Deep Listening As A Spiritual Path: By Holly Barrett, Ph.D.

Listening Instructions

In graduate school, we would-be psychotherapists were instructed in the various ways to listen to another person. This is a little like teaching love, but several suggestions were offered, including “hold evenly-suspended attention” (Freud), “practice the art of unknowing” (Kurtz), and, my personal favorite, “suspend memory and desire” (Bion). Readers will recognize the similarity of these instructions to teachings on meditation. As it turns out, I suspect that a few decades of this kind of listening had a lot to do with the arousal of kundalini in my body, and the subsequent upheaval that, ironically, led me to get out of the therapy business.

Listening to another person over an extended period of time is an awesome, sometimes tedious, joyful, frightening, and ultimately mysterious act – just like meditation or contemplation. Healing, when it occurs, is always reciprocal. Therapists talk among themselves about the weird things that start to happen: how your “client” puts feelings into your body for safekeeping (and for you to feel) till s/he is ready to reclaim them; how you sometimes know what s/he is going to say or do even while you are trying to be reassuring that you cannot read minds; how s/he comes in with the exact same dilemma that you have been struggling with since last week, or this morning. Modern psychoanalysts have a name for this: intersubjectivity. But over time, I found it impossible not to notice that some kind of divine wave motion was moving the therapy along. I decided my most important task, maybe my only one, was to draw a bead on what was alive and shimmering and holy in the person sitting across from me, and hold that jewel in my sight until s/he, too, could see it.

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Diagnoses and Boundaries

I was going to title this article “Dual Diagnosis” as a little joke for my enjoyment. In psychology, dual diagnosis refers to a person’s having two presenting difficulties, like addiction plus a character disorder. But to my gradually awakening sensibility all diagnosis, all labels, even I suppose all descriptive language that implies professional “expertise,” pins people down to the dualistic manual. I looked with increasing wonder for the supposed line between the psychological and the spiritual and I could no longer find it. In fact, boundaries were disappearing everywhere. Who was the healer and who the healed? When did a “session” end, or a relationship? What did it mean that I was receiving money for this, especially if I was being paid by an insurance company based on a diagnosis I no longer believed in?

It seemed to me an enormous folly that human beings were trying to control and take credit for an ever-present and divine process. The medicalization of psychotherapy under HMOs leaves no room for the unknown, the empty spaces in life, the eternal presence of mystery. Even the transpersonal psychologists set up structure and hierarchy that can overlook the significance of the tiniest, most miraculous, everyday changes of consciousness that are a consequence of what we call healing.

My Awakening

None of the bells and whistles of my kundalini experiences surpasses witnessing a moment when a woman, for the first time, decides to let THIS anger, THIS wounding, melt away into grace and finds that her heart is cracking open – especially when the woman is myself. Multiply this moment by millions of therapy sessions, millions of people trying to reach for just a little bit more, in offices, in kitchens, wherever people try to dig deeper into life, and the universe starts to look like a big cauldron cooking love. My awakening occurred unexpectedly when I was sitting around morose after my OWN therapy session. The little bits started adding up and bubbling until I was suddenly ablaze.
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The epiphanies that burst into life seem to lead to paradoxical statements of: Oh, I never would have guessed! AND: Of course, it is so simple and obvious! They require a hiatus of “knowing” in order to be born. These little pauses in conceptual thinking can be dramatic or scarcely noticeable. I had the privilege of witnessing one that happened to us as a group.

Who is Who?

In the ’70s, the days of Radical Therapy, I worked in a Day Treatment Center in Vermont with “severely disturbed” people. Few had spent much time out of an institution, let alone the state, but we decided to take a field trip to the ocean. The gigantic pleasure of introducing people for the first time to the expanse of beach, and to the horizon of water and sky, can hardly be described. One of my precious memories of that sacred time-out was a lobster and clam feast where we all sat around a table of towels, eating with our fingers, shouting with laughter as butter dribbled down our chins. However briefly, everyone was lucid, involved, awake and living. An observer would not have been able to tell who was a patient and who was a staff member. We had nothing to define us but salty breezes on our skin and our appetite for life.
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It seems to me, as I think of this moment of spontaneous healing, that life is shot through with these little quantum jumps in consciousness. But if we don’t listen and watch deeply enough, we will miss them. I imagine that divinity is always trying to push through the ordinary, as part of the wave motion of God, but our fear and need to know everything lets us ignore the obvious. Healing is nothing more, and nothing less, than listening to what is truly here. And now.

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