THE LISTENER AS MIDWIFE
An Introduction to 'Maieutic' Listening
What I call ‘maieutic listening’ is a therapeutic listening praxis grounded in phenomenological research into the nature of the listening process. There are many questions still unasked regarding the nature and aims of psychotherapy, the role of listening in the therapeutic relationship, and, above all why the nature and psychology of listening as such still has no place in the theoretical or practical syllabus of different schools of psychotherapy training. Why, despite the central importance of listening in the practice of therapy and the therapeutic process, have phenomenological explorations of the therapist’s own listening process and praxis been neglected or marginalised? This essay introduces the philosophical background and ethical foundations of listening as a direct medium of therapeutic interaction, relating these both to the broad framework of ‘psychotherapy’ and to the practice of ‘bodywork’ therapies in particular. It is impossible, within the confines of this article, to give a complete account of the phenomenological foundations of maieutic listening, its developmental history and its results in psychotherapy. I will therefore concentrate to begin with on sketching its ethical and philosophical foundations. These are then fleshed out with an elaboration of key metaphors that link maieutic listening with touch therapies and bodywork. The metaphorical language that is employed should be understood not merely as the statement of a theoretical position, but an attempt to communicate in as resonant a way as possible new experiential dimensions of the listening process.
Maieutic listening has its principal roots in the thinking of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger and the relational ethics of Martin Buber. Heidegger’s influence on existential psychotherapy is well known, as is the influence of Buber’s work ‘I and Thou’ on person-centred counselling and integrative psychotherapy. Bringing the contributions of these two major thinkers together is not an easy task. Heidegger’s emphasis on the human being’s relationship to Being contrasts with Buber’s emphasis on the relational dimension of the human being and the relationships of human beings to one another. The former understood the essence of the human being as a relation to something that was not itself anything human - thus offering a fundamental challenge to humanism. Buber’s own recognition of the individual’s spiritual relation to a divine as well as a personal ‘Thou’ on the other hand, has been neglected in psychological literature. Both thinkers were insistent, however, that the essence of the human being could not be reduced to an object or ‘It’, whether it be called ‘the unconscious’ or ‘the self’, ‘libido’ or ‘energy’. Both thinkers also understood listening as something far more than a mere natural ability, communicative skill or empathic gift, realising that it was (a) the most basic expression of our capacity to relate to our inner being and other human beings, and (b) that it held the secret to wordless dimensions of meaning and being that can never be fully represented in words but communicate in a subtle and metaphorical way through the word (dia-logos).
The philosophical foundation of maieutic listening is the understanding of the human being as the human embodiment of a being that is not itself essentially human. This being is not a ‘person’, even the ‘whole person’, nor is it an inhuman entity or an impersonal energy, cosmic or divine. It is both the source of our humanity and personhood in all its aspects, and our innermost being. The whole human being is not the person - a partially or wholly integrated self or ‘I’, but a ‘We’ - a living relationship between the person and their inner being. It is the spiritual depth and intimacy of this relationship that determines the person’s capacity to listen and relate to others in an intimate way - not simply as human beings but as human expressions of their own inner, and larger being. Modern culture acknowledges only two types of intimacy - emotional intimacy achieved through talk, and physical intimacy through touch. Maieutic listening is the cultivation of a third mode of intimacy. This is a spiritual intimacy achieved through inner listening contact with others. It has the character of a direct and unmediated I-Thou relation, except that this relation is understood not in Martin Buber’s terms - as a relation of two persons - but as a relation of two people to their own and each other’s inner being. As a person I can only fully relate to the other as a Thou by first learning to relate to my own inner being as something other than my own ‘I’. By relating to it as an inner Thou. That is because our inner being cannot be reduced to an object or ‘It’ or even to an ‘I’ - an inner Self. For the nature of this inner or ‘core’ self is precisely that it is other than the self we know, and in this sense a Thou rather than an ‘I’. Only when our personal self or ‘I’ links itself to this inner Thou and forms an intimate ‘We’, do we become whole human beings - able to listen and relate to others as whole human beings. It is the relation between the ‘I’ and this inner ‘Thou’, the way they form - or do not form - a We, that is the focus of maieutic listening, and not just the person and their interpersonal relationships, past or present. The person’s individual relation to their inner being is essentially a listening relationship. It can be heard through their use of language and the way they talk about themselves, but it cannot itself be thematised or talked about - made into an object of literal language. It can however be sensed in a bodily way and understood in a feeling way through the basic metaphors of maieutic listening.
The term ‘maieutic’ comes from the Greek maieusthai - to act as a midwife. Listening, not only to others but to ourselves, is the midwife of speech. One peculiarity of the midwife’s role, however, is that she not only tends a person, the mother, but needs to attend and attune to a dyad, the mother and the spirit of the unborn child she carries or ‘bears’. The ‘We’ that can be formed between the ‘I’ and the inner Thou is comparable to the ‘We’ formed between a pregnant mother and her unborn child. As human beings we are born, age and die. Our inner being, on the other hand, though far from being a baby, is forever unborn. At the same time it is the fount of all our life potentials, potentials which can never be fully embodied or expressed in any one lifetime however ‘whole’ or ‘integrated’ we become. Maieutic listening distinguishes between ‘personality’, the way we bear and body forth these potentials, personifying them in word and deed, and ‘character’, our capacity to bear and embody these potentials in stillness and silence, allowing them to mature within us through a listening process. The aim of maieutic listening is the broadening of personality and the deepening of character, not only the emotional integration of different sides of our personality, but the deepening of our inner relation to their ever-pregnant source. Deepening character means learning to continuously bear the true weight and wonder of our inner being, just as a pregnant mother bears the weight and the wonder of the baby growing within her. But just as being pregnant, despite its discomforts and symptoms is essentially distinct from being ill or giving birth, so is bearing essentially distinct from repressively containing, cathartically evacuating or passively ‘suffering’.
