The greatest spiritual experiences in art come from the act of listening. This is a bold statement, but I stand by it. This is why the spiritual attunement of the artist is critical to offering something of substance to the world.
Ernest Hemingway once said, “I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.”
Beethoven heard something within when he wrote “Ode to Joy,” as he was deaf and could not even hear the standing ovation he was given at its premier and had to be turned around to see the gratitude for this triumphant masterpiece. He spent years listening to the theme in his mind and redrafting it in his mind before being moved to compose it on paper.
Rick Rubin, the legendary record producer was being interviewed by Anderson Cooper of 60 Minutes. He and Cooper walked into a recording session. Cooper pointed out that there were different sounds being played. Rubin said, “I’m not listening to any of that. I’m listening for the feeling.” As he was analyzing the saxophone piece he noted, “It sounds familiar, but I haven’t heard it before, it’s relaxing.” It was noted that Rubin literally lays down and closes his eyes to listen to music.
Rubin’s undivided attention is given to the “feel” of a piece. I thought to myself shouldn’t that be the criteria for good listening? Period. Have we listened to the feelings of someone? Have we listened until we find the “feel” of peace? This is hard.
In spiritual direction we talk about directing the aspirant to his/her emotions at the time of the sitting. “What are you feeling with God right now?”
Ownership of one’s feelings is the most vulnerable thing a person can do, because he is confronting truth and honesty about the world around him. To share that ownership is doubly vulnerable because expression of one’s feelings to another is telling the world what you feel and this unconditional surrender through words lends itself to criticism or potential hurt.
My mother was one of the greatest listeners I ever met. She sat silent, her brow furrowed and an intense gaze. Having shared my thoughts, she would sit for moments and say nothing. She waited for the time to speak, and she framed her responses in such a way that she would tell me what she heard. Then the sage wisdom would come out with a phrase or two that singularly put perspective on what really mattered. There was validation and peace in the utterance of assurance and an honest evaluation of the perspective. This was carried out with tremendous love and crafted with care and concern for my ultimate good.
As a teacher, the greatest moments in class came not from sharing but listening and letting students know that they were heard. This is what carried my classes. That students felt safe enough to share their thoughts with one another and knew there was at least one person in the room who was hearing them.
In plays and screenplays, we see characters voice “crying in the wilderness,” reaching for someone to listen to them, reaching for understanding. As a writer I learned it was the connect and disconnect that mattered. Listening is the connect that we all yearn for. How many times have we seen the tragic flaw of a character being that the character was deaf to the advice of those around him and hearing what he wanted to hear?
Rubin said, the intention of his work is “to listen to the artist to find out what they want… You’re trying to tap into a feeling.” He reminds me of a spiritual director in that he says, “I’m giving you keys to look for within yourself.”
Great spiritual direction comes from strong listening. There’s an old adage, “If you hear something three times, you may want to pay attention to that message.” A good director can hear the themes of an aspirant and say, you may want to look deeper at that through this scriptural passage or take this into your prayer tonight.
Isn’t that what makes a good riff? We hear the repetition of a catchy phrase or melody and it stays with us.
As I was writing this piece, I was listening for words of wisdom. I came upon the following prayer on a friend’s page and found it amusing that I happened upon it. I think it says it all. It was written by Rev. Micah Bucey of Judson Memorial Church in New York.
A Tiny Prayer (for those who need to do a bit more listening):
May you not rush to answer, explain, or defend, may you remember that you don’t always, or even ever, need to have an immediate fix, may you find the quiet core that keeps you nourished enough to feel worthy and open enough to be changed, and when you do respond, may you ground yourself in trust and be heard as deeply by others as you have just practiced yourself.