Giving (and Getting) the Best Advice

  I have a friend who is extremely smart; she probably has a genius I.Q. She’s also one of those people who seems to know a lot about everything. I often call her up when I’m faced with a decision about which I’m unsure.

The result of those conversations isn’t always as helpful as I’d hoped, however—because she doesn’t always engage in conversation. Instead, she often tells me what to do. What’s especially exasperating about this is that in many cases, she’s right. Her amazing brain has swiftly analyzed the pros and cons, the possibilities and risks, and delivered up the most rational answer.

The problem is that in telling me what to do she robs me of the opportunity to figure it out for myself. And often the most rational answer is not the best answer for me. I need to follow my gut instincts, my intuition. What I need in a friend is a sounding board, someone who will talk with me about the pros and cons, the opportunities and risks, ask me questions about what I really want, help me think it through myself.

By telling me the “right’’ answer, my friend is also reinforcing any lack of confidence underlying my uncertainty. She’s basically saying she knows best, while I probably don’t. Or at least that’s one of the feelings I often take with me after one of those frustrating “conversations.’’

I’ve come to believe that the reason people do this—especially really smart people—is that they haven’t ever realized how dangerous it is to tell another person what to do, no matter how minor the concern or decision.

I learned the hard way about that. Years ago, a close friend of mine discovered her husband was having an affair. She was devastated. She sought my counsel, and the counsel of a few other mutual friends, day in and day out. She shared her sadness and anger, her confusion and uncertainty. She talked and cried almost ceaselessly.

Perhaps we who are the listeners in such circumstances feel especially empowered to share our opinions about what the suffering person should do. After all, we’d been spending hours listening, we knew our friend, we knew her philandering husband. Couldn’t we see clearly what she should do?

We talked among ourselves, and most of us agreed she should leave him. Boot him out. Divorce him. Start over. Most of us shared that opinion with her. More than once. Probably every time she told us of the latest development in the painful drama.

To her credit, while she may have felt swayed by our opinions, she made a different choice, the choice that felt right for her. She stayed in the relationship, set boundaries, made her demands. He ended the affair. They sought counseling. That was 20 years ago. They have a beautiful family and a successful business, and they seem happy.

I was wrong. Dead wrong. And so was everyone else who advised our friend to divorce her husband. We lacked the humility to see that what might be right for us in similar circumstances might not be right for her, what might seem rational to us might not be appropriate for her. We failed to see that she needed to come to her own conclusion, one that was in agreement with her own spirit and Higher Power. Thank goodness she did.

What she most needed from us was our willingness to listen, ask questions, and help her see all the options. She needed to hear from us that we loved and cared for her, that we wanted to support her in any way we could, and that we would stand by her no matter what choices she made, and no matter the outcomes (with none of that “I told you so’’ business).

Our Big Opinions had other consequences, too: Because we were so certain about his “badness’’ and her “goodness’’ and what she should do, and because she didn’t take our advice, some of us had a difficult time re-engaging with them as a couple as they struggled into their revised relationship. Friendships faded.

We all have plenty of life situations in which we must make decisions for others—our children, elderly parents, clients, employees, patients. It’s not as if we don’t get to share the fruits of our intellect and experience with others. But outside of those circumstances, it’s best to hew to the familiar 12-step maxim of sharing only our “experience, strength and hope with each other.’’ In other words, the wisest adviser doesn’t give advice at all.

Telling someone else what to do is never a good idea. Constraining oneself from advising and counseling another in important matters is a mark of true humility and maturity. Even if someone asks for advice, it’s best to simply listen and ask questions. If you find yourself tempted to play the adviser, ask yourself, “What if I’m wrong? What unintended consequences might occur? If I tell her/him what to do, and they take my advice, and it’s bad advice, am I not responsible for the outcome?’’

I don’t mean to suggest that I never fall into the trap of offering advice. Like everyone, I have my moments of self-righteousness despite my best intentions. But I have learned over time that the shared process of inquiry is more gratifying than advising. When we engage in true dialogue with others instead of “advising,’’ we learn most about ourselves. We can see ourselves in our friend’s situation, have sudden insights about problems that are plaguing us, feel the answers materializing in the field between us. This is what humility, maturity and true friendship are all about.

The flip side of this is that when we find ourselves being the recipient of unwanted advice—as I do sometimes with that genius friend of mine—we must at the very least recognize that we are always empowered to ignore advice. We don’t have to listen, and we don’t have to act on another’s advice, no matter how rational it sounds. If we are capable of being truly honest, we can gently tell our friend that what we need is not advice but a good sounding board. In other words, maturity cuts both ways.

It should be patently obvious that these ideas fly in the face of our advice-obsessed culture and its endless TV and radio shows on which “experts’’ of various kinds tell troubled audience members how they should live their lives. (Of course we rarely see the follow-up or find out how the advice played out.) Many of those seeking advice are unwilling or unable to take responsibility for their own decisions, and many also have entirely unrelated reasons for participating in the shows. Some are no doubt seeking their “fifteen minutes of fame,’’ to borrow Andy Warhol’s phrase. Some may not even have the capacity to understand why they are engaging in a public display of personal suffering.

But as we all know, those shows don’t reflect real life—or perhaps reflect only a tiny and surrealistic slice of it. Because in real life, as we mature, we come to know that Cicero was right: “Nobody can give you wiser advice than yourself.’’


How To Practice Sacred Listening With The Sick Or Dying: Don’ts and Do’s

These “Don’ts” and “Do’s” aren’t hard-and-fast rules, but guidelines to help you think about how using language thoughtfully can best help a patient (if you are a health care professional) or loved one.  I offered these tips most recently to a group of new volunteers for Palliative Care Services of Santa Fe. 


Don’t say, “I know how you feel.’’ The truth is, you don’t know how the person feels. Telling them you do robs them of their unique experience; it diminishes their feelings, especially their suffering.

Do say, “I can’t imagine how you feel. Tell me what it’s like.’’ This honors the person’s individual experience and offers them the chance to talk about their feelings.

Don’t say, “It will all be okay.’’ Chances are, it won’t be okay, at least not the way we usually think of “okay.’’ In fact, things could get worse.

Do say things like, “It seems like you are experiencing a lot of big changes in a short period of time.’’ Let them tell you what that’s like.

Don’t ask, “How are you today?’’ This simple question we all usually ask each other can be wearying to the sick person, who has to constantly report medical/health details to nurses, doctors, family members, friends. It keeps the focus on their illness.           

Do say, “How are your spirits today?’’ or, “How is your energy today?’’ which encourages focus on the mind and heart as well as the body. We are not trying to distract them or deny their illness, but to give them a break, if needed, from that focus.

Don’t talk about “healing” or “recovery,” being “better’’ or “worse.’’ Even the dying often feel they must pretend to family and friends that they are getting better, keeping a positive attitude. You may be the one person with whom the patient feels safe enough not to pretend.

Do accept whatever the patient offers about his/her thoughts and fears about illness and/or death. You need not agree. Say, “That makes sense to me,’’ or “I can see how you would feel that way.’’ In effect, you’re telling the patient he or she is not crazy; their ideas and feelings are acceptable and normal.

Don’t expect the patient to feel, speak or act the same way on each visit, and don’t feel you need to pick up where you left off in your last conversation. Leave last week’s deep topic alone unless the patient brings it up again.

Do let the patient be who they are today: happy or sad, hopeful or angry, vulnerable or shut down. Often a patient who has been particularly vulnerable on one day will later feel very exposed, and withdraw a bit the next time. Let it be okay.