The relation between suffering and bearing is at the heart of many of humanity’s deepest religious metaphors, in particular those Christian metaphors to do with the birth of Christ from the Virgin as the fleshly incarnation of the Father. The confusion between suffering and bearing, healing and giving birth is the source of those misconceived forms of psychotherapeutic practice that seek a conquest of human suffering which alleviates all need for bearing. There is a pseudo-Christian and evangelical theology at the heart of such practices, holding out the promise of a final triumphant birth or rebirth of the personal self or ‘I’ in which the inner Thou is subsumed and disappears - for its human potentials are now fully realised or incarnate. Such an incarnation of the realised Self would abolish the tension of an ongoing relation to the inner Thou, to others and otherness. This stance, however mistaken or inaccurate in strict theological terms, is reflected in all sorts of ways in the self-understanding of psychotherapy and its aims, which focuses one-sidedly on the importance of emotional ‘labour’ or ‘work’ and what this work can give birth to (albeit with accompanying labour pains) rather than on the ongoing tension of bearing what is as-yet unborn and giving it time to ripen and mature in silence. Both talking and touching therapies, analysis and bodywork reflect theology, sharing a common language to do with ‘working on’ and ‘working through’ issues, ‘bringing up’ buried memories or blocked energies, ‘releasing’ psychological and bodily tensions. Crudely exaggerated, this is comparable to a type of midwifery in which the whole nine months of pregnancy were of no consequence, and it was believed that delivery could, with the right skills and techniques, be facilitated at any time. How much of therapeutic practice is in fact a type of gentle but nevertheless premature and in this sense forced attempt at delivery by the midwife? More importantly, how much does it collude with the client’s own fear of what is still pregnant within them, their anxiety to name and objectify it, abort or cathart it - in a word, their desire to deliver themselves of it with the aid of the therapist qua midwife?
The relation of mother and foetus is a relation between a self giving birth and the self yet to be born. Through the metaphorical language of bearing we can understand the inner Thou as the non-human or spiritual ‘father’ of this self, able to fertilise the seeds of change planted by life experience and events. The ‘I’ or personal self is its human mother. The body its psychological womb. The foetus is its felt presence within that womb. When we allow ourselves to feel feelings that previously seemed unbearable, we become mothers to ourselves, able to bear these feelings in the womb of our bodily experience, and give them time to mature. When these bodied feelings begin to transform our felt sense of who we are, we give birth to ourselves. From the point of view of the mother self, the birth process is like dying - an experience of releasing the body from the hold of the personal ‘I’ and releasing an infantile self from our bodies. From the point of view of the self that is born, however, the birthing process is quite the opposite - an experience of incarnation in which we enter our bodies in a new way or feel an older, more mature self come into them. This self is an incarnation of the father in the body of the mother.
Therapists who are trained only to facilitate and respond to the client’s speech but who are unable to bear the pregnant silence that precedes, follows or pervades this speech are not listening therapists in the true sense, however empathically responsive they may be. Such therapists will rely on their own training to provide them with a framework of theoretical knowledge and technical skills for understanding and ‘working on’ the client’s issues. For them, listening will be understood merely as an important and necessary prelude to providing some sort of helpful therapeutic response, whether in the form of talk or touch, verbal intervention or bodywork. The model is simple: the client talks freely, the therapist listens and responds ‘empathically’ to the best of their ability and in a way that conforms to their professional training. What is missing in this model is an understanding that what a client says and the way they say it is already a response to the way the therapist is listening - to where they are listening from and what they are listening for, to wavelengths of empathic attunement that are available to them and those which are not, to their patience or impatience as listeners, and above all, to their acquired ways of construing what they hear, something which is often anticipated in the client’s speech. A therapist who is unaware of how they are listening and of their own listening process cannot distinguish their own inner responses and perceptions from responses and perceptions acquired in the course of their professional training. In other words, they cannot distinguish what they hear from what they have been trained to hear, and the ways they have been trained to construe their own perceptions. Nor can they distinguish their own inner responses to a client, from the ways they have been trained to interpret these inner responses and translate them into outer responses. Above all, they may be quite unaware that their inner listening response to a client communicates quite independently of whatever words they dress it in or whatever outer responses they give or do not give. Alternatively, they may be very well aware of all this, and yet find it a source of anxiety and troubling unclarity about what is really going on in the therapeutic relationship. Part of this anxiety may itself be a product of their training, above all where the latter does not give a central place to understanding the nature of listening and the listening process, and reinforces common myths about it.
Inward listening is what gives us time to feel our feelings in a wordless and bodily way, without needing to release, express or repress them, indeed without even needing to name or reflect on them. Naming and discussing feelings in words, on the other hand, turns them into felt thoughts, feelings we interpret mentally as being about something or towards someone. It is not feelings per se, but emotionally charged thoughts that we express or repress, fight or flee from, or get so stuck in that we freeze emotionally, cutting ourselves off from all bodily feeling. Most forms of counselling and psychotherapy share a culture of ‘emotional literacy’ which encourages people to name and describe their feelings - to talk about them. This culture appears to run counter to the ‘intellectualisation’, ‘acting out’ or ‘somatisation’ of feelings. In practice, however, it can represent a type of imperialism of the intellect, for asking a client to name or describe a feeling demands that they intellectually detach from it, turning it into an internal mental object. At the same time it transforms the bodily feeling into a felt thought - a feeling ‘about’ or ‘towards’ an object. Talking to someone about our feelings is quite different in principle from speaking to someone in an authentic way - speaking with feeling and from our feelings. Authentic speech communicates feelings through our words and body language rather than trying to define and represent them in words or express them in physical gestures. Talking about feelings is like talking about music. We are limited by the vocabulary of the ‘emotions’ such as ‘hurt’ or ‘disappointment’, ‘anger’ or ‘joy’, a vocabulary which can never do justice to the full range of our feeling tones and what they themselves communicate - not verbally but musically. The paradox of psychotherapeutic discourse is that far from generating emotional ‘literacy’ it can easily result in an impoverishment of emotional language. More importantly, getting a client to talk about their feelings can prevent them from speaking with feeling about the issues that really concern them.
A poet seeking to communicate their intense feeling experience of a landscape does not write about their feelings but about the landscape itself. Nature itself provides the poet with a rich metaphorical language for communicating their feelings, a language far more apposite and less limited than a literalistic language of named and labelled emotions. Similarly, speaking with feeling about the issues that concern us we are less limited by the vocabulary of the emotions - the issues themselves provide a far broader range of implicit metaphors. Ultimately, the difference between a purely intellectual discourse and a speech imbued with deep feeling has nothing to do with the topical focus of that discourse (e.g. whether it is about feelings or not), but with the type of listening that is midwife to it. Feeling speech is reflective, meditative speech - listening speech. A feeling speech, rooted in inward listening, is also a genuinely thoughtful speech - one that listens inwardly for the apposite words and metaphors rather than relying on stereotyped language and thought patterns. The new and more profound thoughts and insights that lie pregnant in our feelings cannot be brought to expression by merely naming those feelings in words. They must first be given time to incubate and gestate. Listening is what grants us time to feel our feelings in a wordless way, to incubate the thoughts that are pregnant within them, and find the words that will truly communicate them.
The aim of maieutic listening is to create the conditions for a feeling and thoughtful speech and therefore also for a genuine listening dialogue in which feelings are communicated dia-logos - ‘through the word’ rather than in words. The basic inner discipline of maieutic listening is the withholding of the spoken word, not just while another person is speaking but before and after they speak. It is through this discipline that we strengthen our capacity to bear with others in silence, sharing with them the task of bearing the feelings that lie pregnant in silence. The basic inner stance of the maieutic listener is a stance of forbearance. Forbearance does not mean stoically tolerating, containing or ‘suffering’ difficult and intense feelings but giving them time to mature and bear fruit, giving birth to new insights and a new sense of self. To embody this stance however, means not merely being aware of feelings ‘in’ our bodies but having the courage to feel them with our whole body - to body them. Bodily feelings that we experience as independent ‘energies’ arising in a part of our body, feelings that disturb our minds or express themselves as discomforting somatic sensations and symptoms are feelings that we have not yet fully bodied, fully identified with in a bodily way. But when we allow ourselves to feel the feeling with our whole body then it ceases to be a purely bodily feeling. We feel - not the body or mind. Then we do not need to contain or release, express or repress our feelings because they begin to change us, altering our sense of self and changing into other feelings as they do so. The work of the maieutic listener, the work of forbearance, is a work of bodying feelings. It is therefore essentially a bodily work or ‘bodywork’, but one of a quite different character to the type of therapeutic work that normally goes under this name. The latter takes as its starting point the experience of emotionally charged ‘energies’ in a part or parts of our body, and aims at the release and expression of these emotional energies which are otherwise thought of as being ‘trapped’ or ‘blocked’ by emotional armouring.
Maieutic listening understands feelings not as ‘emotional energies’ but as pregnant meanings, meanings which we are not yet able to communicate, because to do so we must first allow ourselves to feel them. The less we are able to feel these meanings with our whole body and whole self, the more we experience them as emotional energies connected with a part of ourselves and felt in a part or parts of our body. The word energy derives from the Greek energein - ‘to work’. To talk of working ‘with’ or ‘on’ someone’s energy is therefore somewhat tautological. But if the therapist is able to listen with forbearance, to help the client bear their feelings by bearing them with the client, then the therapist’s listening will indeed work in quite profound ways. Released from the need to repress or express, contain or evacuate their feelings, yet sensing that the therapist is prepared not only to acknowledge them but to share in bearing them, the client’s bodily defences will begin to relax without any direct touch or ‘bodywork’. The therapist’s capacity to body these feelings without rigidifying or contracting, without catharting or acting out, without turning them into mental objects or manipulating them as bodily energies, will help the client to feel safe. The therapist will be silently modelling - embodying - a different way of being with and communicating feelings, one that the client will sense in a bodily way and begin to learn from.
