06/02/2010 01:03 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Listening Is an Act of Love, a Melting Heart

I grew up on a farm in the "Great Valley," about 35 miles west of Philadelphia. My mother's favorite spot to perch was in the kitchen next to the stove where she put her feet up and did the New York Times crossword.

Many guests who came and went spent time with her there. One visitor was George, a nice young man who had some psychological problems and who had undergone numerous ECT (electro convulsive therapy) treatments. The result of these treatments was someone who kind of floated through life with no real meaning or goal and who was compromised in his communications with others. The doctors had given up on George and basically had left him to live out his existence in a harmless but meaningless way.

But not my mother. She served George tea and cooked him food and listened; day after day, hour after hour. For George, it was the first time anyone had spent that amount of time with him, truly listening and caring. So, George began to change and eventually started a small business cooking pastries and did quite well. No one could believe it, least of all the doctors. To my mother, she had done nothing special. To her, George was a "nice child" and the particular attention she gave was nothing special to her, just the way she was and perhaps the way she felt people should be with each other.

So often it is not this way. Generally, people love to talk, to impress and to impose their point of view on another. To listen more than a few minutes is difficult and we find ourselves tapping the table waiting till the other person finishes so we can set them right.

In the monastery in Japan, I was asked to the Roshi's quarters one day where he was entertaining a prominent German philosophy professor. Before tea was served,the professor was extrapolating(it seemed forever)about his ideas and published works. No one could get a word in edgewise. Finally, the endless dialogue was interrupted by the Roshi pouring green tea into the professor's cup, which he did slowly and artfully. The professor watched as the tea reached the brim and then overflowed onto the tray. But the Roshi kept slowly pouring. Exasperated and confused, the professor asked the Roshi to stop, which the
roshi did but not before the tea cup sat like an island on a lake of green tea.

The professor asked the Zen Master why he had poured the tea till it had overflowed and the Roshi answered, "The cup is like your mind -- full and overflowing with its own thoughts and importance. No learning can come into that mind until the cup is emptied."

The professor looked down at the tatami and was quiet and then listened to the Roshi speak of Zen and meditation and the subjects he had traveled to the monastery to understand.

Last weekend I went to my college 55th reunion. It was like others I had been to -- much pleasant banter, stories of past exploits and a genuine feeling of camaraderie. But this reunion was different, for half way through the weekend there was a memorial service for the 220 classmates who had died. We sat in a small auditorium and watched the screen on which appeared for eight seconds each, a photo of the face of the deceased classmate with simply his date of birth and death underneath. There was no spoken word, only soft choral and classical music as background. I knew perhaps two-thirds of my classmates. My three roommates all appeared on the screen: one dead at 31, one at 39 and one at 49. All three died from alcohol addiction.

The service lasted about a half-hour and when the lights came on people rose from their seats and many eyes were tearful. More than a few continued to sit silently. As I am writing this draft on Memorial Day I must add that although all of these men died in peacetime the feeling was akin to watching the photos of war veterans who had died in battle.

Death is a great equalizer. What I saw on the screen in each face was an eternal light in the eyes. The person was gone but was still here in a most meaningful way. I saw the hope in their eyes and above all the goodness that permeated their faces and flowed out from the screen. In those few minutes I learned more in my heart than all the philosophy and psychology courses I had taken at college which posed questions such as "why are we here, who/what are we, what is the meaning of our lives?"

For it struck me so cleanly and powerfully that what was and is most important, beyond all education, is how we treat each other. I had quiet misgivings of the number of those deceased classmates I never knew or tried to know simply because they were not in my group of friends. How many failed opportunities did I have to come to know someone that I discarded because of looks, clothing, race or simply because it was inconvenient. All these thoughts came to rest in my heart. The remaining time at reunion I made a real effort to speak with classmates I had not known during undergraduate days and I found some fascinating people and made some new friends. I thought of my mother listening to George and tried to do the same. It felt good and I think it was appreciated.

The words of my teacher, the Sufi Saint, M.R.Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, come to mind when I asked him the purpose of our lives:

"Have a melting heart and serve others with that heart. Almighty God lives within the compassion of a melting heart. Once you look within and conduct yourselves correctly, doing harm to no one, then you will become the children of God.

Then you will be able to give tranquility and peace to all lives, and you will know a state of peacefulness within.

No matter how much fruit a tree bears, the tree will not eat any of the fruit, but will give it to others. Such a person is like a tree:he will give his divine knowledge, his goodness, and his good qualities to others in order to make them peaceful. All the happiness that comes into his life will be dedicated to others in order to bring them peace."