How To Practice Sacred Listening With The Sick or Dying: Four Simple Steps

These are proven ways to learn to communicate better with people who are sick or dying, whether you are a health care or mental health professional or a lay person trying to offer comfort to someone you love. I offered these most recently to volunteers-in-training for Palliative Care Services of Santa Fe.

Before each meeting your patient/loved one, spend a moment in prayer or contemplation. Breathe deeply for a few moments. I usually say something like, “May I leave my own baggage, my own story, outside the door today. May I listen deeply and honor the humanity of this person. May I keep my mouth shut unless I have something to offer that will be of use to them. May I bring the best of myself into the room and be as real and vulnerable with them as they are with me.’’ Know that there is no perfect way to communicate with another person. The great Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung said that we heal by who we are, not what we do. Come with good intentions; know you will make mistakes sometimes; forgive yourself when you do, apologize if needed, and give yourself credit for willingness and effort. Here is a four-step process for active listening, or “sacred listening,’’ as I call it:

(1) Encourage the patient to talk freely. Make eye contact and stop busy behavior. Focus on the patient. Don’t agree or disagree. Use open-ended (not yes/no) questions to prompt them. Ask, “How did the visit go with your granddaughter?’’ rather than, “So, did your granddaughter come after all?” Use noncommittal words with a positive tone of voice to encourage them to continue. Say, “Uh-huh,’’ “I see,’’ “That’s interesting,’’ “Then what happened?’’ “Tell me more.’’

(2) Restate the facts. Show that you are truly listening, and clarify for them what they have said to you, by repeating what they have said in your own words: “So, she told her mother she was coming here, but then went out with her boyfriend instead?’’ [If they say, “No, no, that’s not it,’’ just calmly accept that and say something like, “Oh, I guess I didn’t hear you right. What really happened?’’]

(3) Reflect the patient’s feelings. Use the same or similar language as they did to show you understand how they felt. “So, you got pretty angry when she didn’t show up,’’ or, “That really made you feel sad and unappreciated.’’ Be accepting and nonjudgmental, no matter what. If a patient says, “I feel like never speaking to her again. Why should I?’’ Imagine your way into their unstated feelings: “I imagine you feel very sad about that.’’

(4) Summarize and affirm. “So, let me see if I understand what happened. You were really looking forward to your granddaughter’s visit. She told you and her mother she was coming, and then she didn’t show up. This hurt your feelings so much you just want to give up on her.’’ Before you leave, thank the patient; after all, they have taken a risk in sharing very personal information with you. “I really appreciate you telling me about this; it helps me understand what you are going through.’’

©2014 Hollis Walker

The Interfaith Idea: Crafting a Personal Spirituality

Sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Santa Fe

January 5, 2014


Click on the link here to see the service including this sermon:

“The Interfaith Idea: Crafting A Personal Spirituality”–Rev. Hollis Walker


Good morning. Thank you for inviting me to speak to you again today. And Happy New Year to all.

The 14th-century Sufi mystic Hafiz had much to say about religion. Hafiz was nothing if not direct. He said:


The great religions are the ships,

Poets the life boats.

Every sane person I know has jumped overboard.

I know that among you today are probably many who would agree with Hafiz, and I do, too, for the most part. Beyond the narrow confines of individual religions is something called, variably, interfaith or interreligion or interspirituality. For right now, let’s call it “interfaith.’’

What is the interfaith idea?

The idea of interfaith dialogue, talks among people of different beliefs toward a common goal—has been around for millennia. The first major organized meeting of global religious leaders was the Council of the Parliament of World Religions, held in Chicago in 1893. At that meeting Swami Vivekananda introduced Vedanta, that is, Hindu philosophy, to the West. Imagine: it was the first time most Western theologians had ever heard the concepts of an Eastern religion.

The swami discussed the theoretical possibility of a “universal religion,’’ “a religion which will have no place for persecution or intolerance in its polity, which will recognize a divinity in every man or woman, and whose whole scope, whose whole force, will be centered in aiding humanity to realize its divine nature,’’ he said. It was the first attempt at articulating what might occur if people could see beyond the constraints of their own faith traditions.

One hundred years later, in 1993, the second such Council of the Parliament of World Religions was held, also in Chicago. Some 8,000 world religious leaders attended. That council issued a statement of Global Ethics that reads, “As religious and spiritual persons we base our lives on an Ultimate Reality, and draw spiritual power and hope therefrom, in trust, in prayer or meditation, in word or silence. We have a special responsibility for the welfare of all humanity and care for the planet Earth. We do not consider ourselves better than other women and men, but we trust that the ancient wisdom of our religions can point the way for the future.’’ More progress toward the idea of interfaith.

There have been subsequent meetings of this group, and will be another in 2015 in Belgium.

In our times and our country, the concept of interfaith has blossomed. Since the 1960s Jews, Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Bahá’ís, people of all faiths and people of no faith, have marched together for Civil Rights, for women’s rights, for gay rights— and against the Vietnam War, poverty, the death penalty, and later, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the excesses of Wall Street and much more. Today we take for granted that we will see, at any major protest, people of the cloth and their congregations united—regardless of religious differences. We also take for granted that collectively, religious people will support humanitarian and charitable causes. For example, this congregation, like many others in Santa Fe, supports the Interfaith Shelter, through donations and the preparation and service of meals to the homeless and hungry.

But the idea of interfaith has evolved significantly beyond the scope of older definitions. Even the word “interfaith” is used differently today. It is often used synonymously with “interreligious,” “interspiritual,” “multispiritual,’’ etc. For today, I’ll stick to the term “interfaith” for simplicity’s sake, but I want to note that when I am using this term, it includes those who are not religious, the “SBNRs,’’ as we call them, the “Spiritual But Not Religious’’ folk and those who would not define themselves as religious or spiritual at all.

Since the early 1990s “interfaith’’ has taken on meaning as a philosophy more necessary than ever to our survival—especially since the events of September 11. There are those among us, as we know, who would condemn all of Islam because those who perpetrated the events of September 11 were Muslim. Yes–just as those who carried out the Crusades were Christians.

Violence perpetrated by individuals or groups I the name of any religion is just one of the reasons we must look to interfaith for solutions. As Father Thomas Bonacci, founder of the Interfaith Peace Project, says that, “Interfaith spirituality is no longer reserved for a few esoteric types but is rapidly becoming our hope for the future of the world and humanity.’’ [i]

Perhaps the greatest ambassador for interfaith in our time is the His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the political and spiritual leader of Tibetans and Tibetan Buddhism. In his 2010 book, Toward a True Kinship of Faiths, he notes that, “To accept that other religions are legitimate may seem to compromise the integrity of one’s own faith, since it entails the admission of different but efficacious spiritual paths. . . .Yet without the emergence of a genuine spirit of religious pluralism, there is no hope for the development of harmony based on true interreligious understanding.’’ Toward that end, he says that, “for me Buddhism is the best, but this does not mean that Buddhism is the best for all. . . .It [also]means that I, as a Buddhist, must not feel egocentric attachment to my own faith of Buddhism, for doing so obstructs me from seeing the value of other traditions.’’ [ii]

Clearly, he tells us, we need not leave behind our own faith the embrace the interfaith idea. We simply need to open our minds and hearts to others. Many people who wouldn’t think of leaving their own faiths behind are now committed to working as interfaith ministers, chaplains and lay volunteers. I attended an interfaith seminary, of which there are now about a dozen in the United States. Among my fellow students at The Chaplaincy Institute in Berkeley, California, were an Eastern Orthodox Christian, a Tibetan Buddhist, several Zen Buddhists, numerous Roman Catholics, a woman who considered the 12 steps her religion, pagans, Wiccans, Native American religious practitioners, an Episcopal or two, a Jewish cantor, a Muslim, various and sundry Protestants, and three Unitarian Universalists. Most of these people planned to go out into the world, practicing their own faiths in their personal lives, but choosing to serve as interfaith ministers in their work. We are not missionaries for our individual faiths, but missionaries for Love.

