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Listening Twice – 9/14/2014

The story begins like this: a king had a son. One day, this son would inherit his throne, and so the king desired to teach his son wisdom. To accomplish this, he sent the young man to study with a very wise teacher, far away. The prince greeted his new teacher with respect, but as soon as they had been introduced, the teacher sent him away. “Go into the forest. You must live there, alone, for one year. Then you must return to me and tell me what the sound of the forest is.”

Bewildered but obedient, the young man followed these instructions. For one full year he made his home in the forest, and on the anniversary of his arrival he returned to the same place where he and his teacher had first met. “Teacher,” he said. “This is the sound of the forest: the singing of birds and the rustling of leaves, the chirp and buzz of insects, the wind in the grass and the call of the wolf.”

The teacher nodded at the pupil’s statement and gave the next instruction. “Go back to the forest and listen again. Return when you have heard the rest of the forest.”

Now the prince was truly perplexed: he had spent a whole year of his life in those woods. There could be nothing about them he did not already know. But he went, and sat, and listened. For days on end he listened, until finally he heard something. When he returned to his teacher, this is what he said, “The rest of the forest’s sounds are those that go unheard. The sunlight falling on the earth. The grass drinking the rain. The flowers opening to look out at the world.”

“To hear the unheard,” said the teacher, “is essential to all rulers. They must listen to the peoples’ hearts. A great ruler must strain to hear the unnamed sufferings and unspoken hopes of his subjects. Only then can he begin to address what his people truly need.”

To hear the unheard – a great gift, to be sure, if one can cultivate or possess it – but it also sounds like a pretty tall order, doesn’t it? On this day when we bless our congregational leaders and renew the covenant we share for another year, this ancient story from Korea on the quality most essential to a leader seems, at first, to be setting a standard no mere mortal could meet. Try as I might, I confess, I cannot hear the opening of a flower. And while I occasionally get lucky when trying to guess the word on the tip of my partner’s tongue, I am no mind-reader. We may talk often of honoring the joys and sorrows which remain in the silent sanctuaries of our hearts, but if you want me or anyone else to know what is happening for you, speech and the written word continue to prove more effective than telepathy; for half a million years now and counting.

Yet, if we cannot literally hear the glowing of the sun, or the breaking of a heart, that may not mean we should not listen for them. The two types of sound in the story – the heard and the unheard – point to a division in all wisdom and understanding. In this sense, this is a lesson that takes us immediately beyond what is important for all leaders, and to something that is important for all humans. The information that makes up the things we know about ourselves and the world comes to us from two distinct sources: from outside, and from within. It takes two essential forms: the basic information of our senses – the exact things we see and feel and hear – and how we interpret and expand upon that raw data. These two sets are just slightly different ways of describing the heard and the unheard, and the health of our bodies, our communities, and our planet depends upon us listening twice – opening ourselves to both the wisdom of the external world and the insight to be found within.

In one of the more famous passages of the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Elijah had reached a deep low. He despairs of the total failure of his religious mission and though he is literally on the run for his life he questions the value in continuing to live. Then, alone in a cave in the desert, Elijah hears the voice of the Holy instructing him to “stand on the mountain before G-d.”

“And lo, G-d passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of G-d, but G-d was not in the wind. After the wind – an earthquake; but G-d was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, fire – but G-d was not in the fire. And after the fire – a still, small voice.”[i]

The voice sets Elijah back upon his trajectory, restores his purpose and hope and gives him a way forward and the voice does so beginning with this question: “Why are you here, Elijah?” It is only when he hears that voice that Elijah comes out of his cave.

A still, small voice seems to me a fair description of the unheard sound, the insight that comes from within. As always, whether or not you believe in G-d is completely irrelevant to the critical issue here: attuning ourselves through meditation or prayer or any other mode of deep reflection to our own reserves of purpose and hope. This is not a matter of grandiose spiritual missions and divine intent; or at least it is not only that. Most of the time that small voice, too often pushed down and ignored, is the voice of our own empathy – our ability to understand another’s experience, or at least attempt to.

