From Seven Thousand Ways to Listen
Can you hold the door of your tent wide to the firmament? (Lao Tzu)
We usually think of giving as more important than receiving. Yet only by receiving light can flowers grow into their beauty and pollinate the earth. Only by absorbing rain can the earth grow what feeds us. Only by inhaling air can our bodies walk us to each other. Only by accepting each other’s pain and vulnerability can human strength grow between us. In these ways, receiving involves absorbing, inhaling, and accepting the life that flows through us, between us, and around us. These are deeper forms of listening.
On the surface of things, giving and receiving are about exchanges. I need. You give. I feel grateful. You feel good about yourself. I feel indebted. I give back. We take turns. But below the surface of things, giving and receiving become indistinguishable, and the aim is not to have or move things from one person to another, but to keep the gift of life flowing. The pulse of being alive moves like blood circulating in the body, and giving and receiving, like arteries and veins, are both necessary. For no one organ owns the blood. Rather, we are of one body. The gift of life, like blood, must keep flowing, if we are to stay alive.
The difference then between receiving and taking – between taking things in and taking things from – is crucial. To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with taking something given by another. But when taking tightens into hoarding, we stop listening, and the imbalance poisons us and those nearby. We’re always capable of both receiving and taking, and so must guard against being one who just takes and acquires in favor of developing our capacity to take in and transmit the life-force given; to be a conduit rather than a repository.
The gift in receiving is that, through such openness, we apprehend the world. Deep listening is a form of gifted receiving. When Lao Tzu asks in the quote above, “Can you hold the door of your tent wide to the firmament?” he is challenging us not to define the world by whatever shelter we create but to let in the stars, to throw our tent of mind and heart wide open in order to receive and listen to the flow of life. Of course, this is not as easy as it sounds, but is as essential as light, rain, and air.
The Hawk, the Kiss, and the Glass of Milk
I was talking at a community college in the Midwest when the conversation turned to the sacred moment when giving and receiving are hard to tell apart. A young, pensive man in the back asked if I could recall the first time I experienced such a moment. I was amazed at how quickly images and feelings came over me.
The earliest moment was as a boy, maybe nine or ten. I was by myself ambling with a stick in the one path of woods in our neighborhood. It was the only place where none of the houses could be seen. As I stepped on a fallen branch, a hawk swept before me, wings spread. I gasped, and in that moment the sweep of the hawk’s wings and my sudden inhalation and the gust of wind carrying the hawk were all one. I didn’t even know what a hawk was. But that night, as I lay in bed, I closed my eyes and each time I took a deep breath, I could feel the wind sweep in my mouth. With each breath, I could see the hawk open its wings above me. I hadn’t thought about it till this young man asked, but I’ve always had a kinship with hawks and wind. In the depths of meditating, I have felt that inhaling steadily is taking in the wind of all breath, and that breathing slowly is how the heart like a hawk glides over all we feel.
Driving away from my talk at the college, I recalled my first kiss, while walking Christ home from Howard Johnson after our night shift. We were both sixteen and covered with dried ice cream. I remember the night air was cold. When our lips touched, slowly, tentatively, unsure what to expect, there was the soft moment of not knowing who was who; the brief instant when neither of us could hold on to who was kissing and who was being kissed.
But my first discussion of receiving as giving came during my junior year in college. My mother’s mother lived alone in a hotel in Miami. We always called her Grandma Juicy because she loved orange juice. Grandma wanted me to visit her and kindly invited my closest friends. We had no money, but Grandma didn’t hesitate to say, “No bother. Come. It’ll all be arranged.” I could tell that our visit meant a great deal to her. I knew it would mean a great deal to me. She was seventy-seven. I was twenty.
When I told my parents, they chided me not to freeload, not to take advantage of her. I thought about their position but felt in my heart that this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to know Grandma. Though I had nothing material to offer, I felt committed to offer what little I had – my presence and my love. My parents and I grew heated about it all. It was a significant parting of values.
So during spring break, my friends, Alan, Michael, Jack, and I piled into an old Fairlane with a corroded front left fender and bumped and coughed our way to Florida. We had no idea how long a state Florida is. In Jacksonville, we called Grandma to say we were right around the corner! Eight hours later, near three in the morning, we pulled into Miami and parked in front of her small residential hotel. The light was on. The doorman was waiting and knew us by name. She appeared in the lobby like a bent-over version of the Statue of Liberty. She’d rented a small apartment for us, down the hall from her. As we dropped our bags, there on the table was a plate of cookies and four glasses of milk.
During the week, we had our fun on the beach, but also entered Grandma’s world. We went shopping with her, two of us on each arm, and she greeted her cronies like a matriarch whose sons had returned from a strange and silent war.
Our last day there, near sunset, she and I walked alone along the ocean and she went on and on about her life, her loves and disappointments. It was a privilege to hear her aging voice on one side and the ocean on the other. I’ll never forget that walk. It seemed as if we were suspended for the moment on this sunlit strip of sand; out of time, free of pain and worry. She had the most peaceful look on her face and I knew then that I had come all that way to have this walk. Grandma not only taught me about generosity and the proper order in which things support people, but, for the first time, I was able to give when I had nothing – by receiving.
The Heart of God
What I learned on that walk along the ocean with Grandma, though it has taken almost forty years to articulate, is that there is a sliver of the beginning in each of us, and being infinite, it is totally forgiving of the blunders that bury it along the way. This sliver of the beginning simply shines in the center of our darkness, incubating its strength, waiting as it did before our birth. It can wait years for us to hear it, to receive it, to embrace it. It is as patient as time itself. I’ve felt it in those moments when giving and receiving become one. I heard the sliver of the beginning when I was surprised by the hawk. I received it when I first kissed Chris. And I embraced it when Grandma and I opened to each other before the sea. Much of my life has been trying to learn from such moments how we receive the truth of everything larger than we are. I’m humbled to admit that I haven’t come up with much.
Two basic forms of awakening and receiving are always near. The mystery of revelation is the awakening through which our habits and frames are expanded by moments of wonder, awe, beauty, and love. And the weathering of erosion is the receiving through which we are broken open to deeper truths. Revelation always has the feel of epiphany; that is, it seems to happen all at once. It is the lifting of veils. One moment we are blind, the next we see. One moment we are numb, the next incredibly sensitive. But suffering and humility, like erosion, take time. We are worn to who we are meant to be. It is all any of us can hope for: to be revealed in an instant to life and each other and to survive the wearing away in order to behold what is soft and central and lasting.
It was on another shore, later in life, that I sat on a worn cliff on the south side of Saint Martin in the Caribbean. I spent that afternoon in silence, just watching the vast ocean spray the stone and re-form itself, coating every surface, as if to soothe the stone’s hardness. I came away convinced that the sea is a great teacher of receiving. Always rising and falling like the clear blood of the earth, the formless water receives everything that enters it. It rejects nothing. Always transparent, the open water gently covers everything; softening whatever it touches, giving itself completely without losing any of itself. The more I watched, the more I realized that the sea is both strong and gentle, sensitive and unwavering, it only takes the shape of what holds it or enters it. Whatever breaks its surface ripples through its entire being. So much like the heart of God. So much like the heart of experience, God’s smaller face in the world. I came away with spray on my face wanting to be like the sea, to love like the sea: to receive and give myself to everything I meet, softening its way while making it glisten.