Today, some of my former seminary classmates serve the homeless, others work in prisons, many in hospices and hospitals; still others serve in congregations. In my own work as a clinical chaplain, I have served Jews, Muslims, Hindus, many nonreligious people, many SBNRs, and Christians ranging from Mormons to Jehovah’s Witnesses to born-again fundamentalists, nondenominational Christians, Roman Catholics, Methodists, Lutherans, Native Americans, etc. Interfaith ministers like myself also often serve the religiously unaffiliated through ritual and ceremony, as celebrants for weddings, funerals, baby and home blessings, and at deaths. We also offer spiritual direction and counseling to individuals and groups, as many of us are trained to do.

It should be clear by now that this evolving idea of interfaith that I’m describing is bigger than tolerance of other religions. It is of broader scope than finding commonalities among religions. And it certainly does not suggest that all religions and deities are at their cores the same, nor does it recommend assimilation or merging of religions.

I imagine by now some of you are thinking, “Hey, Hollis, you’re preaching to the choir.’’ I realize that for many of you, the idea of being tolerant and even interested in other religions is old hat. Many Unitarian Universalist congregations are host to a variety of religious groups within their own sanctuaries; my former UU home, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, had groups of congregants that met to practice and study as Buddhists, pagans and humanists, with an occasional seder thrown in for good measure. Some people went to all of the groups!

But I would suggest there may be a subtle difference in philosophy between interfaith and UU, one that I can best parse by describing what an interfaith practitioner does. An interfaith practitioner doesn’t just tolerate other religions, isn’t just curious about other religions, but embraces all religions—as well as agnosticism and atheism, humanism and secularism and secular humanism and any other –ism out there. All are valid belief systems that have something from which she can learn. She actively pursues interactions with people of many beliefs in order to expand her understanding and feed her own spirituality. The interfaith practitioner may take training in and adapt the spiritual or mystical practices of other religions for her own use. Interfaith as I know it tends to privilege direct experience over doctrine, to focus on interpersonal connections, and to emphasize spirituality, contemplation and mysticism.

Rev. Jürgen Schwing—one of my mentors in seminary—notes that many interfaith ministers and practitioners like himself are people who have had experiences or glimpses of a mystical reality, “a state of consciousness of total unification of all opposites in a love and light so awe-inspiring, peaceful, and ecstatic, they can’t even find adequate words for it.’’ Such people may “lose patience with the artificial divisions between religions, with each religion’s claim to exclusiveness [or] superiority, and with each religion’s attempts to force cohesion among its believers by demanding adherence to a set of dogmas or principles of faith.’’ [iii] Thus another interfaith practitioner is born, jumps overboard in search of a poet and a lifeboat.

So, is there such a thing as an “interfaith spirituality”? If so, where does one get it?

Naysayers usually assert that the interfaith or interspiritual person only skates across the surface of a faith, by cherry-picking beliefs and practices suited to her (and, the implication is, avoiding anything uncomfortable or difficult). They claim that out of context, the beliefs and practices of any religion are stripped of meaning.

But the people I know who take the idea of interfaith seriously have a deep and abiding interest in finding and developing their own spirituality. And they are anything but superficial in their quests. Personal suffering may indeed play a role in their search for meaning and the divine.

My friend and fellow seminarian Matt Sanders, a hospital chaplain, is a Roman Catholic. When I asked him about the role of interfaith spirituality in his life, he said, “Interfaith spirituality helps me to keep a balance, even while being Cristocentric.’’ Matt says that for him, interfaith spirituality is “about finding the Holy, the Sacred, in many different traditions. Interfaith spirituality has meant to look for the stories, the teachings, lived examples and ideas that promote things that bring humanization, such as: freedom, love, a sense that `all is well’ (or at least a sense that `all shall be well’ [in the words of Julian of Norwich] ).’’ Matt says, “In 12-Step work I often hear, `Take what you like and leave the rest.’ Well, for me,’’ he says, “interfaith spirituality has meant to do something [ . . . ] similar with religion, namely, to be enriched by the stuff that helps, and to set aside the religious teachings that promote negativity such as suspicion, prejudice, etc.’’ [iv]

Another interfaith minister, my friend and spiritual companion Rev. Pandora Canton, grew up in the New Apostolic Christian Church, a fundamental sect. As an adult she became a Religious Science member and certified practitioner. Now she works for several Lutheran congregations as a chaplain at four nursing homes serving the poor and disenfranchised in Oakland and Alameda, California. Rev. Canton writes, “If we move 360 degrees around [Michelangelo’s] David, we see many different perspectives; each is valid and beautiful. Interfaith spirituality is like that to me.’’ Each tradition brings a different perspective, casts a new light on God. Rev. Canton preaches in the four Lutheran churches that support her ministry and considers herself to be a Lutheran—right now. She says what’s most important to her is not the sign on the door of the church, but being a part of a welcoming community and finding within it what it is she needs to learn. She says of her evolving spiritual practice, “[It] could be Buddhism next.’’ Rev. Canton’s personal spiritual activities include prayer, meditation, singing, rituals, reading sacred writings, and the work of spiritual discernment with her friends. [v]

Lindsay Ralphs, another spiritual companion of mine, is a retired hospice nurse and therapist who now volunteers as a hospital chaplain and nurse to the homeless. Lindsay is an interfaith practitioner of the Episcopal-Jewish-Buddhist ilk. Raised Mormon, she attends an Episcopal church because she is attracted to the ritual and the structure. She is also involved in a Jewish Renewal synagogue, where she attends services, chanting meditations and holidays. “I like the heart and soul (and dancing and singing) of it,’’ she says. “I also really like the [Jewish] approach that one is to argue with G-d. Buddhism is tossed in there as a really big overview. I need both the unknowable and the really tangible.’’ Lindsay’s spiritual practices include meditation, bird-watching, prayer and reading. She recently decided she should have a silent retreat at home alone and found that instead of having a meaningful spiritual experience, she was miserable. So, she gave up on what she called later “the deprivation thing.’’ Instead, she said, “I walked around, I drew, I did some meditation but not much, I bird-watched. But mostly, I was doing things that felt connected to me. I was being `present’ to my life. And it felt very sacred. And really very fun. [vi]

It wouldn’t be right to stand up here and talk about interfaith spirituality without talking about my own. I was raised a mostly-Methodist-but-sort-of-generic Protestant of the military family variety, but left my Christianity behind in college when I decided Jesus just couldn’t be the only Son of God.  Many years later, my emphasis in seminary was on Judaism, in particular the mystical Kabbalistic tradition, and I feel more at home theologically in a synagogue than in a sanctuary. I have also studied Buddhism informally for a long time, and I am a devotee of the Swiss psychiatrist and mystic Carl Jung. In my daily practice, I read sacred literature, journal, pray and meditate; I run, I spend time in nature, I drum, I make artwork. I burn incense like a Hindu, sage my house like a Pueblo Indian, chant in Hebrew like a Jew. Like my spiritual companions, Matt, Pandora and Lindsay, I learned the deep truth of the interfaith idea from my work as a hospital and hospice chaplain. No one has Christian cancer. No one has Hindu heart trouble. No one has atheist arthritis. When we are sick, when we are dying, when we are at our most vulnerable, doctrine and dogma fall away; we are all merely human, and in need of sacred listening and acceptance.

