One of the challenges of listening is to hear what one is hearing. By which I mean to ask “Why do I hear those words in that particular way?” As a young dragon I was taught about listening by those who had been doing it for many centuries. they would tell me a story and ask me to tell them what I thought about it. Did it make me happy? Sad? Angry? At first I was allowed to say simple things like “That’s a sad story” because it was about something sad. As I grew older I was expected to hear the stories in the stories. So, if the princess as rescued from her tower, would she necessarily just be happy? At first I snorted loudly at this idea. “Of course she’d be happy. She’s just been rescued. Why wouldn’t she be happy?”Then my teacher would tell me to go away until I had learned to think properly. It took me a very long time to understand what I was being asked to think about. I only understood what he meant during my coming of age ceremony. (All dragons who want to become listeners are sent on a long journey to find a particular item that has been hidden for many centuries. This item then becomes our icon. We treasure it partly for its own sake but because it reminds us of the value of listening and hearing clearly.)
The point of this history is to say that as dragon listener, I have learned to hear what I say. So, I had a visitor recently who has come before on many occasions. I know their stories and will link them together for my guest.This often means making connections that had not before been apparent but which present themselves during our conversations. I recently made one of these links and surprised myself by what I said. “Did I say that out loud?” is a phrase I’ve heard used. I gather it conveys embarrassment, mock surprise, and similar feelings. I like that phrase. It sums up my conversation with this visitor. They left deep in thought. I stayed also lost in thought. We were both taken aback by what I said. When we next meet there will be a good deal of hearing the story in the story. I shall have to explain what prompted my comments. My visitor will talk about what they heard. Together we will create something new. Something that did not exist before we both shared our thoughts. It will be a challenging conversation. But a rich one. That is the joy of being able to listen well. It allows something new to born.
Contrary to popular belief, dragons don’t lay siege to castles, steal and ravish young maidens, scorch brave knights with our fire or eat our young ( or anyone else’s for that matter!) Mostly we it in our caves and talk. We chat with each other. We talk with our visitors. We listen. People come and find us. We try and say things that might be helpful. We listen more than talk. We sit quietly and speak slowly. (People do get worried when an eighty foot dragon moves quickly. And being a creature who breathes fire is not always helpful in social situations.) So, we sit quietly and wait for our visitors to come. Which they do. They come and go. We wonder about the manner of their coming and going. From this we learn a good deal about who is visiting us.
Some visitors come because “it’s good for them”. Some because they’ve heard that dragons are good listeners. But for some people coming to see us is complicated. Part of them wants to come. Another part does not. Some other part wants us to be useless. Then they don’t “have ” to come anymore. (And yet another part is terrified lest we are useless.) For these folk, being with us is difficult .So many conflicting voices all telling them something different.
It’s tempting to argue in theses cases. To justify why they should come and visit. To outline all the advantages.( I hear a slogan here. Something like “Accentuate the positive. Minimise the negative.” I must send that to our P.R. dragon. She might be able to do something with it.) Experience has taught us that this doesn’t help very much. So we carry on sitting and wonder with our visitors why they are so torn about being here. “It costs too much.” is common. “I don’t see the point.” is another. “Nothing is happening.” is popular. So we nod. Agree. Think about change and cost and being wanted. Or not. Slowly something becomes clear. The fear of being seen. Of having another hold a mirror and inviting me to see myself.
One of my visors was a monk. He commented that talking with me was like “Falling into the hands of the living God. Quite terrifying.” We spent a long time talking about this. It seems to link with an idea about being wholly seen. An experience he described as both wonderful and awful at the same time. “I wanted to run way and never come back. But also to stay here and never have to leave again.”
Having grown up amongst dragons I forget how we can seem to people. Eighty foot and two tons of a fire-breathing creature might feel intimidating. Yet our size is what protects our visitors. We know who we are. And how we might seem. Which only makes things more difficult for some people. Sadly.
As a dragon I’m used to people thinking all sorts of things about me. I allegedly breathe, fire, ice or poison. (Sometimes all together?) I’m a ruthless killer. A symbol of knowledge and wisdom. Something to be hated. Or loved. Or both. (I’m generally made into whatever shape suits a person or tribe at any given moment. As a young dragon I used to say ” But that’s not who I am.” Nowadays I’ve learned to sit quietly whilst the person or group in front of me dance around whatever they think I am. Eventually they stop long enough to take a look at what is actually in front of them. Then we can talk about why they thought I would eat them the moment they came into my den. Or deflower their young women-and men. But sometimes someone will visit me and sit and talk about things that are sacred. That have so much value that they cannot be spoken of. Except that they have to be spoken of to someone. The need to share these parts is overwhelming. Yet fear, shame, embarrassment all get in the way. So I become the place where those things can be spoken. I am invited into that place in a person’s soul where very few others may go.
I have had a few encounters like these in my time. I am entrusted with someones most important parts. When this happens I get the dragonish equivalent of goose bumps. All I can do is sit as quietly as I can. And listen. With my whole being. I end up holding my breath. Like seeing a baby being born. Or watching a very rare and wary creature. One tries to become invisible. I feel myself on holy ground.
Some of my visitors talk of a ceremony where everyday elements of bread and wine are transformed into something much greater. I understand what they mean. Ordinary words have to become a means of sharing something much greater than themselves. A visitor uses whatever means they have to let me understand something way beyond the words themselves. It is an awesome experience. For both of us. (I keep looking for burning bushes or similar!)
Encounters like this leave me amazed at the capacity of my visitors. Their capacity for wonder. For creativity. For gift giving..
I, too, am changed by these moments.
