essays on suffering and awakening

Listen for the feelings

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a Thich Nhat Hanh interview in which he shares how listening can bring healing and understanding. I want to expand on that idea with some specific suggestions for how to listen.

I’ve been in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction since the end of 2011. During that time, I’ve gone to hundreds of twelve-step meetings. One of the beautiful things about meetings is that they are often truly welcoming to all kinds of people. People who would not normally mix with one another anywhere else are brothers and sisters there.  

Much of how this bond is forged is through listening. At a meeting, a speaker often tells his or her story. Many speakers follow a basic format while doing so: they share what it was like while using, what happened to get them clean and sober, and what their life is like now. 

Because there are people from every conceivable background and walk of life in recovery, one hears every conceivable kind of story. I’ve heard people share about spending years in prison, or about struggling with addiction while starring in a film. I’ve listened to people whose drinking led them to living on the streets, and to people who hit rock bottom in a Beverly Hills mansion.

Everyone has different details to their stories. If we get caught up in those details, it’s easy for us to feel different from the person sharing, and to close our hearts to them. But what twelve-step groups teach is to listen for the similarities, not the differences. Rather than pay attention to the specific circumstances, which might be unique to each individual, we can learn to pay attention to the universal feelings underneath. That universality breeds empathy and understanding.

If we listen for the similarities and for the feelings, we can start to see that everyone is saying the same thing. Everyone is sharing how they feel pain, fear and anger; how they have suffered; and how they want to be free from that suffering. Everyone is sharing the joy they feel in the moments that they do feel free. Everyone is telling the same story in different ways.

This applies everywhere, not just in twelve-step recovery. What is the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, if not the story of two groups of people who both just want a home? Seen from that perspective, do we need to take sides, or can we find empathy and common cause with both?

The more we practice listening, the more we can see our differences as unimportant. The more we see our differences as unimportant, the easier it is to love one another. This comes at a cost—it forces us to let our hearts open, and even break; again and again and again. 

But all we’re really breaking is the walls we’ve built to keep us apart from each other. 

Ian Cooper