I step down as a director of the Listening Post Anchorage in 2 days, a organization I founded and have directed for 11 years. I remember when I first heard about this way of being with the homeless in Vancouver B.C., it was the most immediate and clear guidance I have ever had about my purpose. I knew without a doubt that this is what I would do in my community. It came after I had left the role of parish pastor without knowing what was next. And this feels very similar. I have no clear plan or vision or call except that–to have no clear plan or vision or call. I trust what is next will come just like the Listening Post did. But this time, I wonder if there won’t be anything as tangible as creating the Listening Post. I have this uneasy feeling that I may be called to the most unfamiliar task of all for a time–just being still and going slow.
The Listening Post has been schooling me in these practices. Sitting with our guests one on one for these years has slowly sanded down my incessant need of always doing. Sitting still and waiting for a guest to begin to speak or to just be silent has lessened my need to interject or interrupt. So perhaps I’ve been on this path all along and now I’m groomed for this way of being. I have written and taught and preached and been interviewed dozens of times about the Listening Post. It intrigues people. It makes them curious. It seems so simple. Sometimes I wonder if people respond to this idea because it touches that primordial place in us, that wild natural place in us where we remember the depth of silence. I think of my own time in wilderness where I can listen so hard to silence and how resounding it is. There is no comparing or judging or competition or need or defense or assumptions. It is just attuning to what is. What I continue to learn is that listening is never the wrong thing to do. Even if one is called to speak out or advocate, listening comes first. It is so powerful and it is so tender.
Thousands of people have stopped to talk with us at the Listening Post. I’m guessing it’s around 30,ooo visits now. And hundreds have joined me as volunteers in this organization. Some for a few months, some for several years. And hundreds more have taken listening training. We have helped spawn several listening sites in other cities over the years from Ontario to California. I never could have imagined that when I created the Listening Post in Anchorage. And thus I can’t imagine and I don’t know what potential lies ahead. But I will always be a listener and live the listening life, and feel this tremendous humility that I got to be part of such a vision. It is and will continue be such a unique act of loving.
I have always loved a good story. We need them, sometimes desperately, to make sense of our experience, to teach us in a way we can hear, to heal us gently, to inspire us greatly or bind us together. So don’t misunderstand me when I question the “story. It’s not that a story is wrong or necessarily untrue. But I was challenged at a recent retreat at Asilomar Conference Center in Monterey, California to question how we come to know things. And how do we know these things are true on our spiritual journey? The teaching was from A.H. Almaas, better know as Hameed, who is one of the founders of the Diamond Approach, a path that is dedicated to the Truth, and its logos is inquiry– and part of my path now. The week was one of deep contemplation and questioning old beliefs about my “Story.”
Hameed spoke of the “sharp sword of discrimination between direct truth and embedded truth in stories and theories.” All teachings have stories connected to them for context and perspective but he teaches that realization is about the immediacy of the experience. What do I actually know from direct experience and what has been filtered through others or embellished later by myself? Hameed said,”I want to shake your certainty until you have unshakeable certainty.” By the end of the week and 13 inquires into long-held beliefs, I was questioning just about everything in my life and I became open to what that might bring. I became open to what it might bring because each inquiry led to a sense of more inner freedom–I wish they could sell that kind of drug. It’s almost intoxicating to shed old beliefs that no longer serve. I explored some deep questions in that week, but the story I want to unpack is one closer to home. A story I’ve held onto for 30 years.
As we drove down from San Jose to Asilomar, I realized we were right in the area where I last spent time with my younger sister, Jayne. We had been to the Gilroy Garlic Festival that we passed on the road. We had stood shopped in Carmel. We had walked the beach in Monterey, and I began to feel the familiar heaviness of the memories. Thirty years ago she died of breast cancer at the age of 34. For thirty years hence I’ve been sure to remember her birthday and the day she died. I’ve got her picture by my desk and all her old letters and writing in a file in the drawer beside me. I tell a story of how she knew me best and how no one can know me as she did. I tell a story of how tragic is was that she died and how close we were and how there was a hole that can’t be filled. How funny and talented and heroic she was. And in one sense, all of that is true. But when I re-examine my story of her NOW in this immediate experience, something crumbled in that story.
I’ve put Jayne on a pedestal these 30 years. She was all those things I said, but she was also like any sister where we squabbled and hurt each other. We didn’t always seek each other out or see things eye to eye. I didn’t really understand a lot of life choices she made. But in my story, I hadn’t let her be anything but perfect and pristine. That alone was a revelation. But then, I was struck by something even deeper; I had kept her dead… for 30 years! I had memorialized her year after year, sadly remembering her death, feeling guilty for not being a better sister, angry at cancer and sometimes resigning myself to life. I had forgotten what I knew more truly. In terms of the Christian story, I had kept her in Good Friday and forgotten about Easter! When I forgot the “story” I’d been telling for so long, I thought,”what is my immediate experience of her now?” And in that moment of just asking the question, the old heaviness fell away. I can’t say I felt her beside me in that moment, or that I sensed her in the old way I knew her. But I sensed aliveness. And even joy. And that felt like the Essence of my sister as she is NOW.