, , , ,

I recently read a wonderful book called 102 free things to do. I had found myself in a library with time on my hands, and the book was displayed near the entrance on a quick selection shelf. One of the suggestions was to adopt or invent a personal motto. On reading this suggestion I began sifting through possibilities> The first that caught my attention was an adaptation of T.S. Eliot’s, ‘teach us to care and not to care’ which became ‘learn to care and not to care’. However, as I sat with it for a while I realised, though I find it a very powerful and inspiring phrase, I don’t think I’ve even begun to understand what it really means, let alone managed to experience that perfect balance of compassion and equanimity it seems to suggest. I believe a personal motto ought to be followable, practical in those moments when I call on it for support and firm guidance, so one I don’t fully understand probably isn’t going to be so useful.

And so to another poet, and the final line of his most famous poem, Invictus, by William Ernest Henley. ‘I am the captain of my soul’ is the final line I was considering for a motto. But something nagged that this was also not quite right. It’s too broad, too otherworldly in tone for my needs. Ok, so now what? Listen. Yeah, I am, that’s exactly… No, really. Listen. Just that. Listen.

And so my personal motto is just that. Listen.

When I give my attention to the resonance of that word it feels huge. When I follow it through to its grandest expression I imagine age old conflicts being worn away, with peace creating new pathways like a majestic river patiently carving out the dramatic beauty of a canyon. I remember the story of Ghandi’s follower, Vinoba Bhave and how his deep listening to the concerns of poor villagers resulted in a land donation movement across India. I remember the story of a young western Aikido student in Japan who was preparing to start a fight with a drunk man on a train, until a old man spoke gently to the drunk and listened to his pain without judgement, diffusing the situation completely. Then I come back to me, to see how the word ‘listen’ shows up in my own life and actions. It seems there is still much for me to learn…

I was recently at a silent retreat centre trying out for a job in their kitchen. A retreat centre would be a good place to express the best of the word listen, you’d think. One morning I was due in the kitchen at 9.30 am. I glanced at the clock in my bedroom, where I was reading a book while waiting, and saw 9.20. Time to make a move, as I like to be early, so I left my room headed for the nearest bathroom. I found it was still being cleaned. ‘They’re supposed to be finished by 9.15,’ I said to myself. ‘Why must they run late?’ I inwardly tut tutted whilst keeping my face serene, and found another bathroom.

I then went on to the kitchen. It was full of people chopping vegetables, cue inwardly repeat, ‘they’re supposed to be done by 9.15, why must they run late?’ followed by further inner tut tutting. I continued to smile at the retreatants diligently washing and chopping, a little faster perhaps now that they had an audience. Gradually they started to tidy up and leave, until the kitchen was empty of people, apart from me.

I continued to patiently wait for what felt like at least five minutes. The person I was due to meet still hadn’t turned up. Cue repetition, ‘he’s supposed to be here at 9.30, tut tut’. Then it dawned on me. I looked up at the kitchen clock, which I hadn’t even glanced at until now. 9.12. Flustered and embarrassed I returned to my room to hide from my mistake. I had misread my bedroom clock, an easy enough mistake to make, but why had I been so convinced of being in the right? I had inwardly made all those other people ‘wrong’ instead of listening to the repeated visual clues which suggested, several times, it was I who was wrong, not them.

In this example it was no big deal, no harm done, but I was hit by the realisation of how dangerous such an assumption could be in a more sensitive situation. If I’d listened to the tone of that inner voice, which was patronizing and tut tutting, I would’ve recognised it as a voice that at best wasn’t especially wise, and whose assumptions shouldn’t be trusted. But I didn’t. I listened to the words, which made me right, and that made me feel good so I left it at that.

In adopting this motto I’m committing to truly listen, in the hope that, with practice, my willingness and ability will grow from a fickle trickle to a steady flow that has the power to carve a path to peace. Tomorrow I will move to Devon to take up my new job as a kitchen coordinator for Gaia House. I clearly need some practice at living this motto, and working in a silent retreat centre feels like an excellent place to give it my best shot. I will fail more times than I will succeed for a long while yet, but I’m prepared for that, even welcome it, because each failure will refine my understanding of what it really means to listen by showing me all the things it’s not. That will take me, step by step, closer to discovering its true expression.

kuan yinKwan Yin, Bodhisattva of compassion, whose name roughly translates as ‘one who hears the cries of the world’

Do you have a personal motto? Do share in the comments…

I will not be blogging as regularly for the near future, but expect to post an update about once a month, and intend to check in with my blogging friends at least as often.

Here are some links on this theme of listening, if you’re interested in further reading/listening ( 🙂 ) on this topic: