Listen carefully. Obsculta is the first word of guidance written by St. Benedict, the 6th century mystic and Father of western monasticism. His Rules for Monks is still used today to direct the lives in Benedictine communities. St. Benedict immediately qualifies what kind of listening they, and we, need to do. Obsculta inclina aurem cordis tui – “Listen by inclining the ear of your heart.” What could he possibly mean? Our hearts have ears? If that is true, then how do they work?
St. Benedict’s poetic language is asking us to listen, not just with our ears, but with our hearts to all that comes our way. While we might hear the words with our actual ears, with our hearts we can deeply reflect, discern, and take action if necessary.
When we are an embryo, the sound perceiving mechanism of the ear is the first organ we develop. During the same time, our heart also starts to develop (5 weeks after conception). Imagine! At 18 weeks in the womb, one of our first sensations of life is the inner sound of our own and our mother’s heartbeat. Studies have shown that a baby will become agitated if its mother’s heartbeat beats faster than normal, suggesting its mother is under stress. We also begin life listening to the rise and fall of our mother’s breath, our parents’ muffled voices, the world outside.
We all know in this chaotic, crazy, social media world how difficult it is to listen carefully. Even if we are able to find time and have the will to listen, we also know how easy it is to dismiss all of what we hear. The voices that say “Impossible!” and “Stupid!” and “A total waste of time!” seem to scream louder than the tiny whisper inside our hearts that hums pervasively and with nagging stubbornness. It takes courage to listen carefully. Because the message from the ear of the heart instantly becomes a mirror for the soul, and what we find staring back at us in the mirror is often difficult to bear. St. Benedict said, “Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset.”
Often our true reflection appears narrow indeed and the road to saving ourselves from ourselves overwhelming and daunting. How quickly and easily we have learned to dismiss and run away from our inner and outer Truths. Quick! Where’s my phone, car, refrigerator, workload, kids, local pub, gym, shopping mall, computer? Even so-called spiritual pursuits can actually be distracting us from the real road we need to discover and walk down.
How can we start to listen with the ear of our heart? Obviously, there is a need for silence, not only outside but also within. Assagioli encourages us to patiently practice being silent for a short period every day. Conscious reflection, meditation, prayer, and contemplation not only calm our continuous inner din, but also inspire and renew us. Time spent in silence is also the necessary preparation for external action. As Assaglioli wrote, “Talking tends to disperse the energies needed and accumulated for action.” Ghandi famously spent every Monday in silence. He said:
“In the attitude of silence the soul finds the path in a clearer light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness. Our life is a long and arduous quest after Truth.”
Real inner silence can occur only after we first use our strong and skillful will to focus our attention on some chosen subject. Once our thoughts are centered on an appropriate phrase or image that induces a state of calm, we can quietly, in our own time, let this image go and remain peaceful and still. Of course, our thoughts might still be flowing through us, but we can continue by letting them run over us like a river runs over a rock which never clings to the water or tries to follow it downstream. This inner state is also a kind of silence in which we might surprisingly hear the whisper of insight or intuition needed at that very moment.
Make some time for silence this week. Sit quietly. Repeat a phrase that stills your mind. You can try simply, “I am pure consciousness and will.” Another phrase that Assagioli suggests is from a hymn of the Greek Mysteries: “Be silent, O strings, that a new melody may flow in me.” Then listen with the ear of your heart. Be gentle with yourself, especially if your heart seems unsettled or deaf. Keep listening. Keep trusting. Continue to allow yourself moments of silence. Know that a new joyous melody is beginning to sing and flow through your life.