The Art of Listening as Taught By Plants


We all know how…or do we?

It seems that half of the relational advice given revolves around learning how to listen to others. People pay people to coach them in how to listen to others for business or marriage. There are countless articles and books on how to listen and how to communicate, yet it seems that despite the plethora of resources, we still struggle with how to go about this deceptively complex art.

I would have never guessed that plants would be the best teachers for listening—or that they’ve been whispering their lessons to me since I was a child. But as the spring has woken my green friends again, I’ve been thinking about what I’ve learned over the years from being with them.

I realized I learned how to listen.

Listening Meditatively:

Grandmother willow

Pocahontas talking with Grandmother Willow. Pocahontas 1995

Listening meditatively is the kind of listening in which the purpose of communication is to act as a springboard for self-guidance and discovery. Plants are really good for developing this kind of listening because they never talk louder than my own internal compass and they will selflessly sit with me for as long as it takes for me to figure out what I need to learn.

As a child, I understood that if I needed to get a fresh perspective on my life or situation, sitting and talking to plants was one of the best ways. I was intimately connected with myself when I was spending time with plants. When I got older and lost connection with plants, I lost connection with myself.

There’s a silver maple outside my bedroom window at my current apartment, and I often feel it calling for me to come sit under its branches when I need guidance. I know that when it calls for me to come visit, it’s calling me to come find myself again, to come back to my center…my root…and to let all the other distractions fall away from my heart.

Listening responsively: 

Money Tree

My braided money tree when I first brought it home. It’s grown quite a bit now as I’ve learned what it likes!

Responsive listening is kind of like listening meditatively in reverse. Rather than listening to understand my own needs, it’s the listening I do to understand the needs of others. I actually thought I had this kind of listening down pretty well, but when I started to spend more time around plants, I realized I had a lot more I could learn.

Listening to a plant’s needs is kind of like learning a foreign language. I don’t necessarily need to learn a new vocabulary, but I do need to learn how to process the communication that is being sent my way.

Some plants are easy to listen to. When their needs aren’t met, the wilt dramatically as if to say, “Oh my god, water me! I’m dying!” They also tend to recover dramatically too, filling back out within a few hours of a good drink.

Others are much harder. The signs of overwatering can look similar to the signs of underwatering. Too much sun can look like too little. It takes spending time with the plant and observing it closely to learn how to interpret its subtle needs.

Although people can seem much easier to understand, I’ve learned that even when you speak the same language, communication is complex.

It would be nice to live in a world where everyone stated their needs or feelings clearly. However, we all develop different habits of expression, not all of them healthy and certainly not clear. Learning to listen responsively requires more than having an ability to hear someone’s words. It means being able to learn a person’s unique version of expression, to pay attention to body language, and to know how to interpret what is said and unsaid.

Listening Empathically:

Ferngully hurt tree

Okay, so maybe cartoons have played a big role in how I view plants. Ferngully 1992

With the first kind of listening, I was really listening in order to hear myself. With the second, I was listening for the sake of interacting–listening to figure out what I could do. But listening empathically requires a deep connection to another life and a disconnection from that life.

Listening empathically feels dangerous.

I am stepping into the perspective and emotions of another being, whether human, animal, or plant. There’s a possibility that I will feel the joy of that other being, but there’s a much larger possibility that I will feel the pain of that other being. It’s uncomfortable.

I’m often tempted to try to “fix” things or alleviate the pain, but listening empathically means that I listen without interference.

Listening empathically isn’t a form of listening I developed by listening to plants…as with the previous two. Rather, it’s a form of listening I’ve learned because plants listen to me empathically. In fact, when I’m listening meditatively, that usually means they are listening empathically.

They never directly intervene. They never overtly tell me what to do. They sit with me. They empathize. They suggest. But they let me lead.

And as they demonstrate the hardest form of listening, I learn to listen empathically in return—to nature and to people.

Composite Listening:

I’m still learning from them how to blend the various forms of listening. Communication rarely fits into separate categories neatly, so listening to learn, listening to respond, and listening to support don’t have clear boundaries.

