I’ve been thinking a lot lately about conversation and the necessity of paying attention to the flow of our words. Since, as Christopher Fry* has said, “Affairs are now soul size,” it seems that our conversations should be the same. It’s like a dance really, and if well done, can become an embodied spiritual practice emphasizing the three modes of attention, surrender and compassion.
I took a social dancing class in sixth grade in order to prepare for school dances and to be ready for successful adulthood in the days when dancing with a partner was more than rocking back and forth or just jumping around in time to wild music. Our first attempts were very concentrated. Counting one, two, three to the music and making our feet move in a box-step pattern as we looked down at them generally kept us from stepping on our partner’s shoes. As the rhythm moved inside of us and we began to really feel the movement, our minds relaxed, our attention to our partners increased and enjoyment took the place of tension in our bodies. I remember vividly as an adult the time I waltzed at a parish dance with the father of one of my students. Luckily it was only later that I learned he was a dance instructor because without any thought, I was able to surrender to the music as his body reminded mine of the basics and I was able to respond with a flourish that I did not know before that moment.
This metaphor for conversation points up for me the importance of what has been named contemplative listening. It is a skill that is sorely lacking in our discourse today as we form our responses to the person speaking before s/he finishes a sentence and often even do not let the speaker finish before breaking in to give our opinion. To really listen involves restraint and attention, not only to words but to meaning and then one must surrender one’s own thought to consideration of what has been said if a true conversation is to ensue.
I recall the kindness of Mr. Pandich during my amazing experience of dance. He knew he was a better dancer – and so did I. He never adverted to that fact, however, and his compassion, expressed in tiny pressure and release gestures against my back, was enough to keep me dancing and enjoying the experience without allowing thought. My body just knew what to do.
It is possible for any conversation to inspire change. We have the opportunity in deep listening and the courage of speaking mindfully to learn not only what others think but also what lies deep within ourselves waiting to be revealed. In this kind of exchange, compassion grows. We teach and we learn and our hearts are engaged in new ways.
In writing this last I look up at a card framed long ago that sits by my window. Under a somewhat abstract figure of a woman, lost (or perhaps found) in a head-thrown-back, arms-outstretched dance position, is a quote from Hildegard de Bingen which calls me to remember the possibilities of deep conversation not only with other persons but also with our Divine Partner. It says: Be not lax in celebrating. Be not lazy in the festive service of God!
*Christopher Fry, A Sleep of Prisoners.
Sister Lois Barton, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, holds certificates from the Spiritual Direction Mentoring Program of the Spiritual Renewal Center in Syracuse, NY, and a Master’s Certificate in Pastoral Ministry from the Loyola Institute. Lois is an experienced teacher and spiritual director. As an advanced student of Cynthia Bourgeault, Lois joins Bill Redfield teaching Wisdom Schools in the Northeast. She is the program director of The Sophia Center in Binghamton, NY and lives in community at the Spiritual Center in Windsor, NY. You can learn more about Lois’s practice at The Sophia Center for Spirituality.