Learning to Listen

So, thirty years ago I used to present an eight hour long workshop on LISTENING. Think how much I’ve learned, myself, about listening in the last thirty years. Imagine how long the workshop will be now. Get a pot of coffee and settle back.

Only kidding. The workshop has been pared down to two words: BE QUIET. The first thing a good listener does is to stop talking. That is only a tenth of what makes someone a good listener, though. The problem is we may shut our mouth, but we activate our brain. If we want to be good listeners, we need to quiet the monkey chatter in our heads.

So a friend says, “I just read the best book.” Immediately we start with the questions: How much did it cost? Where did you get it? Do you think I’ll like it? Is it better than Shades of Grey? We derail our friend. Whatever was going to be said is forgotten as our friend starts to answer the barrage of questions.

A relative says, “Hey, I need your opinion on something,” and immediately we start thinking about what it could be: Is it a trap? What if it makes me look bad? What if the whole family finds out that secretly I’m agnostic? How am I going to get out of this? We have decided before we ever heard what was being asked that it was a set up, and we could only suffer if we participated.

A colleague asks if we could go to a meeting in his place, cover her shift, help with a project. Our first thought is ,”Why?” Our second thought is, “Why me?” Our third thought is probably, “What’s in it for me?” We have turned the listening inward and are only thinking about ourselves.

Actually, being quiet and not talking is easy. Turning off the chatter in our brains requires exquisite self-discipline. We have to stop judging, assuming, presuming, comparing, preparing, and believing that anything anyone could want from us is negative, nasty and not in our best interests. Ironically, most things people want from us have nothing to do with us. Just like most things people say about us have nothing to do with us. When we humans talk, we are almost always talking about ourselves. here are a few examples:

“You are too needy,” means: I can’t be bothered to meet your needs. (I’m too selfish and self-absorbed.)

“You’re wrong,” means: I do not have the ability to see more than one perspective. (I’m really limited.)

“You’re crazy,” means: I cannot find the compassion in myself to see alternative ways of thinking. (I am rigid and inflexible.)

The statistic is that 94% of everything any person says to you is about them, not you. Listening, really, truly, listening, requires a shut off valve which stops the rampant narcissism and opens up a pathway of possibility. We have to suspend our own agenda for a few minutes and simply listen. We have to let the words of others fall on the soft sand, not the jagged rocks. We need to absorb and taste others’ words, as we would a new food, not reject them out of hand.

Listening is about loving. We need to stop judging and open our hearts to the place of welcome. Welcome other opinions, other perceptions, other pieces of the puzzle. It is as if each of us looks at a large Bruegel painting — they were massive — about 20 feet long and ten feet high. Each of us has a one inch view. Yet we repeatedly and defiantly say everyone else’s view is WRONG. BAD.

We each see a part of the whole. If we put our perceptions together, imagine what a beautiful picture we could see. Imagine what a loving, compassionate world we could create. Imagine the joy, the safety, the warmth, the fun we could have if we only worked together. It all starts with learning to listen.

“When a man makes up a story for his child, he becomes a father and a child together, listening.” –Rumi

Blessings and peace, dear friends. Susan





March 16, 2018 at 10:04 AM Leave a comment


Aren’t you glad you don’t feel as bad all day as you feel at some points during the day? Aren’t you glad you aren’t always as angry as you are sometimes during the day? Aren’t you glad that the Facebook posts that make you cry, don’t have you crying all day long? Our feelings are fluid. They come, they go. They feel so darn real when they’re there, but then they fade. All our feelings fade — the positive and the negative.

They call it an emotional “state,” and I don’t know about you, but I zoom from Kansas to Maine to Colorado to Missouri at the speed of the Millenium Falcon. (Unfortunately, Chewy is usually the pilot instead of Harrison Ford. I’ll have to work on that.)