I think ultimately my goal is to be able to blend the three so well that there isn’t much of a distinction, to be able to listen meditatively and empathically at the same time…or at least to dance in and out of the three easily enough that they feel they are happening at the same time.

But for now, I’m still learning how to distinguish which one is appropriate for different situations.

Which reminds me, I have an appointment with my teachers now.


Behold the Sacrificial . . . Minnow?

A couple of weeks ago, my partner and I headed out to the river to go fishing for the first time this summer. It’s an activity that I both love and hate. Usually, to help alleviate my desire to turn all of the fish and bait into personal pets, I make my partner bait the hooks and handle any of the catches.

This trip started no differently.

The fish were hungry, and I lost my first minnow almost instantly. Ever patient, my partner put down his pole and rebaited my hook while I kept my head turned away.

I dropped my line back into the water and settled in for the wait. As usual, my thoughts turned to the uncomfortable reality that such a peaceful activity would culminate in the death of the bait and fish alike.

I’ve struggled for years with my feelings about meat. Animals are sacred to me. I see them as intelligent, emotional, and cognizant. I believe they have far more similarities to us humans than most people give them credit for and perhaps just a tad bit more connection to whatever I would call the “spiritual” energy of the world.

One would assume that I would be a strict vegetarian as a result.

Except that I also view plants as sacred, intelligent, emotional, and cognizant. Certainly not in the same way . . . but kind of in the same way. Plants play. They react to “pain” stimuli. They can move, albeit limitedly. Some are even carnivorous.

I had reached the point where I realized that fishing didn’t make me uncomfortable because I thought it was wrong to eat the fish but because it reminded me of the reality of everything I eat. The sad truth is that in order to live, I have to take life of one form or another.

Becoming a vegetarian would be an easy way to distance myself from the discomfort of taking life for food. The death of the plant may not be as visibly disturbing as the death of an animal since I am more attuned to the pain cries of the former, but deep down, I know that I’m still killing a living thing when I eat, whether it’s a carrot or a trout.

My explorations in herbalism introduced me to the concept of leaving a gift when I harvest a plant to thank the earth for her provision, and the practice had helped me find consecration and reciprocity in my eating habits—at least with plants.

Animals were harder to reconcile. I did what I could to buy products from ethically treated animals, but I still struggled with ways to give back to the animal world. Bringing the river water didn’t seem as much of a gift as bringing my tomato plant water, and fertilizer didn’t seem like a good way to give back to the fish.

In perfect irony, it was while I was in the mire of my confusion that my line went taut. I began reeling in and could tell immediately that I had something fairly large on the other side. Adrenaline kicked in; excitement drove out my ambivalence.

Suddenly, the fish jumped out of the water, twisting its body magnificently. I squealed and kept reeling, only noticing a moment later that there was no longer any weight on the line. My squeal turned to a disappointed cry as I brought the line all the way up with the empty hook dangling at the end.

The fish was gone.

My bait was gone.

I wavered between tears and laughter as my partner explained how bass sometimes throw themselves free, but it was the laughter that won out. Only a moment after I lost my biggest catch, I was inexplicably happy that the fish had gotten a free meal.

It suddenly seemed so clear. Whether I liked it or not, fish were not vegetarians. I had to meet them where they were with a gift they could appreciate. Minnows, worms, frogs—these were their foods. By bringing them what they could eat, I gave as I took.

This time, I baited my own hook, acknowledging my discomfort as well as honoring the harsh reality that life is a deadly affair. I felt a flicker of understanding of the purpose behind animal sacrifices, the sacred symbolization of this cycle of life that was so apparent to ancient peoples but so obscured in our current society.

We left that day with enough fish to make a chowder that fed us for several days. In return, we had fed both big and little fish and given a handful of minnows their freedom.

I still mourned the deaths of what we caught, but it was with the humility of realizing how unsuperior I was to the rest of nature. Out in my yard, along the riverbank, down in the middle of the forest—everywhere I go I will find animals and plants taking and giving life.  I finally realized that could not remove myself from that cycle, but I could accept my place within it and handle it responsibly.

