The Transformational Power of Open Hearted Listening
I’m thinking a great deal these days about the transformational quality of listening. We often talk about the importance of listening as a key component in building strong and respectful relationships and it’s a core value in the inner activist program. But even if we are committed to a practice of listening, we can forget just how critical and important this is.
Recently I was reminded, in a very deep way, of the peace-making quality of listening and I want to share my story.
Some weeks ago I had the opportunity to participate in a ‘bearing witness to Rwanda’ retreat organized jointly by Peacemakers Institute and a Rwandan organization, Memos. I have to admit that initially I wasn’t keen on this idea, imagining a group of Buddhists hunkered down on zafus outside of genocide memorial sites. But I couldn’t have been more wrong.
For five and a half days a group of Rwandans and internationalists visited memorial sites,church walking together through desecrated churches with blood still on the walls, and through rooms of preserved bodies at what was once a technical school, the bodies still showing the agony of death. Standing together in silence in the front of mass graves and listening to testimony from the survivors, perpetrators and rescuers of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. Hearing stories of reconciliation and healing and bravery as well stories of what is still raw and unresolved.
We walked hand in hand through horror opening our hearts to the incomprehensible, to the anguish of the survivors, to the trauma carried by all Rwandans, regardless of ethnicity or location during the genocide. Every day we sat in small and large circles, speaking from the heart.
We listened. That’s all. And Listening broke my heart open.
Listening to what was said and what was not said, listening to what was visible and not visible, listening to a look on a face, the story in a body. Listening broke my heart into a shimmering web of silver teardrops. It brought me to love . . . it brought love to me.
After a year of living in Rwanda, working at a genocide memorial, it brought me to a new depth of knowing the suffering that still stalks this land, the nights of those who lived through terror, the tasks still facing the country. And yes, also to awe at the healing that is possible between people, the potential in each of us to truly show up, and to joy in what we wove together.
So I am grateful, so grateful, but I am a hundred times more grateful for the healing impact of this listening to the Rwandan participants; what it meant to them. It is them I think of when I consider how listening can transform people into peacemakers. The Rwandans listened to each other’s stories of death and survival, they listened to tears that broke through after seventeen parched years, and they listened, holding each other, to fear and grief.
In the weeks that followed, my new Rwandan friends told me stories of how this experience changed them, of how they might consider forgiveness, of how they had changed their relationship to ‘other,’ of how they might speak. It is the environment of safety and care that we created together that held the listening in a way that allowed the emergence of new ways of seeing and being.
Here’s one of those stories.
A young woman participant, a genocide survivor, had never until that week visited a memorial site or felt free to talk to a Hutu. She could not see any Hutu as other than killer.
But she listened to Hutus who had risked their own lives to save others, she listened to a Hutu who killed and then made peace with a surviving member of the family he murdered. She listened to the compassion in a man who was a Hutu child who had witnessed what was done to Tutsi and she said to me that from all this - she was free. That she could separate individuals from the group, that since the retreat she had no fear of talking to Hutu. She feels free.
She listened too, to the internationalists, and concluded that we were not all the same either. The west’s exploitation of Africa is real, the abandonment of Rwanda is real, but every white person is not the same. She found this realization freeing.
I remember, one day I watched her walk amongst the bones and bodies and I watched how she listened to the dead with reverence. She brought her gaze to each; she gave respect to all, her slight hand reaching out in the lightest of caresses. She has lodged inside me, this woman who was finally saying hello to the dead, saying good-bye.
This openhearted listening has stayed with me in the weeks since, allowing me to move deeper, to not turn away, to trust my own impulses, to move in loving action. I have felt alive, engaged. I have allowed myself to be moved to tears over and over. It may sound strange given the exposure to Rwanda’s pain, but all this listening has woken me up and I am happy.
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In the Inner Activist program ‘Building Strong and Respectful Relationships’ we learn the practice of ‘open hearted listening’, and how to move beyond polarized views to a deeper level that expresses everyone's values and needs.