But, my point is that I am eternally grateful that the depressions which visit don’t stay, nor do the fears or the angers or the jealousies or the insecurities. The price we have to pay for that, of course, is that the delights and the pleasures and the triumphs don’t last either.

In “The Guest House,” my favorite Rumi poem, he describes our emotions as “visitors.” He says there’s “a new arrival every morning.” He suggests we welcome all the feelings and emotions we have. Entertain them, he says. “Treat each guest honorably.” He goes as far as to suggest that we laugh at our emotions and “invite them in.”

The poem ends this way:

“Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”

What a transformative way to look at our emotions: they are our guides. Our anger guides us into justice. Our fears guide us into caution and faith. Our depression guides us into compassion. Our grief guides us into gratitude.

Can you see how this can happen when we watch and welcome our emotions instead of hiding from them, denying them, anesthetizing them with drugs, drowning them in alcohol, or burning them up in smoke.

What makes you angry? A dog being chained up 24/7, a child being slapped, political decisions that harm our environment, megachurches…..the list is endless. But if we are guided by our anger, we’ll use that emotion to accomplish something. We’ll volunteer for the animal shelter, teach parenting classes, or support the Environmental Defense Fund. We’ll channel our anger into action for justice.

It’s the same with our other emotions. We can stay stuck in them, controlled by them, defenseless against them, or we can learn to watch them, observe the valuable roles they can play, and be guided into movement and purpose by what we feel.

I can’t promise that Rumi is correct and that our emotions have “each been sent as a guide from beyond.” I can promise, however, that if you adopt this philosophy, the idea that our emotions can guide us, you will find yourself turning traps into trails that lead somewhere.

May this be a week of learning to watch. May the watching bring us peace and fresh purpose!

Love, Susan


March 10, 2018 at 7:53 AM Leave a comment

The Dark Days

The weather is grey, wet, irritating, uninviting. “Crawl back under the covers,” the very air seems say.

The news is grey and miserable. Everybody hates everybody. Everyone wants to destroy everybody else. The things I see on the internet are touting “Humiliation,” “Crookedness,” “Collusion,” “Harassment,” “Abuse,” and SHAME, SHAME, SHAME. The republicans and the democrats are trying to outdo each other: Who can unearth the most dirt on the other? Who is worse, the idiot on one side of the table or the scumbag on the other side of the table? You must take a side. Sign your name, and donate, because if we don’t win this battle or this special election or this skirmish….the world will end. (And it will be your fault for not taking OUR side. The Right side. The Correct side. The Good side. The Logical, Wise, Responsible side.) Everything is in absolutes, and everything is dire. There is no small stuff for us to sweat.

I’m not sure where I would be with all this or what I would be doing were I not a year and a half into my two year study program with Richard Rohr. He, a Franciscan priest, like the Buddhists, the mystics of all world religions, the Native Americans and indigenous peoples of all continents, refuse to be reduced to either/or thinking and behavior. When someone, anyone, says you MUST do this or that, stop dead in your tracks and be suspicious. You are being seduced into dualistic thinking. You must be either a republican or a democrat. You believe either in God, or you believe in evolution. You are pro-life or pro-choice.

Can you see how we are being minimized and marginalized? We humans are not either/or beasts. We are capable of complex, beautiful contradictions and wide open options and choices. I’m a pacifist, and I hope never to own a gun or use one. However, if there was a boa constrictor slithering into the crib of a baby, I bet I could figure out really quickly how to use one and be very happy there was a gun handy. We are being forced into artificial boxes and categories which don’t suit our human nature at all. Can you feel it? Can you feel the stifling, stale air which keeps us from taking a deep, free breath?

Pay attention this week, okay? Listen for all the good/bad, right/wrong, logical/illogical, republican/democrat, pro/anti arguments which are airing around you and trying to cramp your wisdom and intuition. You know you are not simplistic and one-dimensional. None of us are. We are born to learn and study and grow and evolve. We are not born to stagnate and stiffen and give up.

