One of the things I advocate for fairly rigorously is a practice that I call "proligion." Proligion is spirituality that is off its knees, with its head in the air and eyes looking forward. It departs from belief, asks questions of everything it comes into contact with (especially authority), and seeks understanding through the union of heart and mind, sense and reason. In other words, if you will pardon the seemingly paradoxical label, it is a scientific spirituality.
Religion, by contrast, binds in belief (which is its Latin etymology, by the way), by looking back to the stories of a past that no longer has meaning for today. Proligion links to the present and forward, through each moment. It is not a group system of belief, but a personal experience, unique to each who follows it. Thus, proligion does a better job of connecting with the universal.
I'm currently working on something that will give further depth and dimension to all this, but the point tonight has to do with a man who I think embodied the principles of proligion. His name was Reverend William Sloane Coffin, Jr., and he died yesterday. His passing has not generated a great deal of media coverage—in fact, practically none—but believe me, the world has lost a lot today. But the universe has gained.
To learn more about Rev. Coffin and why we should remember his work, you can watch the video that Norm Jenson has posted; or read Vanden Heuvel at HuffPost. There are also his books, and this, which he wrote after the untimely death of his son:
For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn't go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths...The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is "It is the will of God." Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God's heart was the first of all our hearts to break.
Today, I'm offering a piece called "Notes for a Course in Listening". Warning: it may strike you as a bunch of New Age fluff; but let me submit that if our leadership in Washington had gotten a little of this fluff into their brains about three and a half years ago, tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis and more than 2,300 of our own might still be alive today; and there might also be enough money in the Treasury to rebuild New Orleans properly, give sick people in our nation access to the medical help they need, and give kids from low income families a chance at a college education, among other things.
All they had to learn to do was to listen to the information that was already at hand. They did not, and the result has been what could eventually be recorded as the greatest disaster of our nation's history.
Notes for a Course in Listening
When was the last time you felt as if you were listened to? Before you answer, go over the last few conversations you’ve had with people—whether at work, home, or anywhere else. Just review them in your mind and decide whether you came away thinking not just that you’d been heard, but that someone was listening. Then ask the same question the other way around, in the same way: how often do you really listen?
We live in a culture where listening is discouraged or overlooked; where obedience, instead, is paramount. Pay attention, for example, to what goes on between adults and children—for it is in childhood that we learn either to listen or merely to feign it.
In a typical encounter between an adult and a child, the grownup will demand of the child that he “just listen”; meaning, of course, “just obey.” The kid’s response will generally range from a passive-aggressive compliance to mute ignorance to outright rebellion.
But what else would you expect? The child, most likely, has not been taught to listen; because the adult has probably never learned to do it herself.
This, in social microcosm, is your culture in a nutshell: everyone fills the air with sound, demanding either obedience or payment, but few are truly listening. The consequences of this solipsistic self-utterance amid a vacuum of attention are severe. In fact, when you stop to consider the effects of our attention deficit pandemic—in government, education, professional and personal relationships—the fallout could scarcely be more dire.
We do not question what we hear from authority, advertising, pedagogical or religious indoctrination, because we rarely listen truly to any of it. So it would appear as if a course in listening, if you will, might be one healing approach toward resuscitating our culture of malignant interpersonal laze. In short, such a course, if prepared and presented correctly, could help us a lot, both personally and socially.
One point that I think must be emphasized is that there is nothing really to learn, in the sense of accumulating knowledge that is external to you. Naturally, we all know how to listen: we merely have to unlearn the habits of non-listening that have been ingrained within us through cultural conditioning and the mad pace of modern life. I have a few tentative ideas, some formative suggestions, on how such a class in listening could be structured; and as always, I would welcome your ideas.
Begin with a simple practice in listening to Nature. Even if you live in a city, you can go outside or into a park and listen to the songs of birds, the flow of water, the voice of the wind, the rustle of leaves, the voices of animals, or the sound of your footsteps upon the earth. Spend a little time at this, perhaps once a week or so: you don’t have to take notes or follow a script about it. Just listen for the sounds and voices of Nature for a few minutes at a time, with all your conscious attention, and see whether you feel differently afterwards.
In between (or even during) those sessions, you can practice listening to your own body. Kids are very good at this, and they like to talk about it, too. Our bodies are continually making sounds that we can hear, whenever we attend to them (and sometimes when we do not). Grumblings in the belly; saliva pooling in the mouth and being swallowed; the cracking of moving joints; the heartbeat; the sound of the breath; farts and sneezes and clearings of the throat; the interactive movement of the body’s parts. It can be quite fascinating, listening to your own body; maybe that’s why children do it so well and often.
Next, perhaps, we could direct our attention to the silent self-talk that goes on within the mind. This is what is often referred to as a meditative or self-insight practice, though in our culture, of course, it is usually pursued in a distracted or half-hearted fashion. But good meditation teachers like to focus on this aspect of inner listening, because they know that it can often produce some strikingly moving moments of insight and truth. Most would encourage us to listen to our inner dialogues as if we were watching clouds scudding across the sky on a windblown day, or as if we had just caught a snippet of a conversation in a nearby room that seemed to carry a vague, impersonal resonance with us, even as we were occupied with something entirely distinct. Such listening can bring us to a plane of objectivity that we rarely reach amid the common discourse of life. It is only a seeming irony that this sort of objectivity may often awaken the most unsettling and emotion-laden memories or feelings within us. When the voice of truth within us is left clear to touch us without the interposition of obstructive interpretations or repressive self-spin, then the brain and the heart work in concert to produce realization.
After a period of practicing these other meditations in listening; we could take up the matter of listening to others. One effect that the preparatory exercises in nurturing attention would create is what might be termed “total engagement.” By this I mean the involvement of the whole being in the act of listening: senses and body-centers that we do not normally associate with listening would be awakened and invited into the dance of attention. Curiously, it is people with so-called disabilities that understand this principle more easily than the rest of us: a deaf person, for example, learns to listen with his eyes, with his senses of motion and smell, with bodily functions that are often overlooked in listening, such as the heart. So perhaps you could try this, with a friend or family member who is joining you for this exercise: listen to one another with an awareness for the sound beyond mere sound. Experiment with different tones, subjects of conversation, or mannerisms; try turning off selected senses or using different ambient sounds around your conversation. Sometimes, in a meeting at work, I will close my eyes and listen for the sounds that are being made below or beyond the range of the verbal communication. I frequently learn a lot about the motivations, the emotional states, the direction of the feeling-energy in the room and among the people in it, by doing this for just a few seconds at a time.
As you go through these various practices, see if your sensitivity and understanding of the verbal encounters and the listening moments of your everyday life change or grow. The whole point of insight practice is not to escape from reality, but to be more present to it, and thereby to enhance the inner clarity of mind that supports successful action. When we learn to listen truly and fully, we experience more; and thus we further life—the life within and all around us.