I visited the Hopi Reservation recently and my Hopi friend Gary told me some things I had never understood about his people before. He said that the Hopi religion is actually a hybrid, made up of the many religions of the different native peoples who migrated to the same place long ago and now make up the Hopi. Thus every Hopi clan or family group has its own religion, with its own myth, its own kiva rituals, its own requirements, its own prayers, its own dances. Because of these many obligations, the Hopi religious calendar is a busy one year-round. And every clan is expected to participate in every other clan’s ceremonies. So, he said, “It’s as if you spend December being a Muslim, and all December you do everything the Muslim way and according to the Muslim beliefs, building up to a big ceremony or celebration of some kind. Then there might be a break, a few weeks off, and then you become a Catholic, and you do everything the Catholic way for a period of time. Then a few months later you are a Buddhist. . . .’’ And so on.

One life ritual of the Hopi culture, he also explained, is that when you are a young person on the verge of puberty, you are adopted by a godparent and you become a part of their kiva, their religious society. Though you remain a member of your own clan, you learn your godparent’s religion, and practice it your whole life. Also, you cannot marry into your own clan; you must marry outside of your clan, for obvious reasons. If you’ve followed me here, you’ve figured it out by now: Every Hopi is cross-trained, so to speak, into everyone else’s religion.

This seems to me to be an almost ideal interfaith model. Because of the net result: Every single person on Hopi is connected to every other person in some way. Despite their disparate roots in the past, their differences in the present, all Hopi are Hopi, a collective, a tribe. Shouldn’t we all be?

So how does you become an interfaith practitioner, craft an interfaith spiritual practice, if you want to? You can start by visiting another religion’s services. How many people in this room have ever attended Sikh services at their temple outside of Espanola? A good place to start. A beautiful faith tradition. Another idea: Ask a friend of a different religion or denomination than you to take you to their religious meeting. . . .Is there a particular church or faith group that really scares you? Get another curious friend to go with you to services. A fundamentalist Christian church, maybe? The mosque down the street? Look for the beauty in these traditions, find something you can identify with. Meet the people, the religious leader. Take what you like and leave the rest behind.

Likewise, expand your own idea of what constitutes “spirituality.’’ For those of you who do not have a religious belief, just focus on the power of love, the creative power of evolution in the universe, the power that makes transformation possible in our lives, the ultimate mystery within which we all must live. . . .Those last phrases come from the UU pamphlet on God available in the hall outside the sanctuary. Look at your own life as a spiritual path. Ask yourself, what did I do today, what ordinary thing did I do today, that was in fact spiritually powerful for me?

Try some new spiritual practices borrowed from other religions. Take a class, read a book, or just make up your own version of it. Don’t worry about doing it “right.’’ Create your own mantra, a phrase or group of words that are meaningful to you, in the language of a foreign faith. Try fasting–just for a morning? Or a day?. . .Walk a labyrinth. . . Do anything that makes you feel more connected to something important—yourself, other people, God, Love. Do it with sincerity, and you will benefit. Some of us believe that if enough of us do these things, the world will change for the better.

In closing, I would like to leave you with some more words from our Sufi friend Hafiz:

Hafiz says:

I have learned so much from God

That I can no longer call myself

A Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Jew.

The Truth has shared so much of itself with me

That I can no longer call myself a man, a woman, an angel,

Or even pure soul.

Love has befriended Hafiz so completely

It has turned to ash and freed me of every concept and image

My mind has ever known.

Amen. Shalom. Salaam Walaikum. May it be so. Thank you.



[i] Bonacci, Thomas, “The Interfaith Complex: A Clarification of Terms,’’ 2009, p. 1

[ii] Gyatso, Tenzin, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, “The Challenge of Other Religions,’’ Shambala Sun, September 2010, pp. 17—18, adapted from Toward a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World’s Religions Can Come Together (Harmony, 2010)

[iii] Schwing, Jurgen, “Fanning the Mystic Fire: Reflections on Interfaith Spirituality,’’ an “Expanded Version of Reflections Presented at Ordination Service for the Chaplaincy Institute for Arts and Interfaith ministries, Sunday, May 5, 2002, Fairfax Community Church,’’ Fairfax, California, p. 3

[iv] Sanders, Matt, personal email in response to author’s query, Dec. 18, 2013

[v] Canton, Pandora, personal email in response to author’s query, Dec. 18, 2013

[vi] Ralphs, Lindsay, personal email in response to author’s query, Jan. 3, 2014

My Women’s Workshops Have Openings Now!

Isis Women’s Support Group has openings and begins another eight-week session on Monday,  March 17, 2014. Isis is a dynamic group of women who come together to support one another in personal transformation. We share our stories, our laughter, our tears and our rage–and in doing so, find deep connection to each other and our own souls. Join us! Contact me at if you’re interested.

Writing for Recovery is a women’s writing group focused on recovery of the soul through writing. Whatever you write–poetry, fiction, nonfiction, plays or screenplays, memoir–you’ll find support and gentle help in this group. Writing for Recovery meets Thursday evenings.  Please click on “Workshops” above for details, and contact me at if you’re interested in joining us.

Choosing Transformation

I gave this sermon at the Unitarian Congregation of Taos, N.M. on Feb. 3, 2013

 At the beginning of the service, Mya read one of my favorite prose-poems called the “Apes of Dawn,” Normandi Ellis’s poetic translation from the Egyptian book of the dead. [In case you missed hearing that beautiful piece, in short, a human narrator tells how, despite the derision of his neighbors, each morning he joins the apes on the banks of the Nile River, howling an early-morning chorus upon the rising of the sun.

For the early Egyptians, the sun was god; after all, didn’t their very existence depend upon it? And yet the sun god died each night, sinking into the earth’s edge, and had to be coaxed into returning the next morning, on the other side of the great Nile River, through prayers, offerings and supplications. This is perhaps a seminal allegory of transformation—the disappearing into darkness, the not-knowing, the re-appearance—the sun looks just the same as it did last night, but lo! It has moved to the opposite edge of the earth, to the other side of the river. Que milagro! What a miracle! And our dear narrator, the one the lazy neighbors call “that old fool with the apes,” recognizes that miracle, as do his primate pals. Yes, he’s acting pretty silly, hanging out with the apes, all together raising their palms to the sun and howling in gratitude to that resurrected god. But our “old fool” knows something his fellow humans do not; he has, in him knowingness, become himSelf, his Self with a capital “S,” as the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung would call his truest self. The Self his god meant him to be. Our “old fool with the apes” is indeed the wise fool.

So—how do we become the wise fool of our own lives? What is transformation, really, and how do we do it, how do we get there? Is there even a “there” at which we will eventually arrive? We’re all familiar with the great mythological and religious stories of transformation: Jacob wrestles with the angel; Jesus’ prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane; the Buddha’s abandonment of his throne, his wife and child to seek enlightenment.  While we are awed by those experiences, most of our lives don’t offer up such dramatic options. What does transformation look like here, on the ground, in our times?

Let me tell you about a woman I know. I’ll call her Grace. Grace had a pretty ordinary life in most ways. Married, three kids, decent education, worked at a variety of jobs. Hit 40 and a brick wall. She realized she had never accomplished her dreams—never even really tried—never done what she felt in her soul she was meant to do, and that time might be running out. So Grace did what no one thought made sense. She quit her full-time, regular sort of job and started getting up at 3 a.m. to throw two newspaper routes. When she was done—about 7:30 a.m.—she ate, had a shower, and went to work on her real job, the job she felt destined to do: being an artist. Grace went to the community college and took classes to learn the skills she needed. She read and studied and practiced techniques. She listened to other artists. Most importantly, she made art. I’m sure she made a lot of bad art in the beginning. But slowly and surely she became the artist she felt she was meant to be. That was 20 years ago. Today she is a well-known artist who has had a notable career; her public sculptures are on display in the United States and abroad. She has traveled extensively overseas. Major collectors and museums have purchased her art. She is not rich, and her life has not been without its sorrows. She has sacrificed a great deal to fulfill her destiny. But she is happy and does not regret the choices she made. Grace transformed her life.

