This summer I spent a week at the beautiful Omega Institute, a holistic center for personal growth in New York’s Hudson Valley. My days started with a three-shot latte and some journaling under a willow tree on the shore of a private lake, and I’m not sure life gets much better than that.
I was there to take part in a week-long writing workshop called Narrative Healing, led by the supremely talented and big-hearted Lisa Weinert. Lisa led us through a simple yet powerful exercise that has already enriched my creative writing. It’s called deep listening.
Deep listening involves more than just hearing. In conversation, it means really taking in what the other person is saying; opening to receive them with a curious mind and a true willingness to understand, rather than just waiting for our turn to speak.
We can practice deep listening with ourselves as a way to coax our stories out. Too often we come to the page with a lot of preconceptions of what we are going to write. We’re too ready to jump in with what we think we know. And the words come out flat or cliched, because we’ve pushed them out from our head without first listening for what wants to come forth from the heart.
As Lisa explained, the stories inside of us are like wild animals, self-protective, shy, and stubbornly resistant to being forced out in the open. They know our interior landscape better than we do, and will only venture out of their hiding places when it is safe.
Toni Morrison said that it took her three years to write her Pulitzer prize-winning novel Beloved before she even started working on the manuscript. That is some deep-ass listening.
To begin, simply listen to your senses. What are you taking in about the world around you and within you? You may notice traffic noises. The sounds of birds or animals. Distant conversation. The sound of your own breath. I noticed a soft breeze. Busy mosquitos. Sunlight splashed across my bare legs. Be curious about what is.
Now, listen deeply for what is in your heart. What do your stories, memories, feelings want to say? You may be surprised by what bubbles up. It may be shyer than what you’re used to writing, or more bold. The language may be quirkier, or more plainspoken. The story you thought you were about to write may be pushed aside for one that urgently demands to be expressed.
Whether you’re listening to another person, or your body, or the stories inside you, you’ll know you’ve listened deeply when your perspective feels wider, fuller, somehow changed by the encounter. You’ve learned something.
I went deeper into this topic – and shared a prose poem that came from my deep listening experiment – in my emails. You can sign up for those emails by clicking on the button below.