Embodied Transformation & Evolution

A Mind Like Water ~ Listening into a new life

Posted by on Mar 13, 2018 in Featured Writing, Lifeletters & Articles | 1 comment

A Mind Like Water ~ Listening into a new life

Along which secret aqueduct,
Oh water, are you coming to me,
water of a new life
that I have never drunk?
~Antonio Machado

When I am coaching people about love and intimacy, I often ask them to listen to the other person as a clear witness, an open space in which the other person is simply received as they are, seen as they are, heard as they are, right now. This is the easiest thing in the world to talk about, and one of the hardest things of all to embody.

Why is this kind of listening so difficult for us? Why do we get so distracted? Why do we interrupt each other, close down, invalidate and dismiss each other? Why are we left so often with the feeling of being unseen and unheard, which can live as a deep pain in the core of our being?

I remember one older woman, saying to her husband in a session of mine, after forty years of marriage, “Today was the first time you ever really heard me.” Her husband broke down and wept. He thought he knew his wife through all those years–and in one brief hour, he allowed himself to see her for the first time. Healing happens spontaneously in this space of listening. We don’t even have to talk. Silent conversations flow through the room, and intimacy flowers in the shared space without words.

Listening happens in one place and one place only: this moment. In some essential way, true listening is a spiritual practice, because it calls me back to this moment, again and again. It asks me to lay down all of my fixed points of view, and enter into your world. Listening leaves me naked, open, undefended. This is not something that comes naturally to my egoic self. My small self often carries with it from childhood a deep and unfulfilled need to be heard and seen. A self that is waiting to be heard is not yet ready to listen. What carries me into listening is not an egoic motive–it’s something greater than that. I’ve always called it love.

A Mind Like Water

If I take up the practice of listening, it will change my life. I will start to hear the people around me; and I will be touched by them, changed by them–I won’t be able to stay the same person. I will hear what my body is telling me, what the trees outside my door are telling me, what the secret longings of my neighbours are, what the hidden voices of my ancestors, lying deep in my bones, want to say. The act of listening is alchemical, potent, and mysterious. As Byron Katie puts it, “If we could really listen, there would be no suffering in this world.”

If I want to learn how to listen, I need to discover this deeper motivation, an impulse to devote myself to listening, even as my egoic self agitates, resists and pulls me away. This is not just a personal practice—it has vast implications. If we look at what is going on in our world right now, we’ll come face to face with the real demands of this practice. Violence, chaos and fragmentation flourish and grow in a space where no-one is listening. Listening is a surrender, a letting go, a dying into another part of myself, a much more spacious and mature aspect of who I am. I can give myself to it, if I feel the deep desire or longing to practice. Often I won’t find my way there without some kind of disruption, challenge or crisis.

After the brutal reign of apartheid in South Africa was over, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and others created an amazing process called ‘Truth and Reconciliation.’ They facilitated many meetings between the perpetrators of horrific crimes and their victims, during which they all had the opportunity to let go of the past.

On many days, Desmond Tutu would go right into the villages where these people were, and sit down on a log to talk with them. He would be accompanied by neutral observers called ‘fair witnesses.’ People would show up covered with machete scars, or with limbs missing. They would face their perpetrator and say, “You did this to me,” or “You killed my mother, right in front of me.”

There was a promise, made to the perpetrators, of no retaliation, no matter what was revealed. No consequence. Because of this promise, the perpetrators were able to say, “Yes I did that. I hear what you are saying, and I hear the incredible pain and suffering caused by me… But now, listen to my story.”

And everyone there would listen to their story. Not to the story about what happened, but the inner story, about what brought this person to the point where he did what he did. This was the truth that needed to be heard before real reconciliation could happen.

Often it was a story of a young child being kidnapped from his village and being thrown without warning into a world of violence and terror. For this terrified child, “Why didn’t you save me?” was the question burned into his heart. He didn’t understand that his parents were helpless.

I’ve often wondered what it took for Bishop Tutu, Nelson Mandela and all the others to sit and listen to such terrible stories, stories full of such violence and degradation. Somehow, from the very beginning of the process, a profound intelligence in these men inspired them to stand present in this way. They had the courage and depth of intention to show up as a fair witness.They carried in their hearts the sense of a radically new possibility. And it happened.

When the stories were allowed to unfold like this, with no consequence, something amazing occurred, over and over again. Ordinary people were able to experience being a fair witness. They found they could actually step into each other’s shoes. They were able to stop looking at each other from the place where the other person was a foreign object. They allowed themselves to slip right inside their world.

There is a shot, at the end of one of the Truth & Reconciliation videos, of a woman who had been one of the victims calling most loudly for revenge. After going through the whole process, she is walking down the road in her village, with a bucket on her head. She meets her perpetrator on the road, and passes him in silence.

After they pass, she is approached and asked, “What do you feel now, when you pass this man on the road?”

“Well,” she says, “I’ve said a lot. I have a life to live now. I have things to do, I can’t be bothered with this anymore.”

Healing often happens like this. When we have really been heard, we don’t need to carry the past around with us anymore. We simply decide to lay it down, in a real way. The Dalai Lama describes this kind of forgiveness as living with a mind like water, to which nothing sticks. It’s incredible to think that we can all learn to live with this mind like water. That the act of listening can allow us to rewrite our past, release the imprints, the shadows that still dog our footsteps. All it requires is a willingness to step into the other person’s shoes, to look at life with their eyes, to feel the world the way they feel it. And in order to do this, I have to invite them to speak to me, as I open myself and listen.

Is there anyone in your life with whom you are holding separation and judgement? Can you imagine what would happen to your heart, if you let yourself listen to them, even for a few moments, so that you could really stand in their shoes?

The Listening Prayer
May we all be free from suffering and the root of suffering.
May our practice of listening release the illusion of separation.
May it heal the listener, heal the one who is heard, and bring
healing forth in an ever-expanding circle that knows no boundaries.


with love,


One Comment

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  1. Jule Roper

    Thank you Shayla for this most essential piece of writing. I cannot tell you on how many levels your words about deep listening have touched upon. I am now more aware of why I have so much difficulty listening within very intimate relationships as my desire and need to be heard and understood myself are so strong that, as you say I may not be ready or have the capacity to listen with great depth. I do however have the powerful pull to practice, to commite to a practice which requires me to surrender and open my heart to the other and deeply listen. Just the other day I noticed a discomfort as a friend in recovery spoke about how hard it was … my discomfort wanted her to say something more hopeful. However, my ability to witness myself is very high these days; so I was able to notice the discomfort, the wanting for her to say something different and surrender to this part of me and to continue to listen.

    Your writing this morning made me realize that listening too is a practice, just like prayer and meditation. As of this moment it will become my new practice. I understand so much more now about listening and recognize that it is not just a new habit to develop. It is so much more than that … it is, as you say, Love.

    I also really appreciated the Truth and Reconciliation example and it helped me to understand some of the thoughts and feelings I have had about this recent practice here in BC with our aboriginal people. The part that has been missing is my ancestor story of the deep wounding that happened to those of British, colonial heritage which cause us to be so brutal and so unable to tolerate difference. I have not been to a ceremony which did as you describe … where both sides spoke of their wounding.

    So, bless you Shayla for your work. When you quoted Byron Katie I wondered if you really appreciated the great knowing and insights you have. While I had no issue with the quote , it was simply my perception that your words, which proceeded the quote, were so much more powerful and insightful than the quote itself. I await your book. With deep love, Jule

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