Maieutic listening is not a set of ideas about human suffering and its causes, nor a set of techniques for overcoming it, but an inner stance or ‘bearing’ quite distinct from that cultivated in both analysis and bodywork, existential and integrative psychotherapy. It requires a deep and mature capacity for forbearance, to bear with others in silence, whatever the intensity of feelings that lie pregnant in this silence. And yet it is this alone that helps others to feel their feelings in a bodily way - to bear and body them. Doing so transforms their suffering into a new inner bearing on life. By this I mean a new bodily feeling of who they are, one through which they both discover and embody new aspects of their inner being. Many people come to therapy because they want desperately to change the way they feel, but do not know what it means to be changed by their feelings. Talking about feelings and searching for their meaning is one way of distancing ourselves from them, making sure that what we feel does not affect our sense of self - who we feel ourselves to be. The very formula ‘I feel X’ implies an unchanging subject or ‘I’ whose identity remains the same whatever this ‘I’ feels. But the meaning pregnant in a feeling is nothing that can be teased out by psychoanalysis. Instead it has to do with the way this feeling can alter our sense of self in a quite bodily way - if we allow it to permeate our bodies. Change does not result from insight into feelings. Insight accompanies or follows a felt bodily sense of becoming other - a transformation in one’s bodily sense of self. Maieutic listening is therapeutic listening because it is transformative listening - listening which changes both therapist and client. It is not merely a prelude to finding some sort of therapeutic response to the client that will then ‘help’ the client to change. The therapist’s own embodied presence works quite directly on the client, helping them to feel a bodily link between their outer, personal self on the one hand, and the felt but as-yet unborn potentials of their inner being on the other. Their attunement to the client’s inner being is an attunement to an as-yet unheard and silent voice. In listening to the client, the therapist is aware that the voice that speaks is one voice only, and beneath it is a deeper more authentic voice. If a client begins to embody important changes they will begin to speak from a different place within themselves and in a different voice - a quite different matter from merely thinking or talking about themselves in different way. One of the paradoxes of the change process is that the voice that announces changes and talks about them is often the voice of the unchanged self. When someone says ‘I have changed’, the ‘I’ is often that of this unchanged self, one that still has not fully identified with the changes it reports, but keeps them at a distance by objectifying them. Just as the midwife attunes to two selves - a self giving birth and a self being born, so is the maieutic listening of the therapist sensitive to the twin voices of the client - that of the self that is changing and that of the changed self. Whenever a change has been completed, the individual no longer has the same need to speak about this change in their old voice - instead he or she will embody the change, speaking from their changed self rather than about it. The new place they speak from is a new inner bearing with its own inner tone and vocal resonance. The therapist will hear the changes in tone and language that signal the birth of this new voice. If not, it is all the more important that the therapist remains attuned to a voice that is as-yet unheard, one that fully embodies the changes desired - or already described - by the client.
Listening maieutically, the therapist’s whole physical bearing will embody and communicate a different way of being with others - a capacity to meet and be met, touch and be touched, address and respond to other beings on a ‘core’ level, quite independently of any physical touch or verbal talk. Making contact with the client as a being means more than establishing a good professional rapport with the person. A good interpersonal rapport can exist even where there is no real meeting of beings. For this to happen the therapist requires a deep groundedness in their own being, and an ability to inwardly lean or list their being towards the client - to list-en. What I call core contact with others is not made with the body but only through it. The fact that I look at your eyes, communicate feelings or exchange emotional signals through them does not mean that I make genuine eye contact - that I see you rather than your physical eyes and their emotional radiance. To do so I must be fully present in my own gaze, not only as a feeling human person but as a spiritual being. The fact that I listen to you with my head and my heart does not mean that I hear you - the inner being or Thou. To do so I must be fully present to myself, in touch with my own inner being, and attuned to its inner voice. When a woman is pregnant she learns to adjust her physical posture in order to accommodate her increased weight and enlarged belly. Her centre of bodily awareness lowers itself to the belly region, in response to its weight and the pull of gravity. Listening maieutically means allowing ourselves to respond to the gravitational pull of deep feelings, lowering the centre of consciousness from the head or the heart to what we call the ‘guts’ and what the Japanese call hara. Hara is not only our body’s physical centre of gravity but its spiritual centre of gravity too - the place of deep inner silence where our embodied human self meets the inner human being. After birth we are no longer in the womb. But whether male or female there is a womb within us. This is the inner womb of silence, filled not with amniotic waters but with tones of silence - the fluid medium of feeling tone. The umbilical cord reaches deep inside the womb to the body of the foetus. Listening maieutically feels rather like extending an umbilical cord to a still point of silence in the belly - the hara - entering that silence and allowing it to inwardly expand like a womb. In making core contact with others it can feel as if there is an invisible fibre of energy issuing from a point just below the navel. This fibre is extended by our intent. We attend to a person, their words and body language, their thoughts and feelings. To make core contact with another being we must intend them - mean to hear the being and not just the person. In doing so we extend a tendril of intent that reaches out towards them from the still point of silence within the listening body, touching them not from without but from within. Core contact, whether through the ears, eyes or hands, through hearing, sight or touch, is always in its essence an inner listening contact. It is analogous to the midwife’s use of a stethoscope placed on the mother’s belly, forging as it does a type of inner umbilical contact which allows something - or rather someone - to be heard.
