Writings on the Blog at BodyHappy.com

Listening, Advice, and What the Soul Needs

A note from Carl

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about a legacy of listening and the passing of Gene Gendlin. Usually, in the days or weeks after writing a newsletter, the topic will stay alive in me, and will continue to grow and unfold through life experience, conversations, relationships etc.

In the past couple weeks this topic of listening, and in particular, its relation to the often well-intentioned, yet deeply ignorant habit of unsolicited advice, has come up in conversations with clients, online discussion forums and articles I’ve read.

Most of us have been woefully uneducated in what it means to listen. We have been taught that when we hear someone struggling with something, the most caring response is to figure some kind of solution and offer it to them. It seems harmless, right?

I have seen this so many times in a group context, where some raw, tender, vulnerable sprout will emerge from someone’s experience, only to be pummelled by a hailstorm of caring advice. “Have you listened to this podcast?” “Have you tried this practice?” “I had the same thing happen to me and this book totally solved it.” It can often feel like a reflex- we can be so uncomfortable with someone else’s discomfort that we impulsively move toward offering a solution.

One of the main guidelines we bring to our group classes to set up a context of safety and learning is that we agree to not offer unsolicited advice to each other.  We are there to grow our capacity to be present to our own and to others’ experience. It is amazing what a powerful shift can come to a room where the tendency toward advice giving is named and intentionally avoided.

Parker Palmer recently wrote a great piece on this topic on the On Being blog here. Here is a quote that I love:

“Here’s the deal. The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is. When we make that kind of deep bow to the soul of a suffering person, our respect reinforces the soul’s healing resources, the only resources that can help the sufferer make it through.
Aye, there’s the rub. Many of us “helper” types are as much or more concerned with being seen as good helpers as we are with serving the soul-deep needs of the person who needs help. Witnessing and companioning take time and patience, which we often lack — especially when we’re in the presence of suffering so painful we can barely stand to be 
there, as if we were in danger of catching a contagious disease. We want to apply our “fix,” then cut and run, figuring we’ve done the best we can to “save” the other person.”

This is valuable guidance for how to be with others, but is also so helpful for how to be with our own experience. I know my inner “helper” can have a hard time letting my inner life be simply seen, heard, and companioned just as it is.

Genuine listening takes enormous courage, and as Mark Nepo writes, a willingness to be changed.

 “To listen is to continually give up all expectation and to give our attention, completely and freshly, to what is before us, not really knowing what we will hear or what that will mean. In the practice of our days, to listen is to lean in, softly, with a willingness to be changed by what we hear.” 

May you listen well to your life and those around you. And may you be listened to, free of helpful advice.


P.S. There are still some spots open for  Tai Chi in the Park – a superb way to practice being embodied, moving in a relaxed way, growing your groundedness, centeredness, and presence.  Details below. Begins Monday, May 29th. I can hardly wait!

P.P.S If you would like to join us on our rich online experience of The Art of Sitting, registration will be open through the weekend. We are in the midst of our first week of lessons and having a wonderful time.

We’re so thrilled to offer a weekend retreat in one of our favorite wilderness areas, in Boulder, Utah, just outside of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument (one of the National Moneuments newly under threat.) Save the date for a powerful weekend exploring the Wilderness of The Body with us at Boulder Mountain Guest Ranch, August 11-13th. We’ll have more details and registration open next week. (For real – next week!)  One day in Boulder is worth 3 days in a city – time expands in this spacious place. We hope you’ll consider joining us!

And you can still join Erin and Nan in another timeless place – Ghost Ranch – for our amazingly wonderful retreat: The Encouragement of Light. Not to be missed!

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By training and profession, I am a somatic educator. Over the past 25+ years I have trained in and taught modern dance, tai chi, Indian and Tibetan yoga, yoga therapy (specializing in back pain). I completed a 4-year professional Feldenkrais training in 2007 and a 3-year Embodied Life training in 2014. I also study and work with somatic meditation and the profound practice of embodied inner listening known as Focusing.

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