Tool of my trade #1 – compassionate listening

I wrote this last year sitting in Adelaide airport just after I’d attended the Spiritual Care Australia conference. The next conference is in Tasmania and I’m sad that I’m missing it, but I have a full calendar to tend to. This post concerns the value of compassionate listening and how we can serve the dying – and the living – better by really being able to hear what people are saying.

After three days of extending my practice as a spiritual carer at the Spiritual Care Australia conference in Adelaide, my vocation really is all about LISTENING. Not listening in a one-dimensional or perfunctory way, but really listening. I like to call it active or compassionate listening.

Tenzin Chodron from Karuna Hospice gave a rousing speech yesterday. The energy in the room was palpable after she lead us through a gentle meditation, and continued to enthral delegates when she spoke about her Buddhist model of spiritual care and about some of her intimate experiences with the dying. I’ve been  lucky enough to have studied under Chodron through Karuna as part of my ‘Spiritual Care with the Dying’ training, and compassionate listening is a skill I honed during my training. During both courses, the group did a listening exercise. We were partnered off where we had to actively listen for ten minutes to our partner without saying a word. No interruptions, no ‘me too’. We then swapped places so that the other person could speak.

It’s amazing how much you can really hear when you’re fully engaged with another person. Once the exercise was over, we discussed the listening activity and how it facilitated true listening, because when we think we’re listening to the person in front of us, are we ever fully engaged with that person and what they are saying? I would have to say that no, we’re not. But we can be.

From then on, whenever I have had to speak with someone as a fully engaged listener, I do a small meditation before I literally step or place myself into the conversation. This is also how I prepare when I’m about to speak with people who are sick or dying, which translates to me that there needs to be a quality of presence.

Clear the mind, set your intention and be almost hyper-attuned. I truly believe that by not listening properly we are failing the sick and dying.

It never ceases to surprise me what comes up for people who are dying. But as with speaking, there needs to be a greater respect for silence. Ofttimes, that is all the person can do until they know what they do want to speak about, or if they want to speak at all.

There are many ways in which we fail the dying. While palliative care nurses, spiritual carers, doctors and other practitioners recognise that suffering affects a person’s spirit, it is common for doctors who are not specialised in palliative care to treat people as just ‘a body in a bed.’ I’ve experienced this first hand, particular when I transitioned to an adult hospital. Everyone – patient or not – is more than the sum of their parts.

In Canberra, there is a much more holistic approach in palliative care medicine. Existential and spiritual suffering often manifests as physical pain, and I have heard stories that once this pain has been addressed, the need for morphine and other pain relief is lessened – particularly at night. This resonates with me because I’ve been to that place and I know that night time is both figuratively and literally the darkest of times where every layer of pain and suffering surfaces and is amplified tenfold. I’d be interested to know if you have had any ‘dark nights of the soul’.

As a spiritual carer, this interests me greatly. What’s more, it offers irrefutable proof that in order to fully understand other peoples pain and suffering, we must first recognise what kind of pain a person is in – emotionally, existentially, physically and spiritually. While pain relieving drugs are almost always necessary in palliative care, there’s evidence to suggest that the use of morphine and its ilk can mask spiritual pain. I have heard stories of many people who are dying who have refused pain relief so they could just BE. They wanted to experience dying in its infinite form and to be present. That takes momentous courage which the dying seem to have in spades.

The day before I flew to Adelaide for the conference, I was lucky enough to do a Death Midwifery workshop with Dr. Michael Barbato. During the workshop, Michael discussed these issues as well as quality of care, the evolution of spiritual care, and midwifeing the self, which is something I will address as another tool of my trade in another post. One of the last things Michael shared with us was a mantra for the living and the dying which I will leave you with as I sit at my desk on this early evening.

I forgive you.

I forgive me.

Bless you.

Thank you.

I love you.

8 thoughts on “Tool of my trade #1 – compassionate listening

  1. Oh Carly, I’m afraid I know those ‘dark nights of the soul’ all too well. They began in early childhood and I’ve no doubt contributed to what/who I am am.
    You have all the tools and much more that can’t be taught. XO

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    1. They are the worst of times and at the end, you somewhat feel delivered. I had them early on too and it was an exercise in suffering. I wish I had you as my therapist! You would be the best fucking person to help other people. Big love and lots of love and light XO

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  2. I had an opportunity to experience compassionate listening at an Osho festival i went to in Turkey, and i can relate to many of the insights you describe here about its powerful effect on sharing – it seems to permit a sharing at a soul level. A precursor to telepathy, perhaps. For real.