When we speak metaphorically of being ‘touched’ by an event, ‘holding on’ to someone, or having a ‘broken heart’ we are not simply using bodily metaphors - body language - to describe emotional states. Nor are we speaking literally of the physical body. We are speaking of a body - a metaphysical body. The metaphysical body is the soul body or psychic body - the body that is touched by an event because it means something to us. Conversely, a soul is nothing more nor less than a being capable of meaning something. A computer can give us information but it does not mean anything with that information nor does it mean the being it gives it to. Human beings are capable of meaning someone as well as meaning something - intending another being. The metaphysical body is the body of meaning, the body with which we mean and feel meaning. Emotional energy is the physical ‘working’ of meaning. The physical body is a living biological metaphor of the metaphysical body - our body of meaning. Meaning, conversely, is metaphysical energy - the direct energy or ‘working’ of intent. To touch a person’s body with the intent to ‘work on their energy’ is not the same thing as to intend to touch the human being. ‘Working on their energy’ may affect the person but it will not necessarily touch their inner being. But if our intent is to touch a being and not just their physical body, this intent will itself work metaphysically, and be experienced energetically. When we touch someone’s flesh we feel its contours, warmth, and texture. For a sensitive masseuse, feeling another person’s body allows them to receive a message, tells them something about the human being. But their touch also bears back a message to this human being. Massaging is also messaging. It has a re-lational dimension, in the original sense of this word, which means ‘to bear back a message’. The way we listen to what someone says also bears back a message - says something to them and touches them. Listening is not just the way we understand what someone means - the message they are conveying to us. It is a way of meaning something to them, conveying a message to them. It is not merely a passive or receptive mode of verbal communication. It is an active mode of silent, wordless communication - ‘core communication’ based on core contact.
Just as we convey countless wordless messages to others through our tones of voice, so do we also convey messages through tones of silence - the tones of our listening. Feelings are essentially tones of being, embodied in muscle tone and expressed as vocal tone. Feeling tones have an intrinsically relational character, for they are also the very wavelengths of attunement by which we connect with other beings. Every listener not only enters into a greater or lesser degree of resonance with the feeling tones of others. The listener also sets a tone in the very act of attuning to others on a particular wavelength - one which may be more or less in resonance with the basic feeling tone of the other. In maieutic listening, the therapist is aware that the silent tone of their listening is something they can actively modulate, and that like a person’s tone of voice it serves as a ‘carrier wave’ on which subtle messages ride. The maieutic listener is aware too, that the subtlest modulation of their ‘inner voice’ - the tone of their listening - bears its own message to the client, attuning the client to themselves in a different way. A useful analogy here is sonar. Through the tone of our listening we can ‘sound out’ and search the soul of another, but in doing so we also touch them in a tangible, bodily way with the specific vibrational tone of our listening. Maieutic listening can be described as a form of ‘inner voice communication’ that is at the same time a medium of ‘inner vibrational touch’.
‘Feelings’ are something we ‘have’. Feeling is something we do - as when we feel an object with our hands. In doing so we also touch that object. In touching another with the tone of our listening we not only become sensitive to their ‘feelings’. We feel the other, and thereby also touch them with the tone of our feeling awareness. Just as a rough or gentle tone of voice will touch the other in a rougher or gentler way, so does every modulation of the amplitude, tempo, tone and timbre of our inner voice - the tone of our listening. We can learn not only to experience listening as a medium of inner messaging but as a type of inner touch or massage.
Just as we can feel massaged by the mellowness of a person’s outer voice so can we feel massaged by the inner voice of a listener. Just as our bodily voice has its own tonal range, so does our inner or listening voice. The whole art of maieutic listening lies in learning to actively modulate the inner tone of our listening, in the same way that we might modulate the tone of our outer voice. Many therapists are aware of the tone of voice they adopt with clients, the messages this may convey and what it may indirectly reveal of their own unspoken thoughts and feelings. They are generally far less aware however, that these private and personal thoughts and feelings also communicate directly and wordlessly to the client. They do so by riding on and modulating the tone of their listening voice in the same way that spoken words ride on and modulate their speaking voice.
Whereas our speaking voice has a limited range, the tonal range of our listening voice is not limited. By entering the still point of silence, we can attune to unutterable tones of being far deeper than those connected with the personal self and its surface emotional responses to others. The maieutic listener first of all seeks attunement to this ‘fundamental tone’. Anchoring their listening in this deep and primal tone of their own being is what allows them to make core contact with the inner being of others. The vocal communication that goes on between client and therapist, together with the interpersonal and emotional interactions it expresses, are then both experienced as echoes and translations of a yet deeper contact and communication.