In her recent collection of essays, the Empathy Exams, the writer Leslie Jamison ruminates on what it means to feel someone else’s feelings. The title of the book comes from her experience as a medical actor. Ms. Jamison worked for a time being paid to play sick in order to test and train medical students both in the work of diagnosis and in the exercise of empathy. She writes,

“Empathy isn’t just remembering to say that must really be hard, it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all. Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing….Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us — a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain — it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It’s made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse.  Sometimes we care for another because we know we should or because it’s asked for, but this doesn’t make our caring hollow. The act of choosing simply means we’ve committed ourselves to a set of behaviors greater than the sum of our individual inclinations. I will listen to his sadness, even when I’m deep in my own.”

We listen twice in order to understand each other – not perfectly, but just enough to be able to make choices more likely to help than to harm. We live in a time of catastrophically abundant information: the factoids and fragments of light and sound which are recorded and retained electronically every second of every day are so vast that their magnitude outstrips even my over-functioning capacity for metaphor. We would seem, as a society, to have no shortage of external data. Our biggest collective problem seems to be how to keep any of it protected, whether that’s national defense secrets or personal bank account passwords. But at the level of our own individual selves, we have the problem of being watched and listened for constantly.  There is a psychic cost to this, at least for some of us. Consider, for instance, the emergence of a novel mental health diagnosis: the Truman Show delusion. Patients believe that they are the central and unwilling characters in a reality TV show in which evil executives script the otherwise mundane elements of their lives. The “noise” of all this automated listening would seem to be heavy indeed.

Of course, waiting around for perfect silence and the total absence of distractions before beginning to listen for the unheard is unlikely to lead anywhere. And as David Flynn, who leads our congregation’s monthly meditation group (meeting tonight at 7:30!) can tell you, it’s just not good practice. The key to life is not to simply “drink from the well of your self and begin again,” as Charles Bukowski put it. If we only see the outside material world as an impediment to the internal spiritual one we become just as cut off from meaning as if we never turned inward at all. We need the information from both realms – the heard and the unheard – in order to gain the benefit of either.

Even in our glutted age of information, sometimes a great yawning gap in factual understanding is as great, or greater than a gap in empathy.  Late this summer, when unarmed teenager Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, the still-ongoing outpouring of grief and anger made national news. Generations of routine injustice in communities of color all over the country got an unusual degree of public attention, if only briefly. The dramatic militarization of police forces became something that dramatically more people were watching and listening and thinking about. Certainly, there are an entire constellation of failures of empathy here, but up until the moment the media coverage exploded, and now that it has largely receded, there is also a colossal failure simply to pay attention.

These problems now “on display” in Ferguson were already there in plain view, they were not secret or hidden. They are not unique to one St. Louis suburb – the systematic targeting of people of color by majority-white police forces that behave like armies of occupation is happening all over this country and has been for a long time. But so much depends on what we, collectively and individually, turn to face, or hide from our sight.

There’s another story from the tradition of Korean Buddhism about a disciple to another great teacher. The student was promising and devoted, and worked and studied and thought for many long years in the teacher’s school. But after decades of striving towards the example of the spiritual luminary, the disciple felt no closer to the goal of attaining or even approaching the same degree of clarity and insight as the elder monk. He became resigned to the idea that he would never reach enlightenment. The disciple went to the master to notify him of his intent to leave the monastery. Before he could speak, the teacher declared that he would accompany his pupil to the bottom of the mountain.

Before they began their descent from the mountain top, the teacher asked the soon-to-be-former student what he saw. “O Wise One – I see the sun dawning on the horizon. I see the mountains and hills that reach out in all directions. I see the lake in the valley below, and the little town beside it. The teacher smiled, and said nothing, and the two set off down the mountain together.

Hours later, at the base of the mountain where the two were to part ways, the teacher again asked the student what he could see. “O Wise One – I see the noonday sun high overhead, this mountain we have just come down and the other across from it. I see animals in the farm yards of the town and children playing along the shore of the lake.”

“Enlightenment,” the teacher explained, “requires the understanding that what one sees at the top of the mountain is not the same as the view from the bottom. When we fail to remember this, we close ourselves off to all that we cannot see or know for ourselves. But with this wisdom we come to recognize that we see only so much – little at all, in fact. Yet what we cannot see can be seen from a different part of the mountain.”

We cannot see – or hear – it all. To know even the little bit of all that is that we are capable of knowing requires care and attention. A determination not to look away from the world and its failings, and a discipline of examining ourselves, imperfections and all.

[i] 1 Kings 19:11-12

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