Earlier this month (was it last week? or two? Autumn always seems to operate in a temporal realm outside of other seasons) I attended a two-day workshop on the process of Compassionate Listening. It took place on Bainbridge Island, which demanded a ferry ride through a grey and dreary dawn each morning, and one home again at night; I’m not sure how much this intimation of a passage to an otherworld contributed to the power of the weekend, but it felt–nay, it was–transformative.
I love listening. I’ve never felt particularly good at it, for many reasons: my mind, like anyone else’s, is too frustratingly quick for the pace of speech; I’m too eager to seize the voice of my partner and drag it deeply inward; the merest hint of welcoming eyes too easily calls me out of my own self, just as the merest hint of pain in another evokes an unquenchable upwelling in response; and on and on and on. Still, there’s nothing like–for me–using the gift of one’s attention to open a space into which another can pour themselves.
It’s hard to talk about, and even harder to practice, this strange working with qualities we all have some felt-sense of, but so few words for. There is attention–a curiosity unto itself, which we seem to take for granted until it goes wrong–and there is the strange experience of voice, and speaking–this expression that comes from nothing and moves to nothing–and when these two are engaged consciously there is an alchemy between them that I can only describe as sacred.
The workshop itself was familiar in shape and construction, an easy blend of theory and background, practice and participation, and was all the more lovely for the variety of participants it drew–mediators and counselors, lawyers and politicians, students and retirees–as it was for the topics and teaching it provided. And I’ve no doubt it was their presence that helped contribute to the transformation I mentioned above.
I don’t like the word transformation, just as I don’t like the word change. To me it’s near-meaningless; the world itself is and continues to create itself in a constant state of flow, and could no more be frozen than a living human being could prevent the pulse and growing and failing and dying of his or her cells. I don’t like the word transformation, but sometimes change is accompanied by a qualitative shift, and there, I think it must apply. And that weekend offered, at least to me, the sort of circled magic that not just shifted strangers to friends, but emptiness to insight, and voice to realization, and attention to something like grace.
I’ll be attending the Annual Gathering of the Compassionate Listening Project (the organization that hosted the training) next week, and the extent to which I’m looking forward to engaging again in the circles of the organic Open Space structure it’ll be flowing through is a little like that accompanying the upcoming visit of an absent lover.