The discipline and basic stance of maieutic listening, that of withholding outward responses in order to bear with others in pregnant silence, is what allows the therapist to make contact with the client on a core level, bearing back their inner responses to the latter as messages borne on tones of silence. Those messages communicate to the client on a core level, and may be experienced as a type of inner vibrational touch or massage. The aim and value of maieutic listening lies in helping others to body their own feelings and the unborn aspects of their being that lie pregnant within them. For the listener themselves, however, adopting the maieutic stance means ceasing to identify with their personal self, the mask or ‘persona’ through which they normally respond (per-sonare - to sound through). This personal self is not merely a set of strong psychological identifications. It is the body of all those mental and emotional, organic and muscular reactions which work together in the activity of speech - the speaking body or ‘personality’. The purpose of withholding is to disidentify from the ordinary personality and speaking self. The bodily experience of entering the maieutic stance is one of temporarily letting go of this self and its body - dying to it - and letting all its emotional and muscular reactions die down and die away. We let the speaking body die away and die down towards the core of our being. This in turn brings about a temporary inner relaxation or ‘melting’ of what Reich called ‘character armouring’, something which the personality itself, the speaking body and its mask, constantly serves to reproduce and reinforce.
‘Spirit is a fundamentally tuned, knowing resolve towards the essence of being.’ (Martin Heidegger) Maieutic listening has a deeply spiritual character, being a resolved and intentional attunement to the fundamental tone of our own innermost being. Our ego and personal self are not surrendered in entering the basic spiritual bearing or posture of maieutic listening. Instead it is our own ego which must knowingly resolve to intend such a posture - to both maintain the discipline of withholding and to attune and ‘in-tend’ our Inner Thou. It is our ego in turn, that is spiritually strengthened and transformed by this process, moving from what Melanie Klein called the ‘paranoid-schizoid’ position to the ‘depressive position’. From an existential perspective, the ‘paranoid-schizoid’ position is the position from which our ego adopts an I-It relation to both our bodies and our inner being, turning both mind and body, sensations and feelings into external or internal objects that we own as ‘self’ or disown as ‘other’. The contrast between this position and the depressive position was well described by Winnicott as a contrast between ‘reacting’ (what bodyworkers call the ‘startle’ response to external impingements) and ‘going on being’. The movement from ordinary listening to maieutic listening is a movement from a listening in which the ego descends from the paranoid-schizoid position and sinks to a ‘depressive position’ - one grounded in its inner being. A movement from reacting and acting out to ‘going on being’, from seeking an external response to others - something to do or say - to feeling our inner responses and bodying those responses, from a hearing shaped by the verbal mind and speaking body to a listening which is tuned to the ear of our inner being and embodies its silent voice. This movement is, I believe the healing essence of the depressive process.
In ordinary interpersonal communication, lack of outward responsiveness, and the avoidance of eye-contact with others is taken as a sign of unresponsiveness or even pathology. In therapy too, the warm, spontaneous and ‘responsive’ practitioner is often counterposed to the cool, analytic one. The maieutic stance is based on the understanding that true inner responsiveness depends on our capacity not to react immediately when someone has finished speaking, but to give ourselves time to fully heed what has been said and give it a second, more inward hearing. The therapist’s inner hearing can in turn generate a type of inner sight or ‘in-sight’, but only if their gaze is an inner listening gaze, not one directed at the body or eyes of the client. Silent and sustained eye-contact with a client can indeed be a most powerful medium of core contact and communication, yet this is not always appropriate to the therapeutic relationship. For just as eye-contact is most powerful when it is silent, not accompanied by speaking, so is ‘ear contact’ most powerful when it is not accompanied by looking. One of the biggest obstacles for therapists in learning how to listen maieutically is the habit of looking at a client whilst listening to them, whether or not the latter meets the therapist’s gaze. This turns the client into a specular object, whilst at the same time preventing the therapist from turning their own gaze inward and learning to contact and hold the client in the inner gaze of their listening intent. Only through withholding and holding the client in their inner gaze can the therapist’s inner listening become a type of inner sight - one through which they not only hear but behold the client in a new way.
‘Thinking is a listening which brings something to view…something one can hear. In doing so it brings into view what was unheard (of).’
The practice of maieutic listening prepares the ground for a special type of intuitive perception or in-sight. Its basis is the listener’s ability to turn their gaze inwards, withdrawing energy from their bodily eyes and peering into the darkness within their souls, as if they had their eyes closed. By not focusing visually on the client’s body or face, the therapist can listen more effectively with their own body, hearkening to the silence beneath their words and sensing in a quite physical way the relationship between an individual’s speaking body and personality and the silent inner core of their being. The in-sight that the listener then develops is not like the physical perception of an object but is a feeling perception of this fundamental relationship. If, at the same time, the therapist is also able to let images arise of the objective situations, events and relationships that the client describes, it becomes possible for them to enter and dwell within these images as within a dream. The maieutic listener ‘sleeps’ into the speech of the other, not only in order to share the person’s experience of the event or relationship, but in order to feel it from the perspective of their sleeping inner being. The type of perception that then develops can be compared to the unborn child’s experience, from within the womb, of events experienced by the mother during pregnancy. The extent to which an individual is able to stay in tune and in touch with their inner being in their everyday life and relationships is comparable to the mother’s ability to stay in touch with her baby during pregnancy. Just as the baby in the womb is invisible and inaudible to physical perception so is the client’s inner being. The midwife must come close to the mother’s belly to hearken to the baby within, or use ultrasound scans to see it. But the maieutic listener can develop an inner picture of an individual’s relationship to this being by (a) listening closely to the way the person speaks about themselves whilst at the same time hearkening to the being that speaks through their words, and (b) by attending closely to the verbal picture they give of different events and relationships, whilst at the same time feeling their way into these pictures. This feeling in-sight will in turn generate intellectual insights. These do not take the form of borrowed psychoanalytic metaphors such as those used to ‘interpret’ dreams, but of metaphorical images - images which, like those of our dreams themselves, require no interpretation, for they are precise interpretations of directly felt comprehensions.