By now i should realise that so much of what happens when people come to see me happens at the edges. I prepare my den as best as possible. Dragons are not the most fastidious of creatures, it must be said. When one lives as long we do, it is easy to overlook the odd foible here and there. Over time i’ve tried to make the place look homely. No more pin ups of scantily clad elf maidens. Hide away the old suits of armour. Sweep up any old bones. Find at least one chair that suits my visitors. Generally do all the things the manuals say one should do. ((I recently came across a tome that gave the exact angle at which the chairs should be placed. And the distance between them. What is the world coming to? In my young day we were grateful not to be eaten by another dragon. Never mind being made to feel welcome! I’m getting old, clearly.) So, I make my den as comfortable and welcoming as I know how.
So what happens when people come to see me? Do the carefully placed chairs help then relax and talk about profound matters? Their psychic conflicts from their birth trauma? Their troubling dreams? no. What touches my visitors is being told to wait for two minutes. Or my finishing a session abruptly. Or being invited to sit down whilst I get ready. I sometimes wonder why i waste my time on arranging the chairs “just so”. Or finding “appropriate” pictures if these are all ignored. But as I am learning, it is what happens at the margins that touch so many important feelings. Having to wait a couple of minutes is a terrible reminder that I am separate from my visitors. That they are not the most important person in my world at that point. Being invited to “take a seat” can trigger furious rebellion. “Who are you to tell me what to do? I’ll stand. Thank You Very Much.” Finishing abruptly sends a visitor straight back to childhood and never feeling they were given enough time. All painful memories that we talk about. In my comfortable, clean den. With suitable furnishings. And the correctly places chairs. Maybe i should scrap all these trappings. Just make my visitors wait. And finish abruptly. We could use the time in between to talk about the weather. Or the new football season.
Think of the time and money I could save that way…
I’m quite comfortable in my den. If I’m not doing a bit of housework or something similar, I’m having visitors. They usually bring something with them Gold, precious stones. jewellery. All the things we dragons enjoy. They also bring another kind of treasure. Stories. (If there’s something we dragons love more than gold, it’s stories.) I love the stories of other lives. I hear the sadnessss; the delights,:the pains and the pleasures. The “big” things. The “small” things. They entrance me.
Usually I do the dragonish equivalent of sitting back in my chair with my eyes closed. Just listening to the music. The high notes; the bass and the treble. I also hear the dissonant notes. the sounds that jar and clash. Sometimes I’ll comment on them. Other times I just hear them. What I have come to notice is that I see some people with whom I cannot sit comfortably. If I sit straight I feel uncomfortable. If I lie back I feel uncomfortable. Sitting forward feels no better. I spend our time trying to fit myself to their needs. I find these people are the ones who are most wary of me. Will I eat them? Burn them alive? Seduce them? (Or all three!) They are the ones who cannot get comfortable in their own skin. So we spend our time mutually fidgeting and itching. Mostly we get over these difficulties. I can sit back and listen. They can sit back and tell their stories. Every now and again the itch is too much. Then they leave and find a different kind of dragon. One who suits their view of things better than me. Someone who won’t wonder about the itches but simply give them some “interventions” to allow them to cope better with their itching. Mmmm…
One of the advantages of dragon life is that one learns that “this too shall pass”. When one lives so long, one learns to be phlegmatic. Am I happy? “This, too, shall pass.” Am I miserable ? “This, too, shall pass. Am I rich? “This, too, shall pass”. I live in hope.These thoughts come from a conversation this week which was, essentially, about Hope .Someone came to see me and talked of how much effort they have put in over the years to keeping nihilism at bay. Were they to climb a mountain it would not count unless they had climbed Everest. Barefoot. Without oxygen. In a record beating time. And so on. It was not competitiveness per se. They did not want to be the best out of conceit or one-upmanship. They need to push themselves to their limit because anything less feels like failure. Thinking about this conversation I began to see that what was missing was Hope. Hope that they were loved for who they are. Not what they achieve. Hope that it was acceptable to simply go for a walk in the countryside and not climb Everest every time. (We are, as so often, back to Winnicott’s “good enough’.)
One of the meanings of Hope is that it is a piece of enclosed land e.g. in the midst of fens or marshes. Or a small enclosed valley especially the upland part of a mountain valley. This gives a picture of somewhere to rest, take refreshment. And to use this time to carry on with the rest of the journey. It is this experience that people find in seeing me. They can take their rest for a while. Gather their strength. Spend time with hope. Or in hope. Or so I hope…
If I’m interested in the ways in which my patients come in and leave, I’m also intrigued by how they use the space .The great majority of them fill the room with noise. After they have been with me for a while, some can sit quietly and Be. With me. And themselves. This takes a surprisingly long time. (It is easier for me. It’s my space and my task to listen.) But so many people come in and talk incessantly. They fill the room with sound. (I suspect they fear that I’ll consume them if I’m not permanently distracted. In truth I’m more likely to consume them as a way of insisting they be silent for a short time!) The other distracting element that so many people bring into my room are their dog packs .These come in all shapes and sizes. Little yappy ones. Big menacing ones. Pedigrees.Mongrels. Their purpose is to ensure that nobody gets near their owner. (Occasionally a patent realises they behave a pack of dogs surrounding them. All too often they look bemused when I point them out.) One of their tasks is to make it very hard for their owner to listen. The dogs create a hullaballoo which drowns out any silence. (I am occasionally tempted to send a gout of fire at them. Simply for the sake of peace and quiet.) After a time some of my patients trust me enough to leave their dogs outside. Which is sensible. The dogs can relax and chat amongst themselves .We can have 50 minutes together in which to think. And listen.And hear. The dogs can always be collected afterwards. If absolutely necessary…