The Courage to Listen


I’d been practicing meditation for just over a year last June when I decided it was time for a meditation retreat. A Buddhist nun here in town was holding a daylong retreat. I vaguely recall the subject being something about maintaining presence with one’s experiences. I decided to go. As I drove there, I tried to prepare myself. I knew meditation retreats were supposed to be no walk in the park. I tried to get ready for a challenging day.

The challenge I prepared for, however, was not the one I received.

There were a few of us there, 10 or less. We gathered in her little meditation room – a small building essentially the size of a tiny house that had been turned into a meditation hut. It was spartan but efficient, with plenty of meditation pillows for all of us. But instead of beginning with sitting, she had us stand.

“Let’s start with a body scan meditation,” she said.

If I only knew what I was in for, I think I’d run right out of the room at that moment. We began, making our way from our feet up. When we got to the midsection, I was suddenly gripped with intense emotional pain, so deep I wanted to curl up in a ball and sob. It took all I had to stay on my feet. I gritted my teeth and continued through the meditation.

But the pain stayed with me all day. Previous to beginning this meditation, I hadn’t felt the pain at all. Now it felt like an endless abyss of agony. I felt as if I’d fall into the pain and never stop falling.

At one point I asked what to do. It was overwhelming, and I asked how to stay with it, mentioning that I was having a hard time.

“Maybe you haven’t had the community support necessary to stay with it,” she remarked.

I wanted to throw something at her. “Thanks a lot,” I wanted to say. “Can you please give me some?” But I am a tad compliant (most of the time) so I kept my thoughts and the rest of my agony to myself.

By the end of the day I was so internally wrecked that I didn’t meditate again for 4 months, when I began my yoga teacher training. I, who had meditated almost every day for a year.

My yoga teacher training began, though, and so did the precise community support I needed to enter my body again and face the endless and myriad emotions that churned in the pit of my stomach.

My emotions scare me. Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve managed them. Everyone says I am very self aware, they’ve said that since I was at least 16. It hasn’t been used for noble purposes, though. I learned to be self aware, so then I would know my emotions and I could fix them. I’ve been perfecting this habit of fixing for quite a long time now.

As I have slowly come back to my body and simply let the feelings shake their way through me (and often, it’s fear, so lots of shaking) I’ve learned something else. My feelings don’t want fixing.

They want me to listen.

And just like when people complain they don’t want to be fixed, they just want to be heard, my heart has complained the same. Just how when people are simply heard and that becomes the “fix” but even so much beyond it, so that is the “fix” for me. Not really the fix, even… but the healing.

I have been the marionette of my feelings. Allowing them to jerk me back and forth because I understood them as the strings. All the while, I was in actuality the puppeteer.

I stopped dancing about on the strings. I began simply listening. Slowly, I have started to detach my marionette strings. Slowly, like the Velveteen rabbit, I’m becoming real.

The saving grace for me, the way I’ve stopped being puppeted about by reactions to my world, is meditation. The very thing that led me into the fire has been my savior. By coming home to what my body was telling me, I’ve been able to sit and meditate again. And every morning now for quite awhile, I’ve sat down on my cushion and watched. When I’m tempted to get in the ring with my feelings and duke it out, I step back. I just watch.

The therapist I did EMDR with last year used to say, “Notice that.” Now that is something I tell myself on my cushion when a feeling pops up and threatens to overwhelm me. “Notice that.” And instead of getting swept up in the tsunami of the feeling, I watch it crash on the beach. “Hmm. That’s interesting,” I say quietly and gently to myself.

My meditation practice has proved to be invaluable for the dialogue I’ve encouraged on my blog in this past week. In becoming adept in showing up to my feelings, it’s made me available to show up for others, too. “Notice that,” I say to myself when someone responds heatedly to what I’ve written. Notice that.

The poem included in this post’s image is one by Rumi, who speaks of going beyond right and wrong. This is what I’ve attempted to do with my letter to Congress. To circumvent the polarity of “BAN GUNS” vs. “GUNS FOR ALL.” At its core, I think Rumi’s poem is talking about meeting people.