    That silence you describe that can hang around in the space of compassionate listening was often the most valuable for me, a person who likes to contemplate things before just spitting out words. Outside of compassionate listening (so, in almost every other conversation conceivable in our over-talkative world) there is so much pressure to explain yourself when you’re feeling suffering, which is usually impossible. If i didn’t feel like saying anything, i wouldn’t. If i felt like talking a mile a minute, i would. So often it’s not about the actual words, but about how the speaker is behaving in every aspect outside the language.

    Another lesson i cherish from the experience is how to not vocalise my every thought in some attempt to convey that i can relate. In my experience of conversation before i encountered compassionate listening, i thought it was important and valuable to be interjecting all the time saying, “Oh i know how you feel – this one time, at band camp …” and so on. But really it just interrupts the flow of whatever the speaker is processing through verbal articulation. In compassionate listening it was great to watch a person arrive at their own understanding of whatever issue they’re dealing with, without the listener getting in there and offering their interpretation. Of course it’s useful to relate sometimes, but not all the bloody time.

    I have also experienced something that might be called a dark night of the soul. During my first major chapter of real self-work in 2013, it started with a holotropic breathwork session that i guess shook the shit out of me. I spent the next week falling deeper and deeper into a conviction that everything was meaningless. I couldn’t read, i couldn’t write, i couldn’t talk with anyone beyond a few simple grunts to express i could not give less of a fuck. I suspect my ego was struggling with the fact i had been meditating so much at the time – letting go of my attachment to understanding things intellectually.

    After the debrief session with my therapist the following weekend, i came home to a bangin house party. I knew it had been planned, so i borrowed a housemate’s headphones and sat in the dark of my meditation room, meditating like fuck for about four hours until i popped out the other side. I felt there was nothing i could do but sit in that pain for as long as it took for it to finally purge, like a great stinking turd i had been withholding from the world all those years. The sense of joy and peace i felt in contrast to that pain was like nothing i had ever experienced before. It was a formative experience, because it left me feeling i could weather anything as bad as that and be able to come out the other side using only the resources i have in my spirit. And the support of a good therapist 🙂

    It makes me emotional to think of it now – in that happy-happy joy-joy kind of way. What a resource to discover. Thanks for reminding me of this, and for opening the space for sharing about it. A ‘dark night of the soul’ – sounds like a metal band, but such a profound experience.

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    1. Agree with everything you say, Abhijan. I love that space of contemplative knowing that comes out of a compassionate listening session. I always thought I was the talker – turns out that I’m a listener! But it’s decisions that I’ve consciously made that have lead me down this path of wanting to serve and heal. Before my transplant, I was a foghorn of a girl – fierce voice, fierce attitude, fierce everything. But I literally lost that post surgery, and I lost a piece of myself. I wonder who I would be today had my voice not been fucked up. I truly believe that everything is pre-determined. So while my voice had gone, through the years, I’ve developed the art of listening. I was always a good listener – people would always come to me even back in high school asking my advice, but I was probably more mouthy back then. Ok, I was more mouthy. I was a loud kid – always singing and dancing and I had a lot to say, but apparently it was an endearing way. I had a fuck tonne to say, in fact. I know that I scared a lot of people – friendly as I was.

      While I still have a lot to say, I don’t feel the need to actually say it, if you know what I mean. I can voice it, and then just let it be. I’ve learned to sit with mine and other peoples ‘stuff’. It’s quite magical when you really think about it, which is exactly what you mention. I’m sure we’ve all had dark nights of the soul – they’re messy and painful, but they real much about our true character and how much suffering we can survive. So happy to have you back in my life, Gram XO

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      1. I still sense that fierceness in you. I think it’s not something that’s contained to your physical being. Maybe it got channelled elsewhere, like into your longing for truth/home/chocolate, whatever you want to call it.

        I’d like to talk with you about pre-determination someday – sometimes when i’m in the flow it feels like everything is meant to happen, whether it be good or bad. But i can’t seem to accept that my choices don’t determine my future or that a positive attitude in the present doesn’t contribute to a positive “present to come”. I’m right there with you in feeling that even positives come out of negatives (like losing your voice). (I feel like i’m spouting cliches now, but whatevs.) I suspect i became such a gregarious fellow because my brother being such a prick in our childhood forced me into that. As i write now though, i wonder if that’s even true — it could have gone either way: i could have responded by becoming an even bigger prick. Wouldn’t be unheard of.

