When Breathing is Listening


Annie Rim -Breathing is Listening6

A few years ago, I participated in a workshop about active listening. I assumed I was a good listener—I’m attentive, I look people in the eye, I nod along, acknowledging our shared experience. What I did not realize is that this is not, in fact, active listening.

Our guide paired us off and we sat facing each other, both feet planted on the floor, hands on knees, posture straight. We were instructed to look at our partner and listen to them respond to a prompt. While we listened, we could not make any facial expressions, nod our heads, or give affirmative hums. We had to simply listen. Listen without looking for connections, listen without acknowledging a shared experience, listen fully and openly.

What I learned during this exercise is that, while I thought I was fully engaged with others, I was actually looking to insert myself into their life. I was nodding along, showing that I agreed or empathized. In reality, I was making the listening about me, not about them. It was a counterintuitive experience, this practice of fully listening without response.

I don’t think there is anything wrong in looking for connection with others. By finding commonalities and shared experiences, we break down walls and barriers. Finding that link forges friendships and alliances that are important as we learn about others.

But it’s a balance. Especially when I’m listening to those who don’t have a platform or those who are sharing stories of oppression—stories in which I don’t have shared commonalities—I need to stop and actively listen. I need to stop nodding as though I understand and let their words wash over me. I need to ground my feet to this earth, place my hands on my knees, and give full attention to the experiences of my neighbors.

In our news, we see glaring evidence of racism, nationalism, and divide. We see hatred personified, we see actions and words that do not bring peace. As a white woman, I look at the news and I wonder, how do I amplify the voices of my sisters of color? How do I actively listen to the voices of the oppressed, of those who read these headlines with so much more grief and pain and history than I do?

In the moment, I look for their voices to retweet or share. I know my words are inadequate and that theirs need to be heard. In the long term, I know that this is insufficient. This momentary acquiescence only touches the tip of systemic oppression. How do I give them their place on the stage and at the table in a meaningful way, in a way that exemplifies partnership and solidarity?

In her new book Adopted, Kelley Nikondeha describes her experience with Burundian greeting, “Amahoro.” The word is much deeper than hello. Akin to shalom, it means peace and well-being. Kelley describes her experience of breathing in amahoro with her mother-in-law. Before starting a conversation, they would breathe in peace and humanity, continuing until it permeated their connection.

Stopping to breathe in a person’s peace and humanity before even beginning a conversation? That takes a certain amount of vulnerability that a handshake doesn’t offer. This breathing of peace and acknowledging the humanity in another is part of so many cultures—from namaste to aloha and shalom. Cultures have breathed in the holy personhood of their neighbors for millennia.

I was struck by this image because just a few weeks ago, a pastor at our church talked about YHWH, the unspeakable name of God. It is believed that the way you “say” it is similar to exhaling, meaning that God is in our breath. Our very breathing is the name of God. According to our pastor, it’s been so long since we’ve practiced this exhalation, we aren’t quite sure how it’s pronounced anymore. Or perhaps it’s that God is so innately with us, we breathe God in without conscious thought.

Our world is slowly inching toward reconciliation. In the meantime, what can I actively do to listen? What can I do to go beyond a retweet, to sit and breathe in my sisters whose lives are defined by overcoming oppression? Sometimes that takes face-to-face work, relationships that leave the online world and force me to ground my feet and look someone in the eye; to sit still, breathe in, and listen.

I’m learning how to amplify the voices of my sisters without losing my own. How do I actively participate and let others know that I stand firmly beside those who have been pushed to the margins? I’m learning that, as we breathe together and acknowledge our humanity, giving voice to others doesn’t mean losing my own—there is too much space at the table for that—but it does mean listening, really listening, to the experiences of others. It means exhaling the name of God as we breathe in the experiences and peace of our neighbors.