So instead of trying to FIX the problem, I’m trying to start with listening. Because that is where truly meeting with people begins.

Learning to listen started with myself. Learning to listen has been the way that I’ve gone beyond the ideas of “right” and “wrong” that I have within, to find the middle ground.

This is what has thus far carried me through listening to you. I received comments from some of you on my last post that were exceedingly hard to hear. The thing that has held me through dialoguing with those of you with whom I disagree is the steadiness of how I listen when I hold opposing views within myself.

Still, I was wiped out by last Friday, and last Friday, two more shootings occurred. It was a rough day, and the thing that held me through yet again was my meditation and inner listening. Strangely enough, the feelings that flooded me last Friday were strangely similar to the feelings of agony I had when I had that meditation day. But this time, I could sit with them.

This also is what is preparing me for my next post that will clarify my thoughts on gun violence and what needs to be done. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking through the various approaches to gun violence, the various arguments from all sides, and inquiring of my heart what I think will work. This takes a lot of listening. I’m curious to see what unfolds.

How do you deal with your emotions? Do you have a consistent spiritual practice that carries you? How does that work help you to work with large scale issues like gun violence? I welcome your heart and your thoughts in the comments.


16 Replies to “The Courage to Listen”

  1. Sitting still with yourself, your thoughts-especially when they are opposing ones, is so hard, but necessary. You exude strength in your writing. You have a purpose & it is quite awe inspiring to watch it. Our voices are heard with much more intensity when we take the anger out of the emotional issues and listen, actually listen & understand where the other one is coming from. Again, kudos to you. Keep it up & just remember to breathe 🙂

    1. Indeed it is hard, but YES. Absolutely necessary. Thank you for your words! They encourage me to continue in this process of listen, listen, listen. Grateful for your encouragement!

  2. I have become better at not judging my emotions as either good or bad and just let them be as one part of me. I’m not really sure how I got to this place. You have given me something to think about. Your post is beautiful, from the Rumi quote to your willingness to listen to ideas that may be unpleasant and before attempting to fix an enormous social problem. Thank you for this lovely piece.

    1. Ida,
      That’s the point I’m working towards, myself. Some days I’m closer than others. I’m glad to hear you have gotten there, also! Would love to hear more about your process when you uncover some of that.
      You’re very welcome. I am glad it spoke to you, and I hope to see you around here again. 🙂

  3. I get that way too. I was feeling heavy again as I was trying to meditate. I still feel the heaviness in my throat. To me it means I haven’t been able to feel my way “through” it yet. The more I can feel it, the more it lessons. The more I resist it, the more it persists. Of course, easier said than done 😦

    1. Feeling your way through – oooh. I like that. I so agree, the more I can feel something, the more it lets go of me and I can go on about my day. It IS a hard practice! But breathing and listening and meditating make it easier. 🙂

  4. I can identify with this. There is an old way of dealing with emotions in the Army that can be extremely crippling. It has always been taught by old veterans that have killed and experienced several “fire” fights that you don’t deal with your internal pain and guilt right away. You put it in a “shoe box” and open it up later. The sad truth is that many of these experiences are too harsh to ever want to deal with. Some folks never open that “shoe box” back up. They go on from day to day repressing everything. I want to say that most can get back to a normal life but I know there are those select few who can’t ignore the box. It sits there in the back of their mind cluttering up there thought. They may never open it but the fact that it is there leads to a lot of issues within themselves. Often times it leads to terrible psychological issues.

    Sometimes, no matter how painful, we must seek help from ourselves and others. Sometimes we have found ourselves in situations where we have had to ignore our own moral construct to survive and though it seems like that should never be the case, it is a harsh reality.