Transformation usually begins with change, either imposed by circumstances beyond our control or changes we have purposely made in our own lives. Grace chose her change, but often the impetus to transform comes from external circumstances—say, you get fired from your job or your spouse leaves you or your house burns down. Or, on the positive side, you get promoted to a new job, your first child comes along or a grandchild is born, you win the lottery. And yet. . .we can weather change, we can cope with change, without embracing transformation. We all know someone who has gotten a divorce and within a few months is married again, usually to a person who is startlingly like the last spouse. Change has occurred, but transformation likely has not. And often we can predict that the new relationship is going to end up down the tubes, perhaps for the very same reasons the previous one did. Likewise in 12-step programs we talk of “pulling a geographic.” This is when the addicted person decides a move to another locale is in order. “That’ll fix my problem; I can start all over in Maui!” The move offers some distraction, and indeed things may seem better for a while, but eventually, the untransformed person will return to his or her self-destructive ways. Sometimes we actively refuse the call to transformation. I have a friend who is a medical technologist who has been fired from her last four jobs. She hates being a medical technologist, but so far has not found the courage to pursue a new path; she has failed to transform. To paraphrase William Bridges, without transformation, change is just rearranging the furniture of our lives.

Transformation requires a conscious choice to embrace our own psychological and spiritual development. Some people have numinous experiences that call them into the process of transformation, such as a near-death event, visitations by spirits of the dead, powerful dreams or shamanic journeys in which a spirit guide offers instruction. Many evangelical Christians have a powerful personal experience of being “born again.” What all these demonstrate is that the process of transformation is, at its essence, a process of death and rebirth. Those of us who do not have those numinous experiences can be envious of them, but even people who get such a spiritual kick-start still must agree to follow the instructions they got, to answer the call.

We must make a full-on, no-holds-barred, willingness-to-do-whatever-it-takes commitment for real transformation to occur. Usually, “what it takes” comes to us in the form of grief work. Because every change, whether elected by us or externally imposed, embodies loss. We often think of loss only in terms of sad events: the death of a beloved person or pet, a business failure, the loss of health and vitality due to a medical crisis or chronic illness. But even the happiest events involve loss. When you marry, you leave behind your single life. When you get a new job, you depart a familiar setting, the people you knew there, the comfort of work you were confident you could do. When you have a baby, you surrender a good night’s sleep, spontaneous outings to dinner or a movie, a clean house.

All transformation involves an ending, loss and grief. It requires a descent into darkness, a disappearing, a sinking into the horizon, a metaphoric death. The Buddhist teacher John Tarrant tells us that, “Spiritual work brings us down to the foundations of life before it lets us rise.” This descent can affect us in different ways. The death of someone we love can create a painful and lengthy period of suffering from which we cannot imagine emerging whole. Other descents may seem more like being stuck in Limbo—nothing is happening, and nothing will ever change. Feelings of disorientation, chaos and confusion may be more powerful than those of grief, sadness or loss. In any case, Tarrant tells us, “When we are in the dark, any act of will or effort is beyond us.” Often these are times when we may indulge our addictions and self-loathing.

There is only one solution. We must be still in the darkness, come to love and accept it, before the light can return. This is akin to the winter, when the branches are bare and the sky is grey and nothing appears to be growing—and yet, underneath the ground, inside the dead tree, tiny microorganisms are feeding, plant cells are reproducing; and in caves, pregnant bears are sleeping. All wait in the dark for the spring, the return of the light, the birth of the new. So must we wait.

It would be nice if we could all stop working, quit taking care of our parents or our children, or meeting any of our other necessary obligations, in order to attend, full-time, to our own personal transformation. If you can do that, hallelujah. If you can’t, get a shoehorn. Make a little space here and there in your life. Quit the things you can quit—you can come back to them later. Surrender to the process. Spend time alone, no matter what it takes. See only people you really want to see. Do only things you really want to do. Read books on topics about what’s happening in your life. Watch uplifting, thoughtful movies. Reject violence, news of violence, anything loud or invasive or demanding. Keep a journal. Write your memoir. Write your obituary as if you died today, and ask yourself how you feel about what you have or haven’t yet accomplished. Find solace in nature, even if only in a simple walk. Eat good, healthy, comforting food. Listen to music. Look at art.

Whatever your personal circumstance, take your passage seriously: imagine that this is your last chance to embrace your life’s purpose, as indeed it may be. Look for meaning in what has happened to you. Think of your life as a movie, or a play, or a good book, and look at the plot, subplots and characters. Are there evident patterns? Be curious. Find some help doing this. A spiritual director or therapist or grief counselor may be a good choice. A 12-step or other kind of support group might address your particular struggles. If you are religious, plumb your faith tradition, or if it’s not working, try on a new one. “Do what you feel called to do,’’ advises M. Scott Peck, “but also be prepared to accept that you don’t necessarily know what you’re going to learn. Be willing to be surprised by forces beyond your control, and realize that a major learning on the journey is the art of surrender.”

Be careful not to abort this process. Don’t push things forward, and don’t imagine you can go back to your “old” self. We cannot force the shoot to come forth from the bulb in the ground, nor can we push it back in without killing it; we must wait, knowing it will come in its time. And, slowly, the shoots do begin to come forth, some tentatively, others so quickly that we swear we can see them move. These are the inklings of what we are becoming, what the new landscape of our lives is going to look like. These may come as small ideas, or big ones. You may wake up one morning thinking, “I want to plant a garden,” even though you’ve never grown so much as a single carrot, or, “I will no longer allow my spouse to verbally abuse me, even if it means I have to leave.” You may go to bed in tears, realizing you have had to let go of your lifelong dream of being a famous actor, or a great tennis player, or becoming really fluent in Spanish. You may find yourself—even if you are an atheist—praying for guidance. Perhaps you have a career you love, a family you adore, everything on the surface seems just fine—and yet you feel called to the other shore. Sometimes we find ourselves doing or being the exact opposite of what we’ve believed in all our lives, taking a walk on the wild side, so to speak. You’ve always thought of yourself as having two left feet, and inexplicably seem to have signed up for a ballroom dancing class? As one of my mentors told me, “Your yearnings are your friends.” Listen to the little whispers in your head. “The way of the Creative works through change and transformation,’’ according to Alexander Pope, “so that each thing receives its true nature and destiny and comes into permanent accord with the Great Harmony: this is what furthers and what perseveres.”

Some “Cliffs Notes:”

Transformation is not a linear process. It cannot be predicted, or tracked, or explained, and it does not have an endpoint. There is no destination, only a “coming into permanent accord with the Great Harmony.” Transformation becomes a way of life, as if we were ascending a never-ending spiral staircase. The good news? Occasionally we reach a landing, where we catch our breath before taking on the next flight.

Transformation is also, on the surface at least, a completely selfish process. People around you may not understand what you are doing, and may try to dissuade you. Listen to your own inner voices; talk to an objective listener, the counselor you found earlier, if you need a second opinion before taking a leap. But do not be pushed off your path. In truth, by choosing transformation, you are empowering yourself to make the greatest contributions you can to life. “Personal transformation can and does have global effect,” says Marianne Williamson. “As we go, so goes the world, for the world is us. The revolution that will save the world is ultimately a personal one.”