These dark days can serve a valuable purpose if we let them. They can teach us to go inside and grow restless with the two-dimensional choices we are being coerced into making. This is a multi-dimensional world and we are multi-dimensional people. Laws and morals and ethics and values exist which lift us and free us to soar to new heights and depths and breadths of being. But, first, we must become aware of the cages we are unconsciously entering. Having to choose between two opposites is always a mistake. Always, forever, in every circumstance, there is a third, and fourth and infinite number of other options. Twenty-eight, my friend, Phil Hockwalt, used to say. When you think you have only two options, you always have at least twenty-eight.

Don’t let yourself shrink to fit into the small mindset of people who see only a or b. There are billions of alphabets of possibilities for us. Think big, much bigger. and think freely, much more freely. The only limitations that truly exist are those of our own imaginations. Listen to Albert Einstein:

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

The world needs us to open doors not close windows.

In love, peace, and infinite potentiality, Susan


March 3, 2018 at 9:20 AM Leave a comment

The Red SeeSaw

On the playground of Durham Elementary School was a red seesaw. You could not do a thing with it by yourself. ANOTHER was required for seesawing. Here we have a basic metaphor of life. It is not to be lived alone. You’ll never get off the ground if you try to go it alone.

Ah, but the metaphors don’t stop there. If you were seesawing with someone heavier — read “pushier,” “more controlling,” “more opinionated,” “demanding,” “narcissistic,” “unwilling to negotiate or compromise” — in other words, HEAVIER — physically, emotionally, intellectually — you were going to spend your time up in the air, feet not touching the ground, flailing, feeling out of control, at the mercy of the “heavier” person. For most of us, this would create a lot of anxiety.

If you were seesawing with someone lighter, a light-weight, someone willing to let you be responsible for all the work, someone “along for the ride,” you were going to bump your butt on the ground continuously. It was going to be difficult to get anything “off the ground,” including “you,” and your view of the world was going to be about as interesting as that of the average snake. For most of us, this would create a fair amount of depression.

Unequal relationships are not much fun, whether the relationship is two partners, a parent/child relationship, two friends, two siblings or any other two people who live, work, or talk with each other, or love each other.

Just like on the seesaw, there has to be some similarity, some symmetry, some symbiosis, or the relationship will have no life or joy to it.  The similarity, of course, doesn’t have to be in body weight, as it need to be for the seesaw. We can have emotional, spiritual, intellectual, physical commonality. But, in some way, we need to be kindred spirits. We need shared values, shared hobbies, shared passions, shared interests, or shared histories. But, we need something. Opposites attract, they say in sexual matters. Opposites also repel. Other than getting my car repaired, I don’t want to have too much to do with the guy at the garage who calls me, “The damn Yankee.”

Back to the seesaw. When we get on the seesaw with someone who is similar, we both go up in the air sometimes, we both land on the ground sometimes, and in between, we spend our time working on balance. Relationships are not static. They require constant rebalancing. Each member of the team needs time to shine in the sunshine and time to keep his or her feet on the ground, so the other team member can take a turn riding high.

Balance is the secret of a healthy relationship. I always have to smile when I see my daughters-in-law in the driver’s seat of the car. In my day, at least in my world, women didn’t drive if their husband was in the car. My mother would never have said to my father, “If we’re taking my car, I’m driving.” Neither of my grandmothers ever learned to drive. I also have to smile when one of my sons gets up from the table and starts doing the dishes. Equality and shared responsibilities around the house are much more prevalent than they were in past generations. But dominant/submissive relationships vastly outnumber healthy, balanced relationships. Imbalances of power are everywhere in the world, aren’t they? Unfortunately, power imbalances can only lead to tragedy.

