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here’s what you *should* do

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hand-heartMy vow is to be of service. It serves as touchstone as I live each day. Whenever a choice or dilemma rises, it guides me: pretty straightforward most of the time. Ever so often, especially in my work at hospice, I get thrown off the path. I feel helpless and frustrated that I can’t “do more” to make things better. This reaction may be borne of good intentions, but it is problematic. It assumes that I have some kind of power of your situation, that my advice or action can somehow make your troubles go away.

“My answer to your deepest difficulty merely reflects what I would do if I were you, which I am not. And even if I were your psychospiritual clone, my solution would be of little use to you unless it arose from within your soul and you claimed it as your own” (Parker J. Palmer).

So what am I to do in the face of another person’s suffering? How can I best live my vow? The thing I’m called to practice is “deep listening.” To put aside my own concerns about “what to do” and instead give my full attention to what’s in front of me. And to listen within, to notice how my own suffering gets aroused by hearing the other’s story. That is what’s meant by mindfulness: to witness what arises inside and outside of ourselves from moment to moment, in thoughts, feelings, and sensations.

To “just listen” may seem a lame response to suffering, but if my own experience is any indication, it can be a welcome gift. When my heart hurts, when I’m confused or life simply overwhelms me, I seek out a friend or coworker who I know will listen to me: without judging or advising. Sooner or later, things will become clearer as I hear my own words bouncing in the sound chamber of the other’s attentive listening.

source: Palmer, P.J. (2004).  A hidden wholeness. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, p. 116. image:


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