Transformation is available to, and can present itself as a possibility to anyone, regardless of age or even maturity. Also, those who have undergone dramatic transformations in their past are not necessarily “done.” We have all known someone whose life underwent a huge change, and who embraced a spiritual practice or new lifestyle in a marvelous transformational process, and then, at some point down the road, fell stagnant, grew stale, or seemed, as Yeats put it, “fastened to a dying animal.” Transformation beckons that person, too. And be forewarned that there are no rules for transformation. No one can tell you the right way to do it. Even that old archconservative St. Paul recognized this. He told the Romans (12:2), “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may determine what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Paul didn’t say God’s going to appear at your elbow and whisper the instructions in your ear. He said “by testing” each individual can find his or her own right path, what is “good and acceptable and perfect.”

I’ve been talking about transformation objectively; now I want to do what I never could have done as my old self. I want to tell you a piece of my own story of transformation. Between 2005 and 2010, my father and eight other people I cared about deeply died. In 2008, I moved from my beloved Santa Fe to Berkeley with my partner. That year I met and began caring for an elderly neighbor, knowing intuitively she would die on my watch, which she did, about a year later. My gift to Beth was companionship, practical help, and unconditional love. Her gift to me was transformation. Even before she died, I—who had not attended a church in 30 years—felt led to begin studies in an interfaith seminary program, and to pursue training as a clinical chaplain and spiritual director. The next few years comprised a deep and sometimes painful learning process that demanded everything I had. I had already left behind my previous career as a journalist. Seminary and my other training required that I spend every cent I had saved. I had to end my longtime relationship because I felt it was broken and couldn’t be fixed; it was selfish, gut-wrenching and nevertheless the right thing to do for me. Though I felt a clear and strong call to a new life, I grieved all of those losses terribly, and I often doubted my choices. Ultimately I was led to return to Santa Fe, and by last fall I felt I had started to find my way out of the darkness: I had a part-time job as a hospice chaplain, I lived in a lovely little guesthouse a friend had graciously loaned me, I was reconnecting with people who were truly important in my life. Then, within about two weeks’ time, everything seemed to fall apart again. My friend told me that unfortunately she needed her guesthouse back. And I awoke one morning with a voice in my head that said, “You have a lump in your left breast.” I knew it was cancer, and I didn’t have health insurance. I felt in my bones that the challenge ahead would take all my strength, so I quit my job, though that decision defied reason. The wheel of fortune was once again turning for me. Yet having been through the tremendous transformation during the previous years, I felt a little better prepared. Now I know I don’t know where I’m going, or how I’m going to get there. Luckily, a dear friend took me into her home, and I pay only a small amount of rent. Somehow every month I have been able to pay my bills, and I have gotten the health care I needed. I had surgery and my prognosis is very good. In fact, everything in my life feels “in accord with the Great Harmony.” I sense that I have come to a landing, and I am taking a breath before the next ascent. Yet my cancer treatment is not yet over, and I do not yet have a reliable income. I still have days—and nights—that are filled with uncertainty and grief. I do not know what the future holds.

But there is at least one scene in the movie of my life that I can clearly visualize. In this scene, I sit on my haunches in the dark on the east bank of the Nile, with my friends, the apes, and one strange old man. Holding our breath, we hope and wait. Finally, the great blazing disk cracks open the darkness. Together we raise our palms and howl joyfully as the sun god rises in the east. Won’t you join us?

©Hollis Walker 2013

Suggested Reading (these are a few key books that have been helpful to me personally and in working with clinical patients and spiritual direction clients, presented in no particular order):


Awakening Osiris: The Egyptian Book of the Dead, Normandi Ellis. (includes “Apes of Dawn”)


Further Along the Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck, M.D.


Cancer as a Turning Point, Lawrence LeShan, Ph.D.


The Light Inside the Dark, John Tarrant


Falling Upward, Fr. Richard Rohr


Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, William Bridges


In Midlife: A Jungian Perspective, Murray Stein


How to Get From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, Cheri Huber


Sacred Therapy: Jewish Spiritual Teachings on Emotional Healing and Inner Wholeness, Estelle Frankel


The Grief Club: The Secret to Getting Through All Kinds of Change, Melodie Beattie





The Art of Sacred Listening

To see a video of the service including this sermon, click on this link:

“The Art of Sacred Listening”

I’ve spent most of my professional life working as a writer, primarily as a print and radio journalist. By the time I reached the half-century mark, I had interviewed hundreds, maybe even thousands of people and I believed, justifiably, that I was a good listener. After all, I could sit with you, ask you questions, then produce a reasonably well organized, interesting and sometimes even poetic article or program about what you had told me.

But I have come to believe in this second half-century of my life that the kind of listening I was doing represents just one kind of listening, for one essentially self-serving purpose. I can say in all modesty that sometimes my listening and telling the story of another person did prove to have great meaning and be of service to that person. But it was always a job I did for a living, and the intended beneficiary of the story wasn’t really the person who told me their truths; it was third parties, other people, who were going to read or hear those stories. And of course the entire time I was “listening” to my subjects, I was busy taking notes and trying to think ahead to the next questions I would ask. Not exactly attentive listening.

We are all listeners, and there are many reasons we listen to people, of course, but I’ve now believe that it’s a rare instance in which we truly listen to another person solely for that person’s benefit, without an agenda of our own. And yet what do most of us want more, than to be heard?

“Listening is a rare happening among human beings,” wrote the Quaker William Stringfellow. “You cannot listen to the word another is speaking if you are preoccupied with your appearance, or with impressing the other, or are trying to decide what you are going to say when the other stops talking, or are debating about whether what is being said is true or relevant or agreeable.’’ Stringfellow continues, “Such matters have their place, but only after listening to the word [while] the word is being uttered [. . .] Listening is a primitive act of love in which [we give ourselves] to another’s word, making [ourselves] accessible and vulnerable to that word.’’

Another Quaker, theology professor Douglas Steere, once used the word “listen” as a transitive verb, saying,  “To ‘listen’ another’s soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery may be almost the greatest service that any human being ever performs for another.” What is communication, intimacy all about, if we aren’t coaxing each other into a “condition of disclosure and discovery”?

A few years ago I moved to Berkeley with no clear path forward for my life. I befriended the elderly woman next door, a woman named Beth with no nearby relatives and few friends in good health. Her own health was declining, and not long after I arrived she became housebound. I began taking meals to her and soon sensed I would shepherd her to the end of her life. Beth and I spent countless hours together for a little less than a year before she died. I was holding her hand in that moment. Later, I felt gratified by that time. I know that I loved Beth, and she loved me, and that I did the best I could to comfort and support her at the end of her life. But I was also keenly aware that I was missing some skills that may have been even more helpful, and one of those was the ability to listen in a way that didn’t involve my own ego.

The experience with Beth was the impetus for my decision to attend an interfaith seminary and take a yearlong clinical training in a hospital as a chaplain. I began, with the help of many mentors, to understand how to listen with what I now call my “Divine” or “third ear.” The “third ear,” to my way of thinking, is akin to the Hindu concept of the invisible, mystically insightful “third eye.” The “third ear” has the power to perceive that which is beyond ordinary hearing. When we engage our “third ear,” we hear not just the words uttered by the person to whom we are listening, but also their feelings, their history, to what degree they are connected to other people, to Nature, to Spirit.

Some people call this “generative” or “active” listening. I like to call it “the art of sacred listening.” I didn’t make up the term “sacred listening”; many people use it, especially people who practice various forms of spiritual direction or counseling, as I do. It means listening with the intention of honoring what is sacred in you and me. It demands engaging my spirit with yours and with the Greater Spirit that informs us all. It requires employing every fiber of my being in an effort to know what your experience means to you. Sacred listening is an “art” because neither technique nor desire alone can make one a good sacred listener; sacred listening is created through a combination of skill and love.