Power imbalances result in the dominant, domineering person holding on to his or her power at any cost and by any means. The person with the lesser amount of power will grow resentful, secretive, cunning and devious to try to “unseat” the powerful. Revolution. History is full of them. Relationships collapse, divorces ensue, friendships die, families are estranged, and countries go to war. The pressure is on the person who has more than the fair share of power, and getting someone powerful to share the power is nigh onto impossible. When power is inequitable, it will be abused. The unempowered must be empowered. It happened for women through education. It has happened for racial and ethnic minorities through law.

Obviously, we are not going to change history or right the wrongs of the world. But, what can we do in our lives? When we are on a seesaw with someone, anyone, in any sort of fledgling or long-term relationship, what we can do is find the commonality which will lead to a balanced time on the seesaw.  My friend, Marsha, always makes it a point to call every clerk by name. “Thank you, Janine,” she’ll say. Or, “I really appreciate your help, Phil.” Its a small gesture which recognizes the shared humanity of clerk and patron. The calling of someone by name is a step toward a balance of power. I once saw my oldest son shake someone’s hand and say, “Isn’t that a Notre Dame ring?” and the stranger started right in as though he and Andy were long lost friends. When we step toward someone, show interest in someone we climb up on the seesaw with them.

The littlest look, smile, touch, acknowledgement can change a day or save a life. Literally, save a life. You’ve experienced it. You’ve been the giver and the receiver. Viva la balance!!!

Peaceful last days of February, my friends. Love, Susan

February 24, 2018 at 9:28 AM Leave a comment


You’ve seen children playing sports, dancing, singing, working on an art project, walking down a trail, listening to a story . . . and you’ve seen how differently various children respond to the same activity. What delights us all is that child who gets “lost” in whatever the activity is. This is not necessarily the child who is best at the activity. This is the child who is most in the “flow” of the song or the story or the hunt for insects in the dirt. This is the child who is not self-conscious, not looking for praise, not living in fear of criticism, but simply absorbed in the moment. This is the best description I know of “living in the true self.”

It’s easier for children, especially young children, to fall back into themselves. They haven’t been poisoned and punished and pushed into conformity. They haven’t been forced to color inside the lines, to sit with their legs together, to be aware of how they look when they’re playing. They can still connect with that sense of abandonment, freedom, ease. They haven’t been anesthetized into missing the present because they were too concerned about what was going to happen in the future.

Last week we talked about indicators that we are living in our “false self.” Our false self is the self our parents, teachers, society, and culture demanded we become. No matter how gentle or insidious the demands, the forces around us wanted us to be well-behaved, good at things, achieving successes, even in nursery school. “Your child was the first to pick up her toys and sit in the circle for story time,” says the teacher. “Wow, says the parent, good job, kid,” and a neurotically responsible child is born. It can be that well-meaning. The competition and comparison, the roles and rules, the standards and achievements become the way we identify and self-define.

Living in the true self means leaving behind everything that is not true for us. Some of that “imposed self” will fit. Most of it will not. Volumes have been written about the causes and reasons we leave our true selves behind. That’s fascinating to me, but not what we’re about here. This is just an introduction to the topic of false self/true self.

Here are some indicators you are living in your true self, being yourself, accepting yourself:

You have a sense of humor. You are able to laugh at yourself. You are able to laugh with others in such a way that they can laugh along because you have not been cruel or mean.

You walk with people, not ahead of them or behind them. The true self is not superior or inferior.

You are more selfless than selfish.

You have an ability to validate the differences. Someone who is different than you, in sexual orientation or skin tone, for example, does not threaten you.

You are merciful.

You are kind.

You can both give and receive.

You have integrity. You know what matters to you, and you neither shout it from the rooftops nor deny it when it is unpopular.

You are generous with your attention, your time, your resources, your praise, and your skills.

You are hungry to learn.

You are serene when alone or in a crowd.

You don’t miss much because you are living with your eyes and ears and heart open.

You are patient when things go your way, and when they don’t, as well as when people are thoughtless, think while driving, for example, or “bothering” you.

You are probably interested in conservation and things which are good for the planet and other people.