        What i really dig about this compassionate listening though, is, as you say, the ability to sit with other people’s stuff. I was writing about this today, and then i had an opportunity to practise with someone who was eye-wateringly angry (not with me, so i could remain objective). My presence seemed to disarm her, and if i didn’t actually help by not saying much, at least i didn’t inflame the situation by injecting all my opinions about how she might react more positively to the anger that was eating her.

        I reckon i’m gladder that you are, Carlsberg. Wanna fight about it?

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      2. Let’s have a pillow fight! I think you’re right – that fierceness is still there. I do believe it’s been filtered down a little, but it’s directed in a far less selfish direction like my palliative care and pastoral/spiritual care work that I’m doing, and it feels AMAZING. Knowing I can be the difference between an ok and a completely shit day where people are feeling unvalued, not listened to or supported, I feel as though I’m making a difference simply by listening and being of service. After a big, big day at college today where we seemed to talk about everything, I know that I’ll go to work tomorrow with a fresh pair of eyes and a different and ever evolving perspective.

        I truly believe in pre-determination, although I still meditate and pray. When my aunt was in ICU on the edge of life a couple of weeks ago, I still prayed and meditated, even though I believe our lives were worked out for us thousands of years ago. Or who knows? Maybe shit got worked out when just at the point of conception. So I know the struggle you’re feeling. If everything is pre-determined, then why should I do this or why should I do that? The fact that you became a companionable sort of bloke because of the way your brother treated you, like you say – you could’ve gone the other way. I still believe we make choices – for me it cuts both ways. There is pre-determination, but there is also the chance to make a conscious choice. Ot shit – what if that choice was already pre-determined. Either way – we need to chat.

        Having been really practicing compassionate listening since I’ve started seeing patients, I’m sitting with some pretty messy stuff. It is not nice, but I am having to face that, be present with it and when I leave, I have to let it go. A couple of patients have profoundly affected me and I am slowly learning how to deal with these challenging situations I’ve never faced before as best I can. It’s a process, and I’m still a novice. I love that you were able to be present for someone who was filled with such rage. That you were able to do that without projecting opinions and advice onto her is very commendable – and certainly, not easy XO

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  3. Hi Carly,
    If anybody could talk underwater, it would have been me but I’m working on the listening and also the observing…observing me is very challenging as well. Went to the optometrist and ordered new glasses yesterday: scratched lenses, long and short sightedness have both changed but that’s an aside.
    On the listening front, I had an interesting response from some of my friends when I started asking questions. They were used to me talking and they actually liked it that way and they clammed up when I even asked them very simple questions like: “How was work?” which could still be a “fine” I wasn’t conducting a tell-all interview. They actually became quite edgy.
    However, they’re more the exception and because I’m open about my health setbacks and often get around with a walking stick, which I think makes you look safe and approachable, people do tend to open up.
    Where I get a bit stuck is when people are stuck in a self-defeating mindset and I know through my own experiences and through the brain’s plasticity and ability to change, that we are often capable of so much more than we know and sell ourselves short. It can be a bit tricky juggling the listening versus the action hat because something people just need to get out of their chair and do it.
    I’ve had some very dark times with my health and I recall sitting outside holding the dog a few times while the rest of the family slept. I have also rung my family in Western Australia which is a few hours behind and she also really gets me and is very caring and compassionate.
    One of the worst dark nights I’ve ever had was the night before I was having brain surgery and I was in the hospital. I was living in Geraldton, North of Perth at the time and I’d been thinking about how my then partner was feeling and didn’t really think about what I was going through myself until late that night when I was all alone in those bleak 4 walls. The worst thing about having these dark nights and probably the reason why they’re so bad is that there’s nobody to talk to. They’re all asleep. That makes sense. A psychologist friend of mine said if you’re in a dark mood, not to be alone. Go and see somebody and that helps lift the cloud.
    I had a similar dark night when I was in Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney. Again, it was late at night but I got talking to another patient’s husband and he was wonderfully supportive. His wife was a senior volunteer for Lifeline. Some of her training must had rubbed off.
    You mentioned in this post that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I mentioned that in a post I wrote recently reflecting on Harmony Day: https://beyondtheflow.wordpress.com/2015/03/21/community-is-a-symphony-not-a-solo-performance/
    Also, I don’t know if you’ve read anything by Hugh Mackay? He wrote a fantastic book called: “Why Don’t People Listen?” among so many others.
    In terms of brain plasticity, there are two books by Norman Doidge: “The Brain which Changes Itself” and “The Brain’s Way of Healing”. Brilliant!!
    Hope you have had a good weekend. Love & blessings,
    Rowena

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