I don’t mean to suggest here that every conversation we have is one in which we set aside our own personalities and egos to listen to another person. Frankly, I’m not up for that. But at least some of our time with others should be focused on sacred listening. Before I launch into suggestions about how we can become sacred listeners, I’d first like to talk about how we normally listen to one another.

One of the things we tend to do when listening to another person is to compare our own experience with theirs. So let’s say a friend shares that he thinks his wife is having an affair. In my mind, I may suddenly remember a time when I was betrayed by someone I loved. I wander off into my own memories and think about how they are alike or different from my friend’s situation’ I get lost in my own past sorrows. Oops. What was he saying?

Another thing we do when we are listening to a friend is compete. Most of the time we do this in our own minds; we find ourselves considering how our own experience stacks up again the other person’s. So, for example, if my friend tells me she’s really worried about money, and may have to sell her 14,000-square-foot house with two swimming pools and a five-car garage in the beautiful suburbs of Chicago—I may find myself grumbling, “What is she complaining about? I’m unemployed, I’ve got hives from living next door to a meth lab in a crumbling adobe with my alcoholic husband and neurotic sister-in-law, her Goth teenage son and a drooling Bassett hound, and she’s worried that she might have to join the YMCA to get her swim in? What does she know about money problems?” I’m very sympathetic, aren’t I?

Or, let’s say a friend confides that her mammogram has come back with an irregularity in it. Her aunt died of breast cancer, and she now feels certain that is her fate, too. Most of us can’t help ourselves; we counter. We say, “Oh, no, now listen, just because that happened to her doesn’t mean it will happen to you. Even if you do have cancer, you’ve caught it very early, and you know breast cancer is very, very curable these days. . . .’’ Instead of hearing and accepting our friend’s fear and suffering—which, let’s face it, is awfully uncomfortable for us–we counter it, rationalizing that somehow that will make her feel better, when in fact it’s the equivalent of telling her that she’s crazy, not to mention nuts and wrong, to be afraid of an teeny-weeny irregularity in a mammogram. Sooooooo helpful.

Then there are the times when we can’t resist counseling or advising our companion, playing Dr. Phil. Or we try to correct or fix the problem or situation as if we were Memet Oz, dispensing medical expertise.

Comparing. Competing. Countering. Counseling. Correcting. Any one of these responses can at times offer legitimate help to a friend or loved one, right? Of course they can. But none of them scratches the deep itch. None slakes the real thirst. They’re like Band-Aids: they may cover up the wound, and maybe that’s a good idea, but a Band-Aid has minimal impact on real healing. What we are doing in all those comparing-competing-countering-counseling-correcting responses is attending to our own ego instead of sincerely listening to and hearing our friend; There’s nothing sacred in that.

So how do we practice a higher level of listening? What does “sacred listening” entail? Are we just supposed to sit there like bumps on a log as a friend pours out her heart to us? Or should we be asking questions like the stereotypical TV sitcom therapist—“And how does that feel to you?”

To begin with I think we must have the intention of sacred listening. Perhaps we know we are about to have a meaningful conversation with our partner, or maybe a friend calls and we hear in his tone of voice that something big is up. I like to take a deep breath, and speak to my higher Self and my Higher Power and say something like, “Help me to set aside my ego, my needs, my opinions, and honestly listen to my loved one for his sake.” If you have a belief in a Higher Power or spiritual energy of some kind, silently invite that power into the room.  You can speak your intention aloud: “I really want to hear what you have to say. Let’s take plenty of time to talk about this.” Or, if you know your companion shares your belief system, pray it aloud: “Be our companion, O Goddess, and let us serve each other in this sacred time and place.’’ Something simple. That’s all it takes.

To be a good sacred listener, we use more than our third ear. We turn on all our senses. Listen to what your friend says in words, but also watch their body language, feel the energy they are emitting. Sometimes people exhibit contradictory behaviors. It’s not unusual for a person who is very distressed to relate what has happened with humor, smiles and chuckles. “And then the truck barreled into my car, and now here I am, with casts on both legs and arms, pretty funny, huh?” If the story sounds painful, it probably was, even if the person isn’t saying so. Hear beyond the words. Hafiz wrote, “How do I listen to others? As if everyone were my Master speaking to me his cherished last words.” What a marvelous goal.

Try to open yourself to your own intuitions. What thoughts are popping into your head? You don’t have to do anything with them; you need not share them, and maybe shouldn’t, with the speaker. Just notice them. Sometimes what someone is telling us triggers our own memories and feelings, as I mentioned before, and that’s normal, of course. What I do with when I get triggered is make a little mental checkmark next to them in an imaginary notebook in my head. “When she was talking about her mother and her anxiety, my stomach started churning. I’ll look into that later,” is what I tell myself. Then refocus on your friend. Let those intuitions that aren’t specific to your own triggers inform you; they’re like little whispers from an angel on your shoulder, helping you to see what’s really going on for your friend.

Usually in a serious conversation the other person may need to speak for some time. Just let them talk it out, as long as they need to. Try not to interrupt or ask questions. When they do pause, wait it out. Allow for some silence to see if they’ll spontaneously continue. Sometimes that space makes all the difference. If they don’t continue after a few moments, try to sum up what they’ve told you. “Mirror” or “reflect” what they’ve said. For example, “So, the doctor said it was an ‘irregularity,’ and you have to go back in to have a follow-up mammogram. It’s really brought up your aunt’s death again, hasn’t it?” Sometimes, when we have a problem or are sorting out an issue, just having someone repeat it back to us makes it more understandable. If the person says, “No, no, that’s not what I meant, you don’t get it at all,” just gently ask them to tell you more. I should note here that while we most commonly associate deep conversation with problems, we can just as easily practice sacred listening—and should–when someone is sharing something very exciting or joyous in their lives, they’re getting married, they’re having a baby, they have a new job. The apparently positive or negative quality of the topic at hand is not as important as the intensity or intimacy of it, in other words. And sometimes, as we all know, those “positives” can turn into “negatives,” and vice versa.

After mirroring or reflecting your friend’s story back to them, validate their description of what has happened and what they are feeling. You don’t have to agree with them in order to do this. Your friend whose wife is supposedly stepping out on him? Maybe you think she really is just going to zumba class with the girls. It doesn’t matter. Just say something neutral like, “I understand,” or “That makes perfect sense, the way you described it,” or, “I can see what you mean.” In essence, you are acknowledging your friend’s experience, telling them they aren’t crazy, that you, another human being, are in communion with them. One precaution: Don’t say, as we often are tempted, “I know exactly how you feel.” This diminishes the individual’s experience. We all believe we are unique and it’s true, we cannot know exactly how another person feels. The urge is to identify; we want to invoke that sense of communion, and that’s a natural and loving desire. But it’s usually better to say, “I cannot imagine what that was like,” or “I can only imagine how that feels; I’ve had some similar experiences, but nothing just like yours.”

It’s also important to acknowledge the feelings that your friend or loved one is expressing. Most of us, in our Western cultural context, stay stuck in our intellects, or at least feel we should stay in the rational, left-brained mode.  Identifying feelings can offer a pathway out of the abyss of overwhelming situations. So, ask your friend what he is feeling, using simple words that aren’t intellectual. “Sounds like you’re very angry,” for example. “Are you feeling excited, or scared?” Let your words prompt them to tell you how they feel. If your friend whose wife may be having an affair responds by saying, “Well, I think she should tell the truth and move out!” gently suggest what the feelings are underneath that. Here is where you can express what you imagine he feels. “If I were you, I’d feel really hurt by all this.” You can’t force someone into their feelings, but the simple suggestion of what he might be feeling may lodge in his mind and at least bubble up later.