Maieutic listening is an attunement to what Buber called the ‘interhuman’ dimension of meaning, the open and inexhaustible realm of shared human questions - ‘we’ questions - which each individual experiences in their own personal way, as ‘I’ questions. Many therapists, on the other hand, are concerned to separate their own process from that of the client. Because of this, there is a constant need to translate what goes on between therapist and client into something going on ‘in’ them or in the client, to translate ‘we’ questions into ‘I’ or ‘you’ questions, ‘we’ feelings into ‘I’ or ‘you’ feelings. Unexpected and unfamiliar ‘I’ feelings experienced by the therapist need then to be explained as transferred ‘you’ feelings belonging to the client - as the client’s rage or sadness, not mine. The practical need for these concepts of transference and counter-transference comes from seeing feelings as the private property of the personal self, as internal objects which can be owned or disowned, exchanged or transferred. This view makes it difficult for the therapist to hear and acknowledge echoes of their ‘own’ feelings and questions in those of the client. But without hearing these echoes they cannot acknowledge the meaning that their own way of relating to these shared issues might hold for the client - and vice versa. Whenever a significant relationship is formed between two people, it is because they embody and express certain unborn aspects and potentials of each other’s being. This is where the meaning of human relationships lies. The meanings we communicate in speech are expressions of what we mean to one another in this deeper sense - a meaning that has to do essentially with what we are for one another, the aspects of ourselves we find embodied and expressed in others. Quite independently of any processes of ‘transference’ or ‘counter-transference’, therefore, the personality and character of the therapist will mean something to the client and vice versa. Understanding this makes it impossible to separate listening and being; how a therapist listens from who they are and how they embody and express their being. A therapist may be aware of familiar experiences, feelings, issues or aspects of themselves ‘reflected’ in the client, and as a result feel either more or less comfortable in working with them. Maieutic listening, on the other hand, not only requires an awareness on the part of the therapist of the familiar or unfamiliar aspects of themselves embodied by a client. It also requires an awareness of how, as an individual, the therapist may also embody significant unborn aspects of the client. In this way maieutic listening is itself the embodiment of a fundamental principle of human ‘inter-being’ - the fact that we are each parts of one another and embody aspects of each other’s being. This is of particular significance in communication, for it implies that in a quite general and fundamental sense we speak for each other - not just for ourselves or to each other. Or rather, we speak for each other’s other selves, each other’s latent and unborn aspects or potentialities of being. Empathic understanding on the other hand, is limited by those aspects of ourselves we are already familiar with - excluding those other selves we embody and express for each other. This is another way in which maieutic listening is quite distinct from ‘empathic listening’. Its significance lies in the fact that the health not only of the ‘therapeutic relationship’ but of all dyadic human relationships rests ultimately on each partner’s capacity to acknowledge both the aspects of themselves embodied and expressed by others and the aspects of others they themselves embody and express for them.
Usually it is only through separation or distance that each partner begins to acknowledge aspects of the other as aspects of themselves. The therapist’s attempt to balance personal involvement and intimacy, on the one hand, with professional distance and restraint on the other, conceals a third dimension of the therapeutic relationship. This is an intimacy achieved through personal distance, in which both therapist and client begin to work with each other internally, as aspects of themselves. This personal distance is what allows true professional closeness to the client. In any dyadic relationship, it is often only in relationships outside the dyad that people feel able to embody and express those aspects of themselves previously associated with their partner. All this applies to the therapeutic relationship also, invariably giving rise to a set of parallelisms or ‘synchronicities’ between the therapist’s relationships and experience outside of therapy and those of the client. It is through awareness of these parallelisms that the therapist begins to understand not only what the client’s experience means to them but also what their experience means to the client. Then the therapist can not only respond verbally to the client with helpful insights drawn from their experience but communicate on a silent and core level from who they are - consciously embodying aspects of themselves they know to be of significance for the client and in the client’s relationships. This embodied communication is a basic dimension of the maieutic listener’s bodywork.
The aim of maieutic listening is to bridge the gap between talking and touching therapies, analysis and bodywork, i.e. between therapies focused on meaning and those focused on energy. Perhaps the most important link between them lies in what it means to question something. A question that a therapist puts to the client verbally, but does not themselves experience as a question, is a meaningless question, devoid of energetic charge. A question the therapist experiences within themselves is an energetically charged question. Such a question will communicate, whether it is put into words or not. But the therapist may easily be tempted by their professional role to put verbal questions to the client in order precisely to avoid experiencing their charge. Every verbal question is also an implicit statement, an anticipation of the type of answer expected or wanted. Questions that the listener communicates silently and wordlessly, by allowing their charge to build up, always bring their own answer up but one free of the preconceptions that the worded questions inevitably carry.
