Practicing the Art of Compassionate Listening

compassionate listeningMy friend Andrea Cohen has written a lovely and useful book, Practicing the Art of Compassionate Listening" in which she reflects on the power of the heart: "The heart contains approximately 40,000 neural cells - the kind we used to think existed only in the brain. It's estimated that 60-65% of the heart's cells are neural cells. In fact, the brain sends many more messages to the brain than the brain sends to the heart. And through a process called Entrainment, our brain's rhythms naturally synchronize to our heart's rhythms, rather than the other way around."

I don't think I ever truly understood this point until Andrea explained it so well. I'm accustomed, as we all are, to hearing and using the word heart as a metaphor. By it we mean something can happen to us that is deeper than simple intellectual agreement, more profound than rational communication or logical justification. Generally we mean that our emotions are involved in some way, or that we are touched in a deeply spiritual way. When we talk about hearts in this way, we mean something akin to what we mean when we refer to souls. Our heart is connected to our spirit, and to our spiritual identity. So we talk about having a heartfelt reaction, or report a heart-to-heart conversation, or discuss what it means to take Jesus into your heart, or confess that the illness of a friend has placed a burden on your heart.

Furthermore, Andrea describes how the heart's energy field is contagious: "The heart's electromagnetic field is several times more powerful than the brain's electromagnetic field, and it expands at least six to eight feet beyond our body. When we shift our own physiology, we literally shift the physiology and brain waves of others in our sphere. One study found that Tibetan Buddhist monks who practice holding compassionate thoughts on a daily basis radiate a stronger electromagnetic field than monks who simply practice holding relaxed meditative states."

Andrea is interested in how we can move through and beyond seemingly intractable conflict  towards a kind of radical, empathetic agreement that allows us to transcend our differences. She assumes that conflict is inevitably a part of the human landscape, but that by understanding how conflict triggers negative memories and emotions we can escape the negative bind that conflict places us in. Her book is a practical guide to developing the art of compassionate listening, which requires consciously opening yourself up to make a heart to heart connection with another human being.  

My use of the word heart, then, has moved beyond the metaphorical. My heasrt connects me to your heart, as my brain does not. Our ideas may not be in agreement, or our political positions, or our cultural assumptions. We may not agree about public polcy, or religious doctrine, or favorite music, or whether we like basket-weaving or opera or video games, and we may have radically different modes of interpersonal communication. But we can nonetheless establish and deepen our ties and move beyond our conflicts. All that's needed is a capacity to listen compassionately to each other.  This is a capacity Andrea's book can help us cultivate. When we listen to stories, when we tell stories, we open a direct channel from one heart to another.

As the Sufo poet Rumi said:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.