Finally, offer your caring and support. “I love you, and I’m sorry you’re going through this. Please don’t hesitate to let me know if there is some way I can help you.” Hugs are good, when appropriate. Sometimes, when someone is sharing with you, it can be helpful to sit closer than usual to them, put an arm around their shoulder. If you don’t know if that will be okay with the person, ask. “I feel like putting my arm around you, is that okay?”

My friend Beth was very reserved and I had never done more than place a hand on her arm in greeting. One day she called in distress and when I went over I found her sitting on the edge of her bed, unable to get up. I felt a prompting in that moment, so I sat thigh-to-thigh with her and gently rubbed her back for a moment. She sighed, and I could feel some of the tension drain out of her as she relaxed. I realized in that instant that hardly anyone ever touched her—just a doctor, and only now and then. I am persuaded that we can feel the love in another’s touch; no words were necessary in that moment. As Rachel Naomi Remen has written, “A loving silence often has far more power to heal and connect than the most well-intentioned words.”

I’ve given you some of my best suggestions about sacred listening. At this point you may be wondering where the “sacred” part comes in; this may sound like little more than good interpersonal communication. “I’ve already read I’m Okay, You’re Okay, you may be thinking. All I can tell you is that when I am really present to another human being—when I am able to set aside my own ego and completely focus on the other person—more than good interpersonal communication is happening. Amazing things come to pass.

One of my mentors in spiritual direction training warned us that our clients would bring our own troubles to us, as if they had read our minds. They would tell us stories, raise issues, admit to weaknesses that were very similar to our own. That has proved true for me, and it’s proved to be a blessing. My first spiritual direction client turned out to be a writer who struggled with creative issues quite like mine. One of the first patients I met in my hospital residency suffered from the same disease I had had as a child. And since I have been consciously practicing sacred listening in my personal life, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve sat down to lunch or received a phone call or email from someone I care about, only to hear them articulate the very issue or concern with which I have been obsessed that very day. In those instances, when I am able to stay present, to listen to their journey rather than remain focused on my troubles, my own path miraculously becomes clearer. This is the “disclosure and discovery,” as Douglas Steere calls it, and it never fails to reassure me that all is indeed well, even in the midst of chaos; that we are all in the same proverbial boat, and in the same river; and it affirms my belief in some ineffable force, some energy, that connects us all in spirit.

Another outcome of practicing sacred listening is the opposite—the astonishing discovery that, as one of my friends says, “There are many different ways to be in the world.” We are different. We have different thoughts, reactions and behaviors. And when we see those differences through sacred listening, a door sometimes cracks open for us. We see that we perhaps don’t have to hang onto an old value or belief, for here is someone we love who has an entirely different idea, and it seems to work quite well for them. Our rigidities begin to soften; what was once black-and-white thinking expands into a rainbow of mauve, salmon, crimson and violet. Life gets richer. The great psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote that, “Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.’’ So, too, is the listener created in the sacred listening process.

And we will learn, with practice, when it is appropriate to offer our ideas, our counsel and advice, while allowing our beloved companions to maintain their autonomy. The mentor I spoke of earlier said that when we are engaged in sacred listening, and a great idea comes to mind, it’s wise to initially simply note it and set it aside. If, as the conversation progresses, the thought recurs, put it in boldface in your imaginary notepad. My mentor said that only if a specific idea came to his mind a third time, with a sense of urgency, did he consider actually sharing it with the person to whom he was listening. If the thought recurred three times, he reasoned, maybe it wasn’t generated by his ego after all; maybe God, or the collective unconscious, was talking, and it was time to share the thought. I’ve found his method pretty reliable; but honestly, it’s a rare thought that strikes me in triplicate.

Still there remains, perhaps, the lingering idea that one might simply become the friend everyone else calls to lean on. Am I to be nothing but a sounding board for my family and friends, you might ask yourself? Of course not. We have to seek out those who are willing to practice sacred listening with us. Not everyone can do it, of course, but most of us can find friends and family members who are willing to work a little harder to establish and maintain this kind of deep communication and communion. And when you are on the receiving end of sacred listening, you will discover its greatest magic. When another person listens to you without judgment, with real compassion, telling your story is cathartic. You can be vulnerable and feel safe at the same time. Authentic intimacy is achieved. And the presence of the sacred in the room is palpable.

Give sacred listening a try; find someone who will embrace it as a spiritual practice with you. Make a pact to “listen” another’s soul into disclosure and discovery. Seek out that form of primitive love in which you give yourself to another’s word, “becoming accessible and vulnerable to that word.’’ Listen to someone, anyone, with your third ear wide open; listen like Hafiz, “as if everyone were your Master speaking to you her cherished last words.”

-A version of this essay was first presented as a sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Santa Fe, New Mexico, on Oct. 7, 2012











More Air

When I left the Bay Area and returned to Santa Fe in April of this year, I was abruptly reminded of how difficult it can be for the body to adjust from sea level to the 7,000-foot altitude of the high desert. Even my ordinary brisk walk caused me to pant like a hot canine, and I didn’t seem to be accommodating to the altitude as quickly as I had the first time I moved here, in 1987. I decided that perhaps running a bit would help my body make the shift to getting by on less oxygen-rich air.

I’ve never been a runner; I’ve had mild exercise-induced asthma since my late 30s, meaning that my ability to do vigorous aerobics is somewhat restrained and requires the use of an inhaler. So I decided I would run/walk—run until I got too winded, then walk until I felt okay again, etc. For perhaps eight weeks now I’ve been doing that, at least five days a week. It’s been interesting to watch my own judgment of how I’m doing in the moment. Can I keep going? Must I stop now? Maybe I’ll try to keep running until I reach that driveway, that tree, that corner. . . . I’ve felt really good about the effort and the discipline, but not so good about my physical improvement. Nothing seemed to be changing. I was still panting like a dog at the slightest bit of aerobic activity, and especially while running.

Then during my run this morning I was so engaged in thinking that I suddenly realized I’d run farther than I’d ever run in one stint before, and my breathing seemed to have changed. I didn’t feel like I was panting, or that I couldn’t get enough oxygen into and out of my lungs. I wasn’t just waiting for the gasping to begin as it usually did. In fact, I seemed to be breathing much deeper than before.

I got really excited. I’d made it all the way from the top of Canyon Road down to Camino del Monte Sol without having to slow to a walk—could I make it to Calle Corvo? Maybe even to Garcia Street? I kept running, consciously making sure I didn’t speed up or slow down, listening to my breathing, crossing my fingers mentally. How far could I go?

When I finally had to slow to a walk, I was grinning like a nut case. Maybe something was shifting. Maybe I really was improving, perhaps had been all along, but the improvement hadn’t reached critical mass until now. Then something reached critical mass in my brain as well as my lungs. Though I hadn’t even realized it, somewhere along the way I’d decided that I couldn’t run. It had never occurred to me to try. I’d just told myself that walking was fine by me, that I preferred it, surely it was safer and easier on the body than running. While all that may be true—and it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever become a marathoner—being able to run farther than I’d ever imagined was a huge wakeup call.

What other possibilities have I dismissed prior to investigation? What else have I assumed—based on no evidence whatsoever—was impossible for me to achieve? I had been operating from an attitude of scarcity, lack, and negativity, when all I needed was some running practice, and something free, plentiful and widely available: more air.

What negative assumptions have you made about your own life based on faulty or nonexistent evidence? Is there something you might try if you could believe for a moment that it was possible for you to do? Why not try it? Start small. Practice daily. Don’t get attached to outcomes. Just see what happens. Find out how far you can go. Maybe all you really need is more air.