HuffJummah: Learning to Listen

We cannot open up to painful alternative narratives unless we have built up the spiritual resources within ourselves to handle the existential fall-out.
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"The capacity for empathy is vital when working towards peace. Empathy requires that a person look past his or her own interests and perspective and come to an understanding of the other side. Peacemaking also calls us to move beyond our desire for retaliation and revenge, and focus instead on the possibilities for future reconciliation. Before we are able to accomplish these aims, we must acknowledge our wrongs and the ways in which we have been complicit in injustices and our responsibility for righting them."

"A key to Just Peacemaking generally, and to acknowledging responsibility specifically, lies in the ability to hear narratives alternative to one's own."

--From "Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War," p. 69, 71-72

A few weeks ago, I took part in a gathering of Interfaith Just Peacemakers at the Boston University School of Theology, courageous women and men who focus their lives around imagining and mobilizing religious discourse as a resource for sustainable peace. As we unpacked the 10 key practices of just peacemaking, I was struck yet again by the central importance of deep listening, that is, hearing, receiving and even revering narratives that conflict with our own. And then, as I heard, one by one, the "war" stories of our peacemakers, many of whom struggled to align psychic, professional and spiritual lives, I realized too that making peace in the world around us is impossible without making peace within ourselves. One is flawed, even perilous, without the other. We cannot open up to painful alternative narratives unless we have built up the spiritual resources within ourselves to handle the existential fall-out. Have I learned to name what lies within me of anger, jealousy, vanity, arrogance, resentment and malice? I cannot make effective peace with others until I have at least acknowledged the war within myself.

Let us look at one instance of deep listening. Like the earlier legends of Solomon, the Quran tells us that the prophet Sulayman (upon him, peace) could communicate with non-human creatures. In one poignant passage, we learn:

"Gathered around Solomon were his armies of Jinn, men and birds, all in ranks. When they came to a valley of ants, an ant said: "Ants, enter your homes or Solomon and his armies will crush you without knowing." He [Solomon] smiled and laughed at her words, and said: "My Lord, inspire me that I might be thankful for the favors which you bestowed upon me and my parents, that I might do good deeds that are pleasing to you. Include me, by your mercy, among your upright worshippers." Quran al-Naml (The Ant), verses 17-18

Here is an example of one incident, but two profoundly different narratives. What Sulayman sees as a routine march, the ant reads as a mortal danger that would lead to the destruction of her entire community. Sulayman could easily have responded with arrogance (who does this two-bit creature think she is?), resentment (what kind of monster does she think I am?) or disbelief (this ant is crazy!). After all, the ant is accusing him of being, at best, heedless, at worst, a murderer. Instead, he truly hears her. First he smiles. Then his smile turns into a joyous laugh -- he gets it. Her life has been riddled with violence. She's lost tens of thousands of her little friends under the careless boots of human beings. Her expectations and fears are determined by her experience. Exegetical literature (tafsir) tells us that Sulayman ordered his army to halt until the ants had entered their homes. To bring a marching army to a halt is no laughing matter. Neither is an order that bucks the machismo of army culture. Risking loss of face, the great commander exercises humility in the face of another creature's truth. And then, the Quran tells us, he turns to God in thankfulness for helping him do the right thing and takes refuge in God's mercy. Perhaps he is thankful for the clear lesson: his army may be the mightiest in the world, but that there are other, more lasting ways to make peace.

Sulayman teaches us that we have the ability to communicate with everything around us. If we begin to listen, we may find ourselves transformed. A Jerrahi Sufi teacher told me that no lasting relationship can begin with conditions and expectations. Expectations that are foisted upon a relationship rather than arising naturally through relationship hint at an absence of real communication. (He compared this to the relationship he has with the ney, the reed flute whose virtues are most beautifully expressed in the poetry of Rumi. The expectations he has of his ney, the vessel, and that his ney has of him, the artist, arise through their loving relationship, sustained by years of commitment and a light touch. And so he need not force himself to play, it comes naturally and with pleasure.) We plant a seed of relationship, he told me, and then we put a concrete block over it and a chair, and we sit on the chair, and then we complain that the seed does not grow. Instead, we should plant the seed in a garden, water it and tend to it with love, but let it grow as it will. Don't burden the relationship with expectations; first, learn to listen.

"Listen to this ney, how it laments -- telling a tale of separations." --Rumi, Masnavi

Islam is not a badge that is worn but an ethic that is lived by. We expect to be treated well but do we do our part to nurture relationships, to listen to the other side of the story? We expect an unrealistic largeness of heart from the world around us, but do we work hard to create the trust and affection that will invite such gestures? And can we apply these principles both in our intimate and public circles: our family, our neighborhood, our political and interfaith work.

Finally, deep listening is only possible when we are working on wholeness within ourselves. Peace begins with the self, for the fractured self is the root cause of much of the trouble in our lives. Even as we heal the wounds of others, we must cultivate the ability to communicate with our own selves. Using the language of journey to speak of the deepest grounding, the Naqshbandi Sufi teachers teach the spiritual practice of safar dar vatan -- travel in the "homeland" -- the realm of our own selves. This is the journey of self-knowledge: acknowledging our brokenness, replacing our negative attributes with godly virtues and learning to love ourselves as mirrors of the divine. This journey is what grounds us so deeply within ourselves that we may begin to reach out to others in true relationship. In the contemporary language of place, Edward Relph suggests that "an empathetic and compassionate understanding of the worlds beyond our own places may be best grounded in a love of a particular place to which I myself belong."

So spend some time getting to know yourself. A valuable traditional practice for self-knowledge is muhasabah, or taking account, inspired by the Quranic verse: "You who believe! Be God-conscious, and let every soul consider carefully what it sends ahead for tomorrow; be mindful of God, for God is well aware of everything you do" (Quran al-Hashr, verse 18). Every night, take some time to sit quietly, alone, facing the qibla. Go over your day, hour by hour, and reflect on those parts of the day that you regret, where you slipped up, where you wronged someone, and where your behavior was far from just and exemplary. Don't dwell on the negative, but focus on the future: imagine how you could have changed your behavior in that moment, and then resolve to do it the next time you are faced with a challenging situation. If a wrong can be righted, plan to do it. And finally, do as the prophet Sulayman did: ask for God's inspiration, support and mercy in your journey.

May we all find just peace within us and create just peace around us. Ameen.

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