Learning to Listen: A Pathway Through Nature
by Rev. Roger Davidson
Meditating in front of a tree, I closed my eyes and embraced the tree from within. As I sat upon the rock that had welcomed me, I began to feel the love that the tree was sending out. With every passing minute, more and more love was transmitted from the tree, and it felt like an embrace. I remained still. I listened — and the tree spoke:
“I have so much love for you, and for all humanity. Embrace me as I embrace you. We are all part of nature, and of the greater energy of life. May you be blessed, now and forever!” I felt — and heard — the tree communicating its love to me, conveying the love contained within the whole tree from the roots in the ground to the uppermost leaves that seemed to reach for the sky.
Brothers and sisters, this is how we must communicate with each other. There is a deeper kind of listening than just listening to words. While words may convey meaning and intent and feeling, they are but the outer means by which we may understand each other. Beyond our words is a universe of feelings, intentions, aspirations, and even whole stories.
So how do we listen with all our attention, that we may truly hear others, not just for what they are saying but for the possible story behind the words, for the feelings conveyed even if unintended? The answer is that we must listen from the heart; we must listen with empathy and compassion — which stem from love. But to listen with empathy and compassion, we must put aside our own preconceptions and our own tendencies to think we know the answer before the other person has barely spoken. In this way, we not only help others, but learn from others as well! When we listen with deep attention, we are not only listening to someone else, but to our inner selves as well, as we are all interconnected in the most profound sense — not only with our fellow human beings, but with all trees, plants and animals.
Listening to nature is a pathway by which we may learn to hear ourselves and hear others — perhaps most of all because this pathway is unobstructed by words. And underneath this wordless level of communication is caring — which consists primarily of empathy and compassion. Empathy means that for the time we are listening, we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes — compassionately relating others’ experiences to our own. We must be able to say that we can imagine how a given experience must feel to someone else. And this empathy and compassion comes from our innermost selves, which is the spark of Light given to each of us by God. Therefore, in truly listening to others, the love that we project is universal love, the love from God to us all and from ourselves to all humanity and all nature. We do not even have like the person to whom we are listening; we must, however, know that all human beings are children of God and are therefore of equal value in God’s eyes. If, for example, someone comes to you for counseling, most of the time it is because God knows you are capable of helping that person who crossed your path — even though you always have the right to refer someone to another counselor, as we all have our limitations. Even in such circumstances, however, we can still impart a degree of listening that can ultimately help, if we focus on pure empathy, compassion, and the universal love from which they originate.
There is another key component to listening: keeping our own judgments out of the way. Empathy and judgment are incompatible. It is vitally important not to prejudge someone or allow our own personal history or experiences to color the way we listen. How many of you have listened to a story from your spouse or friend or client and then said, “Why did you do that? How could you ever fall for that?” and so forth. Those are questions that arise out of a spirit of judgment, not empathy or compassion — even though they may be intended as an expression of concern. And by the time something has already happened, the questions of “why” or “how” become irrelevant, other than for the purpose of understanding what one’s lesson might be from a given experience. Usually the person telling a story already knows what lesson there is to be learned, and will express that lesson sooner or later. So instead of asking “why” or “how,” try saying, “I’m so sorry to hear you went through that —I’m sure it must not have felt very good. Let us now pray for God’s help and guidance!” A statement like this shows true compassion and makes the other person feel listened to, which in turn leads to better listening from both parties in the conversation. Better listening from both parties then leads to more self-confidence as well as a fundamental sense of being anchored in one’s inner wisdom.
In addition to listening compassionately, it is important to avoid jumping to conclusions — even silently — while listening. Especially in a counseling situation, one must remember that given a chance to speak, almost everyone has the capacity to discover the answers from within; while advice may be welcomed from time to time, ultimately each of us already knows the answer to our own questions. Even if we think we know the answers — and we may even be right — it is always better to listen to others first, unencumbered by any pre-conceived notions.
Back to listening to nature: How could we ever listen to a tree and think we know the answer the tree carries within? To know the message from the tree, it would be absurd to second-guess what the tree might communicate. This also applies to communications among people. Furthermore, second-guessing often leads to interrupting, which makes it impossible to listen with one’s full attention, and with full empathy and compassion.
Another aspect of listening is listening to oneself. In listening to one’s own thoughts and feelings, we must have compassion for ourselves and forgive ourselves for not being perfect — but there is something else of perhaps greater importance to which we must pay attention: Which thoughts are real and which are just ephemeral? If we have a feeling about or a reaction to a thought, is it based on reality or illusion? How can we tell the difference? The answer to this question, in my experience, has to do with knowing how to tune into one’s inner center of truth, which brings us the awareness needed to distinguish between truth and falsehood. When we tune into our inner center of truth, we will neither misread our own selves nor will we misread others. Misreading feelings or intentions also gets in the way of true listening. Can we therefore conclude that it helps to first practice listening to oneself before listening to others? Yes, I believe we can, as listening to oneself with honesty and integrity is a precursor to being able to listen to others with the greatest compassion and empathy.
But there is more: By being able to listen to oneself with honesty and integrity, we also develop the ability to listen to advice from others with humility, which enables us to listen objectively. When we listen objectively, we can — if the advice makes sense — simply reply: “Thank you, I think you’re right. I really appreciate what you said!” This makes the other side of a conversation possible; after the listener has been listening, there may indeed be a reason to give advice or at least ask further questions, if the ground has been plowed with unprejudiced and compassionate listening. Then it is up to the one being listened to to be open to unprejudiced and compassionate counsel if such is welcomed. And so the circle of communication is completed!
Ultimately, the deepest form of listening is to be able to hear messages from the Divine through any part of nature, which very much includes each other. I have experienced wise messages coming to me through fish and frogs and cats and horses, as well as trees and flowers — and countless messages of wisdom have come from my wife, as well as relatives and friends, and through complete strangers. It depends on how alert we are to the Source of Wisdom in the universe — how wide we open the eyes of our souls. And being in the midst of nature enables us to be heard unconditionally by the trees and oceans and animals around us, which all stem from God’s unconditional love for us all.
May God’s blessings be upon you, now and forever!