    As for victims like yourself that were on the other end of the barrel. I can’t say that I know what you had to go through. But I can assuredly say that even though I am very conservative (not a republican), there needs to be something done to mitigate gun violence in every situation. But I know that the solutions that we are coming up with are not right on either side. It is going to take some serious growth as a “village”. It is going to take people abandoning their own pride and stepping outside their own box. It is a man’s right to defend himself against atrocities that you have experienced. It’s a terrible fact to admit that weapons have saved lives in some scenarios. There is no right or wrong answer at this point as long as we continue to pursue how to fix it and make it work. The only wrong answer would be for people to ignore the situation because of fear that they might lose something.

    As a person that has practiced a sort of Buddhism, or at least experienced some of their beliefs, self sacrifice is pertinent to achieving a certain enlightenment. Sometimes we have to give a little to benefit others and ourselves. I am not saying to ban guns. They will exist and continue to exist. I am also not saying to let them go unregulated. But we need to come together for a compromise. If something is put in place that doesn’t help the situation we need to go back to the old drawing board, together, until we can find a situation that helps the most. The truth is that we will never eliminate violence of any type. But if we can pull together we will understand that we can help bring the number down, and help provide more services for victims.

    My heart goes out to you and I vow to share your burden regardless of politics. This should not be a matter of politics but it has to be for right now. We haven’t evolved enough to figure out how to deal with it any other way.



    1. Thanks so much for coming by and commenting Seth. Again SO sorry I got your name wrong on Twitter! So embarrassing.
      So interesting, I never knew that shoebox mentality was actually a thing that was talked about. In my teenage years I often tried to compartmentalize things in the same way, though I had never heard of the existence of that story. I agree that it can be harmful and it has certainly caused me to repress a number of things that I now get to deal with.
      I so agree that something needs to be done, and that it does, so much, take growth as a village. That’s the tack I’m taking, also. I’ll be writing more about it next week, but right now my thoughts are along the lines of starting small. Why aren’t there background checks on all firearm sales, for instance? That’s a small thing that could be helpful. The rest of it, however, may or may not be helpful, thus why we need the dialogue I’ve been discussing here. I think a collaboration is in order, and I am hoping I can help with that.
      Thank you for your avowed support, it means a great deal to me. And I so appreciate your heartfelt comment and words. Grateful you came by.

  5. When my marriage ended, I was a mess. After a whole lifetime of pushing down my emotions, I had no idea how to deal with the maelstrom. I discovered mindful meditation and it helped dramatically. One of the things I was taught was that there are no good or bad emotions – they just “are” – and instead of trying to get rid of them or change them, just acknowledge them – emotions don’t last forever – soon they drift away as you focus on other things. I spend a lot of time saying things like, “Hello Anxiety, I feel you.” It’s a learning process – I’m still trying to learn how to feel without feeling threatened. You mention you listen to your emotions. Tell me more about that.

    1. Jana – indeed. That’s been a lot of my process since my divorce as well, although much more intensely (for a number of reasons) in the past year and a half. I always, always need that reminder that there are no good or bad emotions. I get so wrapped up into thinking that, and it makes me push certain ones away.
      Listening is a learning process, basically what I mean by that is what you’re doing. Instead of pushing my emotions away, I’m learning to say, “Hi there, fear, how’s it going?” and settling down to be friendly to it, instead. It is HARD to feel without feeling threatened. That’s why I keep practicing daily, lol. And I fail… the last 3 days have felt like a fail. But that’s okay. I’m trying to accept that too.
      So yes I guess what I mean by listening is just that – noticing them, hearing them out, without pushing them away as usual.

  6. This is so difficult. Just last night Alex and I were trying to talk through some (new and yet the same!) drama with my Mother. Learning to stop and be present and just notice your thoughts as they pass through your brain is the only thing that keeps me from hijacking my own existence.

    I look forward to your next post. People love to misunderstand each other, don’t they?

  7. I hope you do not mind & I apologize for posting here, but did not want to leave this in an active discussion post.

    You’ve been nominated 🙂
    Blogger Recognition Award
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    Give a brief story of how your blog got started
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    Thank whoever nominated you, and provide a link to their blog
    List those you’ve nominated in the post and comment on their blogs to let them know you’ve nominated them.

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