Obviously, the list could go on and on. You can feel when you are living from your true core and being authentic because you are as unselfconscious as we humans ever get. You are in the flow. One reason I have so enjoyed being a therapist is because when I am in the listening seat, I am not thinking about myself. I’m not thinking, “I need to say something clever now.” I am just, completely, listening.

Richard Rohr says that great love and great suffering are breakthrough opportunities for us to visit our “true selves.” Most of us don’t stay there, but visiting is refreshing. Sitting in silent contemplation or meditation is another chance to turn off the monkey chatter of judgment that diminishes us and often defeats us on a day to day basis. In contemplation, we simply sit by the river and watch it flow gently along. I usually sit by the ocean. On a good day, when the monkeys are busy chattering to someone else, I can actually get in the ocean and sometimes feel the dolphins moving the water beside me. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “When the wave realizes she is water, her fear disappears.” Then we know we are one. Then we have returned, even if just for a moment, to our true self.

Blessings and deep peace. Love, Susan

(I’d be happy to hear from you!)


February 17, 2018 at 9:36 AM Leave a comment


So, what is the difference between the true self and the false self?

A number of different answers leap to my mind.

Psychologically, the answer is straight forward: our true self makes decisions based on our internal, individual, intuitive wisdom. The false self makes decisions based on what we have been taught, what others have coerced us to believe and think, what our culture and society deem important, and what our families value. Some of these things will be coherent with our own true self. Many will not be.

A spiritual perspective also determines how we differentiate the true self and the false self. Do you believe that you were born to Be a certain person, to DO a certain sort of thing, to BRING INTO THE WORLD a particular gift or set of gifts. Do you believe you have a unique set of contributions to add to this planet? Don’t answer that too quickly. Are you different from other people? Did you arrive wired?

I, for example, arrived a sensitive, kind, right brained child. I was not gifted in math, as was the rest of my family. I was more expressive verbally than they were. I “wore my heart on my sleeve,” and they were more private, less emotionally reactive and receptive. My role in the family differed distinctly from the roles of everyone else. I was Little Mary Sunshine. I was the “sweet” child and my brother was the “smart” child. This is what I mean by “coming in wired.” The Myers/Briggs Personality Inventory helps us understand that people are differently wired. None is better than another. Each has it’s own benefits and its own problems.

Here is a list of some of the indicators of the false self. These are clues that we are working against our own nature and our own wiring.

You have a narrow view of anything. (Can’t see alternatives and options.)

You are easily offended.

You have a set field of expectations. (You think others “SHOULD…….”) One of the happiest days of my life was the day I realized no one else was as enthusiastic as I was. I stopped expecting others to match my level.

You are an angry person.

You are attached to ……. SORRY…… but, anything. As in I must have…….cleanliness? organization? my needs met by others? Starbucks coffee?

You are easily frustrated.

You label things as “right” or “wrong.”

You find yourself judging others.

You compete constantly — even if only in your mind.

You compare yourself to others. Alot.

You feel irritable and cranky.

You feel superior to anyone.

You feel inferior to anyone.

You are attached to ANY outcome. “If I can’t BE (the best), HAVE (the most)…….”

If you MUST be in control. Someone else suggests ANYTHING and your immediate response is NO. Either it wasn’t your idea, or you have to tweak the plan to add your own juice.

If you want success, adulation, high marks, winning, beauty, or any “best” of anything…….

If you feel you can manipulate anyone about anything. Even if you want to manipulate anyone about anything.

If you feel like you’re the judge, jury, and final authority.

This is a partial list of false self indicators, but it gets us started on our road to authenticity.

In the present circumstances of the planet earth, nothing, truly nothing, could be more vital than that each of us look inside ourselves and find the kernel of divine wisdom and guidance. Let us  commit ourselves to fulfilling — to the best of our ability– our unique and special and, perhaps, very small but necessary, role in this amazing drama of life on the Planet Earth.

