The other day I was commenting to a friend how pleased I was that my recent series of acupuncture treatments had successfully dealt with an issue I was having. He commented that I was lucky to find a practitioner who was talented enough to fix the problem. ‘Just like that,’ he said, ‘you find someone and, ta-da, it’s fixed.’
‘No,’ I said, ‘it’s not like that for me. It’s not that I’m lucky enough, and it’s not that something wrong is fixed. It’s not linear like that. It’s that there is an ongoing relationship, between my body and myself…a conversation, and I just listened. That’s all.’
Later I spent some time thinking about what I had said. I have come a long way from the days I treated my body entirely like a machine. In my teens and early twenties I was an ambitious athlete, a professional dressage rider who spent her weekends cycling, running, swimming, hiking and skiing. My body was an instrument to get me into and out of places, as I liked, in the way I liked. My body was an ‘it’. In line with conventional thinking, when it was broken, I went somewhere to have it fixed, by someone who was an authority on fixing. I never asked questions, I just thought they knew best.
But the idea of broken had to come from two basic assumptions: that my body was an inanimate object — an it — and that if it did not operate in the way I thought it should, when I thought it should, then something was wrong.
Later in my twenties I came down with chronic fatigue. I was ill with a fever most days, and on the good days was too tired to get out of bed. Blood tests revealed a skyrocketing white blood cell count, and an abnormally high level of antibodies. The diagnosis was clear, but treatment, according to both conventional and alternative medicine, was obscure at best. But one thing was clear, my body was tired of being treated like a machine. Of course, this was not clear to me at first. I wasn’t listening.
Anyone dealing with something as mercurial as chronic fatigue knows that the way to healing is not straightforward, and always humbling. It was a ruthless teacher, and one to which I am now most grateful. Demanding I leave no stone unturned, it lead me into a braided relationship with both allopathic medicine and alternative therapies. Both worlds insisted they were the way. Both vilified the other. Both worlds shamed me for considering the other. And neither one worked, for years.
Slowly, the illness released it’s grasp on my body until finally it disappeared. Later many people asked me how I healed from chronic fatigue. And the only answer I could ever honestly give was that I began to listen.
I listened everywhere. I listened externally, to those who thought they might have a solution — regardless of their orientation. I listened to the language of the mystery — to signs, indications, symbols and serendipity. I listened internally, to intuition, sense, attraction, repulsion. And I listened to my body. Was it tired when I promised something? Was their pain when I did something? Did I feel different emotionally when something was eaten? And through this listening, I found my way, in this case through diet and certain practitioners, to healing. But it was the listening that came first, a listening without knowing anything, a listening with beginners mind.
If I distorted my listening with predetermined ideas, then nothing of use was ever heard. If I decided, for example, that alternative therapies were for new agers. Or that conventional medicine was for those who were not spiritual enough. Or I had decided that something was wrong or broken, then all I heard was my own mind.
But if I brought beginner’s mind to each moment — a deep curiousity — then some other way ahead revealed itself. It was the beginning (emphasis on that word – beginning) of a life lived outside of the status quo, and one that has lead me now to an increasing sense of sovereignty over who I am, and what I decide to do. The only authority becomes my own self, in collaboration with Life, rather than handing power over to others, including the experts. What blossoms, then, in working relationships be they with professionals, doctors, healers or other so-called authorities, is a non-heirarchal circle of collaboration.
Such inspired living requires first that we listen. And inspired living means living way outside any kind of box or formula — regardless of how beautiful the box may appear.
Everywhere we look, there are formulas for living. And the formulas promise heaven. We should attachment parent, we should downshift, we should recycle and practice non-violent communication. We should be vegetarian, we should eat meat. We should be kind, or we should express our feelings authentically. We should send our kids to school, we should homeschool, or make sure we are always on time…endless. The trouble is that even the best of formulas go toxic if it means that the formula is put before the listening. Of course it is ok, even important, to have precepts or ethical / philosophical constitutions for our lives, but even they can become toxic when placed before the listening.
Modern life does not know about listening. It knows plenty about the one-way conversation — demanding, requiring, needing, wanting, talking and forcing. To do this it must operate on the premise of the other as ‘it’. Our bodies are an ‘it’, a tree is an ‘it’, a rainbow is an ‘it’. Even among some of the so-called enlightened ones, Consciousness is an ‘it’. And with this ‘it-ness’ comes the split — good guys and bad guys, right and wrong, me and other. We’ve lost the living, breathing and therefore sacred, relationship to everything around us.
Recently I was speaking to a customer service person at a phone store. ‘I’m sorry, ma’am, the computer says you are not a customer.’ I pushed the receipt over the counter and said, but look, here is the receipt, and here I am, so obviously I exist as a customer.’
‘No,’ she said, ‘I am sorry, you do not exist; the computer says that you do not exist.’ She looked at me blankly, not even realising the ridiculousness of her statement. Regardless of the obvious fact that a real human being was standing in front of her, I, according to her and her computer, was an it. And it was not there.
Is this what life is coming to?
Martin Buber was an Austrian-born Jewish philosopher best known for his philosophy of dialogue, a form of religious existentialism centered on the distinction between the I – Thou relationship and the I – It relationship. In 1923 Buber wrote his famous essay on existence, Ich und Du (later translated into English as I and Thou). According to Buber, the ‘I’ in the ‘I-Thou’ is the ‘I’ that does not objectify any ‘It’ but rather acknowledges a living relationship instead. This relationship is not even dependent upon the other to know about, but is created and sustained by the ‘I’. And of course, as in all true relationship, there is a lot of listening.
It might seem easy to imagine an ‘I’ – ‘Thou’ relationship with our spouses, children or friends, or perhaps even a stranger. But what about our bodies, a plant, or a tree, or a forest. Or what about a system, like our children’s school. But to stretch even further, how about the things we really call ‘other’, like ‘the patriarch’ or ‘the corporations’ or ‘the medical system’ and ‘the government’. Imagine what could be possible if the allopathic and alternative medicines actually began to listen to one another. Imagine…
The clincher is, that ‘I’ – ‘Thou’-ness begins with ‘I’.
It’s not that listening is a cure-all. It doesn’t promise that everything will be healed and that life will turn out perfectly. But it does allow us to enter into the great Conversation — a place where we can tune into our true participation with all of life. Then we begin to see, miraculously, that everything before us is awaiting a conversation, waiting for us to pause and just take the time, and the faith, to listen.
You can read more of Kelly’s writing at EQUUS, here.