is possible to hear the rest of the time.

Good listening begins with hearing what is there. It’s normal to tune out sounds, and in urban environments, often essential to sanity. There is so much noise that being consciously aware of it all of the time, would be unbearable. But in tuning it out and learning to treat it as normal, it’s also easy to become an unwitting contributor. How much noise do we actually make? Recognising the degree of noise we experience as normal, is the first step towards tackling it.

Listening well means learning to hear in human interactions, giving time to engage with another’s perspective, and hearing the nuances and subtexts. The emotions of others, the intentions, the truth in their words and also the lies can become more apparent with careful listening. The less attention we pay, the easier it is to miss the truth, overlook the falsehoods or be seduced by pretty words that have no substance.

Quiet is good for the soul. When it’s quiet, I can hear the little things in the undergrowth, the wing beats of birds, the calls of distant foxes. I can hear my child breathing. Just as peace enables us to become quiet, quietness also enables us to experience peace, the two are mutually affirming. Bringing focus to the small things, the creak of a house, the lapping of water, engages us with the immediate environment, and with the moment.

There are deeper kinds of hearing. The voice of spirit doesn’t tend to turn up with loudly spoken clear words, it’s a far more subtle thing, hard to catch and decipher. To hear it requires being open, and not just in our ear based listening. It calls for listening with the heart, with the soles of feet and the bare skin of open hands. The voice of spirit is in our own breath, whispering softly. It is the sound of truth that comes without words, that communicates from one heart to another, from land to spirit, sky to sensibilities. Is there anything supernatural about this? I think not. There is magic in the sense of wonder and possibility, but no parlour tricks. Good listening is available to anyone with the time, discipline and inclination. It is a way of being, a habit of thought, and the more deeply I explore it, the more I find it astounds me, and the less able I am to bear the noise of ‘normal’ life.

The accidental counsellor

There are far more folk who find themselves in crisis than ever there are trained professionals available to help them. It can take months to get counselling in the UK, but people caught in the immediacy of their own grief, trauma or anxiety can’t really afford to wait. The official advice from the UK’s national health service for folk in crisis is to talk to someone.

So, what do you do if you find yourself the chosen ear of a person in distress? My brother found himself with one of these last week, which is what has prompted me to write today. Most of us aren’t qualified, but we still have to step up. And as a Druid, you may attract the need and distress of others, especially if you put yourself forward by running things. I’ve seen this topic discussed on pagan forums, where the fear of causing more harm than good, or inviting litigation, makes people wary about offering themselves. So, we’re not talking about being a counsellor here, we’re talking about being the person who gets the late night phone call from a friend who doesn’t know how to carry on, or being the one a family member confides to about some horrific experience. We don’t get to choose these, they happen to us. How do we deal with them?

The single most powerful thing you can do for a person in distress is listen to them. No matter how much it disturbs you, or whether or not you are able to believe what they say, listening and giving the space for them to speak is tremendously effective. Unless you feel there’s immediate physical danger to them, or someone else, go for listening. Make sure they know you are listening, by making affirming comments. “I hear you.” Don’t be afraid to acknowledge if you are out of your depth. If you don’t understand and can’t relate to it, say so. A person in crisis will not appreciate you claiming you know just what it must be like, if you blatantly cannot know. If you do know, it can be helpful to share.

In the short term, don’t think about trying to find solutions. Focus on the listening, and letting them talk until they are calm. Avoid any comment that in any way might be construed as telling them they shouldn’t feel as they do – they are feeling it, they need to feel it, if you let them talk it will pass. Ask why they are feeling a certain way, ask how you can help, what they need, and if the answer is ‘nothing’ then just keep them talking.

It’s not your job to find a solution. Any solution to the problems have to be the choice of the person in crisis. Making suggestions may be helpful, but be careful to avoid anything that feels like you taking control of things. Crisis is a loss of control, the person in crisis cannot afford to have more of their right to self determine taken from them. Support them, offer advice, but do not give instruction, or do things for them unless you’re down to very physical issues of preserving life, or making cups of tea.

Giving people food and drink affirms normality. People in distress may also be in shock, so make sure they are warm.

Often what people need is a sounding board, someone to test ideas on while they work out what they need. If that’s what you’re getting, questions like ‘will that work for you?’ ‘what do you need?’ ‘how do you feel about that?’ will help them with the process. Avoid anything that seems like you being asked to choose for them. You can say what you would do if it was you, but make sure it’s on those terms.

Sometimes people just need a witness or a cheerleader. They need someone else to believe in them because they’re having a hard time believing in themselves. Encourage them. Praise their courage and determination, acknowledge their difficulties, affirm that there must be a way through and that they will find it. If appropriate, remind them of things they’ve achieved before, of qualities in themselves that will get them through.

In this way, it’s possible to help and support a person without having to take responsibility for them, and without having to internalise their distress. This protects us from being drawn into crisis with them. It keeps control in the hands of the person who is in trouble. It’s very easy to do, and to remember, and is actually the underpinning of talking therapies used by councillors. Listen, encourage, ask and try not to judge. It’s surprising how big a difference these things can make.