Listening and Courage

View of sunrise from our breakfast table this morning in Comox

View of sunrise from our breakfast table this morning in Comox

I thought I would carry on with the topic of Listening by discussing some of the conditions which I have found to be conducive. One such condition is that of courage.

The word, courage, comes from the French ceour, meaning heart. As the Chinese character for Listening shows (see Jan. 4th post), and in the way I am speaking of it here, Listening requires being centred in the heart. Though we may think of courage as involving will or force, it actually requires a softening and an opening of heart.

But courage means more than heart. When we need courage, we are likely to be experiencing fear because of some perceived danger. Rather than being a state without fear, courage is about being true to ourselves even in the face of fear. To Listen more expansively, an openheartedness in the face of fear is essential. But what is there to fear about Listening?

For one thing, when we Listen with our full presence, we are likely to feel, and the feeling may be uncomfortable or even painful. Sometimes what another is saying is difficult to hear. Many of my counselling students fear that they will not be able to handle some of the stories their clients tell them, which is understandable given that many clients’ histories are heartbreaking.As a therapist I have heard stories of abuse, violence, tragedy, and even torture, which individuals in my presence have experienced firsthand. In these situations I need to stay present and be witness. I breathe. I feel. I let my client know I am with them and listening and I check to make sure I am understanding what they are saying. I am not saying it is always easy.

I have not always been so courageous with my own family members as I have with my clients. For instance, I have recently come to realize it has been particularly difficult for me to Listen and let in feelings regarding a period in my late mother’s and my own life. It is only recently that I have really begun to assimilate my feelings about what her life was like for her at that time.

It can require courage to attend to unfinished business, memories and past experiences that are locked in the body and which keep our life flow blocked. It also takes courage to receive feedback, especially when it might challenge our own beliefs and concepts of ourselves. To hear a partner’s or our good friend’s difficulty with us might be especially hard to swallow and assimilate. There are unconscious parts of all of us, ‘shadow’ aspects as Jung called them, of which we are not only unaware but have at some point rejected, that would change our self awareness and even identity if we were to integrate and embrace them. Sometimes we become aware of these from the feedback of others, but we can make the effort to discover them ourselves if we are willing to Listen to ourselves. Dreams, especially, can be helpful in this regard.

That our self concept or world view might be too small or limited can make it difficult to Listen, and it can feel threatening to have it challenged. Receiving the reality of another that is different from our own might challenge us to change, whether the information is about us, the other, a political situation, or reality itself. Sometimes it even results in a period of instability and disorientation.

Of course Listening to our deepest inner voice, whether we conceive of this as our soul, the voice of God or an angel/guide, or just our higher self, can be particularly frightening, as this voice might ask something of us which we are not prepared for. We might be called to take a risk or follow a particular direction which our ego resists. If it is our deepest voice it will always be in our best interest, but the ego doesn’t care. It favours looking good and being in control.

The courage to Listen requires opening, which can be challenging for our ego. It is not only our heart that must open but also our mind. Rationalizing often serves as protection – Freud called rationalization an ego defence mechanism as it keeps us from fully experiencing. Of course, defence mechanisms can be healthy temporarily, especially when we are overwhelmed, but eventually experience needs to be assimilated.

I would not suggest we should be open to everything and not be discerning. A healthy bit of scepticism and caution is essential. But a nay-saying approach to life is deadening. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “There is more to heaven and earth, Horatio, than is dreamt of in your philosophy.” Opening to the unknown, to what we do not understand and is beyond our control, takes courage. To consider the vastness, magnificence, and magic of Life can take our breath away. To actually receive Life and Listen can bring us to our knees.