Spacious listening encourages new ideas
Henrik, the main character in the short Danish film On My Mind, is a metaphor for the felt sense. He is in a delicate and deeply significant situation that is difficult to articulate. When he sees what he needs to do, the people he encounters do not know how to create an atmosphere in which his next steps could emerge. Spacious listening and reflecting his words would have provided the simple accompaniment needed for his felt sense to “carry forward”.
Carrying forward is an interactive process that can be blocked by conventional cultural notions. Cultural forms make for a comfortable social flow, but do not recognize the body’s capacity to make meaning. The body’s meaning-making process always wants to go further toward life. Pre-determined social forms can block and misinterpret it.
Spacious listening welcomes what is sensed but difficult to put into words
In his 1993 article, Three Assertions about the Body, philosopher Eugene Gendlin writes:
“The society has become more complex than the routines and concepts that it teaches. Most commentators on the current society do not see the increased complexity. They see only the breakdown of the old patterns and the losses that this now involves…The breakdown of the old patterns is actually caused by a new development which has only [just] begun. It is not just a loss and a breakdown. It is also an opening to a further development…Sometimes we cannot do what we were taught because we sense more in a situation than the old routines can meet.
In a difficult situation, if w cannot act in some easy and usual way, and if a new way does not quickly come to us, what do we… feel? Confusion, frustration perhaps. We may just be stuck. But what is it that tells us that the ordinary actions a phrases won’t do or are not what is needed? If we ask ourselves that question and if we pay direct attention to what it is that stops us, we may find a sense of what is needed, what would work, if only we could devise it. “
In On My Mind, Henrik is stuck. The film opens with him rhythmically banging his head against the window. He is in pain, but we don’t understand what is going on, and neither do the two people he encounters in the bar he walks into.
Spacious listening creates an atmosphere of safety, empathy, openness and trust for felt meaning to carry forward
Even though the bartender feels sympathetic toward Henrik, her first reaction to him is a rather judgmental suggestion. She says, “You don’t have to gulp [your whiskey] all at once. It’s OK to enjoy it.” Knowing what we know by the end of the film, this invitation doesn’t serve to create an atmosphere of safety, empathy, openness and trust.
Spacious listening recognizes the forming of felt meaning
Henrik pays and is on his way out when he sees a karaoke machine.
The karaoke machine becomes the “handle” that symbolizes Henrik’s next step.
He asks if the machine has the old Elvis Presley song On My Mind. The owner is doing his taxes and doesn’t want to be distracted by the music. He insists that karaoke only happens on weekends and today is Tuesday. Henrik finally puts down a 500 kroner bill, the equivalent of US$70. The owner agrees to let him sing, but for only 5 minutes.
Henrik asks the bartender to film his song on his phone. He says it’s for Trine. The bartender dutifully records the song, but a message comes through on the phone about Trine, so she stops recording and hands him the phone. He has to start over. Then halfway through the second recording, the owner pulls the plug on the machine. Five minutes is up.
The felt sense is hard to put into words, so it is difficult to explain the reasoning behind it, especially if one is in an atmosphere of judgment. Spacious listening welcomes what is difficult to put into words, because that lack of clarity signals the development of something new and different.
How “round, closed, common notions” get in the way of spacious listening
After the first interrupted attempt at recording, the bartender says “It’s a nice song.” That establishes some rapport. Henrik tells her that it’s his wife’s favorite. “She says it makes the soul fly.”
This could have been an opening for a more spacious listening and reflecting back. In fact, with these words, Henrik is indicating exactly why it is necessary for him to sing that song. But instead of reflecting this, the bartender asks him three questions, based on conventional notions of why a husband would want to record a song for his wife. Given Henrik’s unusual situation, these questions only block his self expression, especially the last question: “She’s not dead, is she?” This question brings a final draining of the whiskey glass, and a dispirited sigh.
With spacious listening, we don’t have to think of the right way to respond from our limited understanding. We respond by reflecting the words that express the felt meaning of the person we are listening to
After sighing into the glass, Henrik says,
“Look, the dew. The story it tells”.
“What’s the story then?” asks the bartender.
“A human breathed here. And now it’s gone. An imprint of the soul.”
That’s a pretty deep statement. I imagine a bartender wouldn’t know exactly how to respond. But as spacious listeners, we don’t have to respond from our own limited understanding of what is being said. We can just reflect back the life-forward meaning that we sense in the words.
A spacious listener might say, “Oh, this is something important (that touches you, that means something to you). A human breathed there and now it’s gone. That droplet is an imprint of the soul.” This open acknowledgement of a “something” helps validate that it exists. Its meaning might not be clear yet, but the felt meaning is definitely felt “there”, somewhere in the body. Hearing his words back would have shown Henrik that his felt sense was worth exploring.
But the moment is lost, with the bartender’s silence and a strange gust of wind that blows through the bar. Henrik seems to give up on the possibility of being understood. He just wants to get back to recording the song.
Cultural logic ignores the intricacy of the body sense
With her three questions, the bartender applies a cultural logic to Henrik’s need to sing the song. Is it for their anniversary, or his wife’s birthday, or to commemorate her after death?
In his article, The Small Steps of the Therapy Process: How They Come and How to Help Them Come, Eugene Gendlin says that carrying forward is “…picking up on where the person is, making contact with where the person really is. And the very contact changes the form” (p. 212, paragraph 4)
Spacious listening creates a place for felt meaning to grow, for it to create its own logic.
Spacious listening is having faith that felt meaning will be carried forward into its own right way of being
If Henrik’s “felt meaning” had been acknowledged, a carrying forward might have happened. This would have enabled him to express his reasons for insisting that the recording needed to be made NOW. It would have avoided the argument with the bar owner, given that the owner immediately understood the situation once it was expressed.
But, of course, then there would have been less drama to make a movie about.
Expressing the body sense brings relief and opens possibilities
When felt meaning is expressed and reflected back, there is often a bodily sense of relief. A way forward opens that had not previously been seen.
We see this in Henrik’s ability to be calm, dignified and confident as he encourages his wife’s soul to fly away at the moment of death.
Spacious listening carries felt meaning forward: implications for human interactions in general
Henrik followed the dictates of his felt sense, even though he was not understood at first. The well-intentioned bartender wanted to relate to him, but their communication was limited when she asked questions that were based on her accustomed cultural and conversational patterns.
Spacious listening and reflecting would have helped Henrik move forward. An agenda on the part of a listener can impose an already-existing pattern. That doesn’t leave space for the kind of interaction that seeks to contact and faithfully reflect the felt sense. Contact with the bodily felt sense brings something new and full of life.
Implications for the world
Can you feel the implications of this for the evolution that needs to happen in order for life to continue on this planet? The logic that we have grown up with no longer serves us. Nobody knows what to do. War and fighting have been “go to” solutions for millennia, but internationally we are too aware of the destructive power unleashed by the weapons that have, up to now, seemingly insured safety and security. In the US and elsewhere, polarization leads to people not being able to listen to each other, and that eventually results in violence.
Change steps are an interactional process that respects and facilitates the ability of the body to “make sense”. This sense-making does not necessarily correspond to any already formed system of logic. It changes as it is carried forward. The changes come in a precise way, arising from the body’s implicit knowing of what will make life better.