We use language to represent the relationships between things and between people. We have questions because we cannot mentally represent a relationship. When a question has emotional charge, it is because we experience the absent relationship as a tension or potential energy - like the potential energy created by two electrically charged plates between which no current is flowing. In therapy, one basic way in which meaning is experienced is through the potential energy of an experienced question, experienced as a bodily charge or tension. Another aspect of meaning is the energetic flow that can result from this tension or charge, but only if it is (a) allowed to build up, and (b) not abruptly short-circuited and discharged. When the therapist uses words to ‘make connections’ or asks the client to do so, the crucial question is whether or not the potential energy and deeper meaning of the question has been allowed to build up, and whether or not the connection is intended merely to discharge whatever energy has accumulated, and pre-empt its deeper meaning. The basic discipline of maieutic listening - that of withholding the spoken word - does not imply a rigid posture of mute silence on the part of the therapist. Its aim is to ensure that no questions are put or connections made through language, without the therapist first allowing the energy and meaning of the question to be experienced on a deeper level - in a wordless and bodily way. Withholding is the capacity to hold the charge of an experienced question, and to avoid its pre-emptive discharge. The therapist’s capacity for maieutic listening is their capacitance. Capacitance is the therapist’s capacity to ‘bear with’ the client as a listener i.e. bearing the tension of the question with the client, acknowledging it as a shared question, and a shared tension. Withholding prevents the therapist seeking relief from this tension through answers verbally elicited from the client or offered verbally to them.
Existential psychotherapy has long recognised that behind the personal questions that people bring to therapy are certain fundamental and shared questions of human beings, questions to do with life and death, choice and responsibility, aloneness and relatedness. These are questions traditionally addressed by philosophy rather than psychology. The courage of Heidegger and Buber lay in recognising that fundamental philosophical questions, like those of psychotherapy have to do with our relationship to things and to people, and not merely with our scientific view of the relationships that exist between them. It was Heidegger who recognised that for philosophy to go further in exploring the meaning of being and of meaning, it must be rooted in a deeper way of listening and relating to Being. It was Buber who recognised that this also involves searching for a deeper way of listening and relating to individual beings. Behind every significant question is the pain of an experienced distance from our own being and from other beings, a distance which can, paradoxically, bring us closer to them. Maieutic listening understands all human questions as expressions of a fundamental quest - the quest to relate to our own being and to other beings. It is this quest which forms the basis of the ‘will to meaning’. But like feeling, meaning is not just something we discover but something we do. Authentic listening, like authentic speech, is about meaning another human being, not just as a person but as a being.
The human being is the human embodiment of their inner being. This inner being is not itself anything human. Nor, however, is it inhuman, for it is the source of all the human feelings and qualities we are capable of bodying and embodying. But the failure to distinguish the human body and the human being, the personal ‘I’ and the inner Thou, is the source of man’s inhumanity to man, for behind the abuse of persons lies a desperate quest for a sense of spiritual intimacy - a sense of core relatedness to other beings. The intense charge of this quest is not experienced as such but acted out and discharged by stripping others of their humanity, murdering their bodies or abusing the person. The problem raised at the beginning of this article, namely that ours is a culture which knows only two modes of intimacy, physical and emotional, sexual and personal, touchy and feely, but lacks any sense of what it means to make core contact - spiritual contact - with another being cannot be underestimated.
Whereas Freud challenged the sexual taboos of his day, maieutic listening challenges spiritual taboos - the taboo on experiencing and cultivating spiritual intimacy, intercourse and procreation. Each day we are given the chance to meet and be met by others, touch and be touched by them, seed and be seeded by them. Or at least we would be if we didn’t wear spiritual contraceptives, if we were more capable of bearing the pregnancies that result, and less prone to seek to abort, mentally or emotionally, the new aspects of ourselves that have been fertilised. Pregnancy is not an illness, but disease is a type of spiritual pregnancy or miscarriage. The purpose of therapy is not to help others abort or evacuate, repress or release what they carry pregnantly within them, but to help them in the work of bodying it, and in this way giving birth to it. The role of the listener is one of midwife - being with, bearing with and showing what it means to hold the emotional charge of this pregnancy and go through the labour of birth without forcing delivery. The essential ‘work’ of maieutic listening is itself a form of inner ‘bodywork’ - the capacity to inwardly bear and body the charge of a felt question - whether formulated or still unformulated. Its aim is to meet another human being through the embodied presence of our own being. Its value for the bodyworker does not lie in helping them to ‘be somebody’, to successfully conform to their professional role and its accompanying status and self-image, but rather to body their being. This means to ‘be a body’ and not just an empathic ‘mind’. Only through the embodied presence and bodily receptivity of the listener can listening itself be experienced as a form of resonant inner contact and communication between human beings.
Nothing will work
of whatever works they work,
How far is the
truth susceptible of embodiment?
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