Deep Listening & Presence

by Don DeMercurio

After hanging up from a mother’s day call with my 90-year-old mother I found myself feeling into her experience of being on the cusp between old age and old-old age. She and my father are still living independently in the home that they bought nearly 65 years ago, a modest 1950’s house that sits on a hill in the East Bay of California looking across at the city of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. They are both doing their best to preserve a life of dignity, a critical factor being their continuing independence and autonomy. I watch as these two highly competitive, strong-willed individuals, struggle to soften and open to each other, finding the central focus of their lives shifting from “I” to “we”; two people who have relied on logic and rationality now depending on something more immediate, more intimate and more vulnerable.

Before making this call to my mother I was preparing to write this post about Deep Listening and the power of Presence, and I must admit that a part of my decision to make the call was to get it out of the way. But, when our call ended, I felt grateful for the parts of my life that were shaped in her presence as a sudden flash of memory brought me back to a time in my early childhood when I began the process of deep listening.

I grew up in this same house, where looking across the bay on a clear night we would watch the twinkling lights of the city; and a single tiny light that was the outside elevator of the St. Francis Hotel, moving in irregular patterns up and down as it transported tiny people whose lives I captured only in my imagination. In the morning hours, the city was asleep in a sea of fog that rolled across the bay waiting for the sun to bring it alive again. After my brother and sister would head off to school, some of the women from the neighboring houses would gather for an hour or so at our kitchen table and share the joys and challenges of their lives over pots of coffee and packs of cigarettes. Just out of range, and pretending to be occupied, I managed to evade their notice while keenly observing every word, gesture, emotion, and facial expression that was arising in this sacred circle. What I came to understand was that all of these women were there for the same reason – to be seen and understood as part of something bigger that they were sharing, while at the same time each on a journey that no one else could share.

Well, yes, I was an odd child. And, my mother intuited something about my introverted nature and gave me the space to explore the inner and outer dimensions of my world in my own fashion. I was much more interested in understanding how the world worked and why people did what they did than playing with Tonka trucks or running around playing Cowboys and Indians with the other kids in the neighborhood, though I did that too. What developed during these early years of my life was a capacity for deep listening. Being an observer, I was free to not only listen with my ears but to feel with my heart and to sense with my body as well. My life-long exploration of consciousness was very much ignited during this time of my life.

Deep listening gets its depth, power and mystery from the feminine part of our nature; opening to the emotional currents of our dynamically creative lives with a willingness to go with the flow of what is not yet known. To stay steadfastly present, to focus, to actively listen, and to enter the conversation with skillfulness is the domain to the masculine part of our nature. When we approach ourselves and each other as if for the first time, what we inevitably see is that we are a mystery. We can never completely know another, so we can never know where they are going or what they are needing. We are a mystery, unfolding! By opening with presence and curiosity to another I am opening to the mystery of myself as well. And, when I am communicating to another from a place of authenticity and vulnerability I am likewise opening to the mystery of myself. We come to recognize that, as A. H. Almaas wrote, “The action of Being is Self-revelation.” Conscious relating through deep listening supports the natural and unconstrained opening of our consciousness, both in ourselves and in the other.

Deep listening is a practice of presence that involves all three of our centers of intelligence: Head, Heart , and Body. We need an openness of mind where our thoughts are flowing rather than being filled with distractions, interpretations, judgements, assessments and conclusions; listening beyond the meaning of the words and opening to what the words are pointing to. Our hearts need to be open and receptive so that we can empathically feel the affective tone of the experience behind the words, what it is that is moving through us and shaping our consciousness as feeling. And, finally we need to be present in our own body, noticing how what we’re opening to is affecting our experience and sensing what it might feel like to be in the others shoes. It requires an attitude of open curiosity, courage, patience, compassion and flexibility to allow ourselves to enter and acknowledge another reality that might not necessarily match our own, yet is equally real. In our own process we can use these same qualities with an openness to the possibility that how I perceive myself and the world could change in an instant.

Deep listening is empathy in action. It’s actually a powerful spiritual practice not only for use with others, but also a practice that we need for our own inner journey. In the same way that we see others relax and open when they feel seen and held in the presence of acceptance and understanding, our own inner parts respond in the same way. What is still unresolved in our Soul needs tenderness and space to rise out of the shadow of the unconscious and into awareness. Our unconscious will remain unconscious unless it feels held in love. Without the presence of acceptance, kindness and curiosity our shadow is most likely going to reveal its resistance, reactivity, frustration, and defensiveness. In the same way, that I recall my mother providing a place at her table for the experiences of her community of women, deep listening with ourselves is an invitation for our own difficult feelings to be welcomed as guests. Hurt, anger, disappointment, grief, hatred, longing, despair, as well as every other part of ourselves, needs to have a place at our inner table so that it can metabolize and transform.

When we can approach our lives and our relationships as a living question that has no ultimate answer, that cannot ever be defined, we rest in a paradox. And in that paradox, it is possible to realize the Truth of who we are.