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whole body listening

whole body listening: a blog post by Andrea Hurley

by Andrea
June 8, 2014

Sometimes I struggle with writers block. When I do, I feel disconnected and empty. And when I try to force something to come, I become like a rebellious child. Refusal. Stubborn refusal. Seems there is nothing I can do about it, with nothing interesting to say, so why bother? Oy. What an attitude! So this morning I have taken myself to a nearby cafe, which is bustling with conversation, spurting with the steamy sound of the the espresso machine, laced with the high pitch voices of playful children—all of this weaving seamlessly with the barely discernible music from the speakers on high. At times like this when I feel nothing is happening inside and I'm in the midst of my own stubbornness, I just have to stop and listen. Pay attention. It is not long before I am jogged out of my stupor. 

It's all in the listening

We listen in so many ways: with hearing, with seeing, with smelling, with touching, with the heart. We listen with our whole being. It's as if humans are designed to listen as a means of connecting with life and remembering who we are. Even as our sensory or cognitive capacities change or diminish over time, there seems to be a mysterious compensation that enables us to still listen. Perhaps even more deeply. Beethoven is but one of many powerful examples of this.

I love watching the way my mother listens. She listens differently as an elderly person of 96 years old. It seems that she listens more with her whole being, and listens to a deeper essence. Often I see a quiet vulnerability in her eyes, and a stillness in her posture. She does not have the same capacity to engage in complex conversation as she did when she was younger. The particulars come and go and details usually won't stick. But still I notice there is something else going on… there is another kind of listening. Less literal and less linear.

I have often wondered about this because to me it is so striking, this kind of listening. I see it in some of the other elderly people in the Assisted Living community where my mother lives. It is more evident in some than in others, and it is particularly apparent in the newly arriving residents, when there is a vulnerability and lack of sureness in their whole demeanor. Where to sit, who to talk with, what to do, where to go next. The environment is so new for them, the routines so different from their former lives. In this healthy insecurity, there seems to be more of this whole body listening, and a capacity to pay attention beyond the particulars. After the new resident has become more familiar with the routines, that whole body listening may fade a bit. But not for everybody. Not for my mother.

One woman who sits every day at the same dining table with my mother has said to me several times, "Your mother knows exactly what's going on. She get's it." It always struck me why she would say this about my mother, and then I realized that she sees the same thing in my mother that I do. My mother may not be a big talker, and conversations with her are usually pretty simple, but that doesn't mean she isn't quietly absorbing what's going on. It doesn't mean she doesn't get it.

I observe my mother with a great deal of interest and love. What I observe teaches me important lessons about living and dying and the whole process in between. Not everyone ages gracefully or with dignity. Not everyone listens or pays attention so deeply. If I could wave a magic wand and create a future more beautiful than what I see today, it would be a world where we all strive to become true listeners.

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