Blessings and love from me to each of you!!  Susan



February 10, 2018 at 9:17 AM Leave a comment

Transforming Power to Empowerment

What’s the difference between being a powerful person and being an empowered person? Others judge whether we’re powerful, based on all sorts of societal criteria: job description – how many people do you have “under” you


Prestige (the best teacher at a community college is not considered as powerful as the best teacher at an Ivy League school)

Sphere of influence (does you family think you’re powerful? Your community? Your business? My aunt was CFO of a local hospital. Her younger brother was CFO of a major international corporation. Who was more powerful?)

You get the idea. Do we look powerful? Powerful men and women have a dress code. They have a friend list: other powerful people. You’re known by the company you keep.

Powerful people will self-identify as “powerful.”

Empowered people operate by different criteria. They are immune to the judgment of society. Some would say it is because they answer to a higher power. Certainly, that is true more often than not. But there are also many empowered people who answer simply to their own internal template of right/wrong, good/bad, acceptable/unacceptable. They have standards which they adhere to whether someone else is watching or not. These are often but not exclusively religious or spiritual standards.

Empowerment comes from knowing WHO you are, not what you are – not your title or role or address. Now this gets pretty murky because it is from others that we find our early – and sometimes ongoing –identity. It’s up to us to spend our lives sorting through which of the things people saw in us were truly us and which were masks or persona or roles we assumed because it was expected of us. This is a lifelong process, and it requires more courage and insight than anything else we’ll ever do.

WHO AM I? Powerful people will tell you who they are as described by what they do, who they know, how they spend their time, and where and with whom they hang out.

Empowered people won’t even talk to you about who they are. They are to busy being who they are. Can you imagine Mother Teresa being asked who she was? She’d be appalled and brush you off to get back to her women and children on the streets. Now she was, from all the stories I’ve heard, a powerful woman as well. Her power came from a very different place, though. It was internal. It was, in her case, I’d say, the power of righteousness. Apparently, she’d walk into any building in Calcutta and tell the owner she needed she needed his building and the date by which she needed it for her ministry, and it would be turned over to her.

You know powerful people and you know empowered people. The powerful people smell better, look better, talk better and stand straighter. The empowered people are quieter, smile frequently, would rather listen than speak, and are, as a group, curious, empathic and kind. The empowered have nothing to prove and nothing to lose. The powerful have everything to lose because their identity depends on others, so they have to keep proving themselves.

As long as we cling to the need to be powerful, accepted, respected, sought out, quoted, we are at the mercy of “the crowd.” In Bible stories “the crowd” was always the prevailing societal judgment. They were the ones who followed the law, the rules, the ordinances, whether they were equitable, universal, abusive, antiquated or cruel.

Interestingly, Jesus, like Buddha, Mohammed, and the wisdom teachers of all religions and cultures, said, repeatedly, “The law says . . . but I say.” Martin Luther King distinguished between the civil law and moral law. We each need to find and live by what our conscience and soul tell us is true. Truth, you know, is extrapolated because if it is true, it is always true. Truth, moral law, and wisdom teach us some pretty uncomfortable things. If it is true for me, it must be true also, in my moral and ethical code, for every other human. Power doesn’t like this. Empowerment is birthed from this.

If we are to embark on a journey of self-discovery, to find our real selves, to uncover the me I was born to be, we will have to do some soul searching. “The price for real transformation is high. It means we have to change our loyalties from power, success, money, ego and control to servanthood, surrender and simplicity.” Richard Rohr said these words, but the theme is repeated in the Tao Te Ching, the Bible, and, I am told, all the great wisdom traditions of the world. I haven’t studied them all. I have studied some poetry and I can’t find an exception – Rumi, Walt Whitman, Mary Oliver leap to mind as those who encourage this transformation poetically.

Peace and blessings, my friends, as we quiet down into the February stillness and let it lead us inward.

Love, Susan

February 3, 2018 at 7:54 AM Leave a comment

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