Listening for What’s Below

-by David Townsend

No matter how often you’ve sat in a Heart Circle, the facilitator will always remind us why we’re here: to speak from the heart, not from the analytic mind. To speak from personal experience, not from grand theories; from our feelings, not from abstract ideas or elaborate stories. To speak only when we’re holding the talking stick. We don’t respond directly to one another–though what someone else has shared may call forth what we need to share in turn.

Those guidelines sound simple but practicing them isn’t. The separation of heart from the head–like toxic masculinity’s separation of heart from cock–is a false dichotomy, useful till it’s not. How we feel about what’s out there in the world is still what we feel. Stories about what’s happened to us in the past can be the vehicles we need for our feelings in the here and now.

Speaking in the Heart Circle is a skill, an art of mindful living and relating that comes more easily with practice. What doesn’t get articulated as explicitly at the beginning of most Heart Circles is how to listen. The mindful silence we practice when we’re not holding the talking stick is at least as essential to what happens in the Circle as right speech. But it’s even more subtle.  (In his daily online meditations Franciscan teacher Richard Rohr recently focused for a week on deep listening as a spiritual practice.)

First of all, we practice holding space for the emotions of others while keeping the reactive impulses of our own egos in check. We resist the impulse to jump in with active comfort at the moment.  We’re not there to fix anything, but just to allow someone to be heard. We’re not there to assuage grief or mitigate anger, nor to put words to our pleasure in witnessing someone else’s happiness or love. We’re there to deliver a silent message: you’re safe. You’re seen. You matter. You matter to us.

We learn patience by listening to shares that may be loose, circumstantial, and rambling.

We need to practice patience because no matter how often the guidelines for the Circle are rehearsed, we don’t always stay within them. We can’t, because our inner lives are shot through with the times that our hearts and the subtle, manifold layers of our minds work together, and indeed, need to work together. Experience and stories about the world are all mixed up. Feelings and ideas flow into each other. So sometimes we sit listening to shares that are loose, rambling, and full of detail that distracts us as much as it illuminates.

And then maybe we start to realize that all that detail with which we’ve started to lose patience is there because the speaker is doing the best they can in the moment. We’re never wholly present to ourselves, and sometimes all that rambling is the path someone has available to get to what’s below. They may not be conscious that they’re rambling. They’re doing the best they can. And our patience becomes more than mere tolerance for someone’s not-always-skilled practice. We recognize that the extraneous details aren’t the true content of the share, but simply the vehicle, the only vehicle available right now, for what’s traveling with all that seemingly unrelated or unnecessary free association.

We learn to treasure what’s below, what’s out of sight, or out of sight for now to the person who’s speaking. We treasure it for them as they become more aware of it themselves. By sitting silently, we become more aware of the process of ourselves, and of what another’s words are eliciting in us.

We allow it all to take its own good time to emerge, in a circle of queer men who sit together as midwives to one another’s inner treasures. David Townsend, a long-time member of the Body Electric community, is a ritualist and sacred intimate practicing in Toronto and online. This post first appeared on his blog Anchorhold (www.anchorholder.blogspot.com).

David Townsend

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