Ch-ch-ch-children! Grow One of Your Own! The scam of Biblical parenting.

For some reason, I’ve been thinking a lot about my parents’ philosophy towards raising kids. Like most IFB parents, they believed in the popular “spare the rod, spoil the child” myth that they think comes from Proverbs.

Technically the "spare the rod" phrase isn't even in the Bible. But beyond that, there's enough empirical evidence to show that spanking has more detrimental effects than positive ones.

Technically the “spare the rod” phrase isn’t even in the Bible. But beyond that, there’s enough empirical evidence to show that spanking has more detrimental effects than positive ones.

In and of itself, that idea is problematic, especially when that “rod” is taken literally to mean an instrument with which to beat someone (i.e. a belt, cooking spoon, wooden paddle, etc.) However, it’s not that philosophy that has been bothering me lately, even though it certainly bothers me at other times. It was one they extracted from another verse in Proverbs 22:6.

“Train up a child in the way that he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”

My dad had a favorite illustration he would use in his sermons to convey how he thought this verse was to be used. It was the idea that children were like plants. If you want a plant to grow a certain way, you put constraints on it and prune it. Otherwise it will just grow any which way it wants.

The problem is that children aren’t like plants—at least not the way he viewed plants (For the record, I have a much different view of plants, but for the sake of this post, I won’t get into that.)

In his mind, a plant might be “living” in so far as it grew, but it wasn’t a conscious being. It didn’t feel pain. It had no hopes, desires, dreams, plans, or personality. Thus, cutting it or manipulating it to grow the way he wanted was about as offensive as molding clay.

Children are not like plants.

They do have personalities, dreams, hopes, sometimes even plans.

And they definitely feel pain.

To assume that growing a plant is the same as growing a child is grossly problematic. For one, plant growth is physical. It’s an awesome ability to be able to grow new shoots after being cut down, but you can’t cut a child’s arm and have it regrow in a better shape. Children don’t just grow physically, and obviously this illustration wasn’t talking about the physical growth of a child. It was about the mental growth.

One of the most important psychological developments for a child is the development of a sense of self—a sense of being a separate being from others. With that sense of self should come a growing sense of autonomy and an ability to think and reason for oneself.

But fundamentalism doesn’t acknowledge that aspect of growth in children and acts in a way that actively tries to stifle the natural development of the child’s psyche. Like so many of my friends who survived living in the IFB, I remember all too well the lessons and songs about obedience. Children were to obey right away, without question. Anything else was rebellion, and rebellion, I also remember being taught, was “as the sin of witchcraft,” which was a stoning offense in Bible times (both rebellion and witchcraft).

From a very young age, therefore, I was led to believe that questioning my parents’ reason for any rule was a dangerous place to go. As I got older and started to develop my own tastes, that presented unique problems. They thought rock, country, pop, rap, CCM, jazz, and any other music genre you can think of were all bad. They thought movie theaters and playing cards were sinful. They thought drinking alcohol was wrong. They thought wearing “tight” (aka didn’t fall off my hips without a belt) jeans and shirts was morally reprehensible. They thought shorts and bathing suits and tank tops were indecent.

And I discovered that I liked Shania Twain, didn’t think there was any logical reason why playing cards and theaters should be off-limits, wanted to wear clothes that fit and that expressed my unique style, and didn’t want to have to leave my cousin’s wedding reception early because people around me had wine in their hands.

I was doing what any normal teenager would do—developing my own ideas for myself. And they were hardly radical ideas to the rest of the world.

But in my family, I was “rebelling.”

There’s actually a psychological term for what I was doing—individuation. It’s a healthy and necessary step in the psychological development of a person.

In fact, as far as I know, every teen in the IFB goes through a “rebellious” phase—some sooner than later. Some are easier to “break” than others (yes, the goal is to “break the will” of the child—their own words)—but every child “rebels” within this paradigm.

So I had a strict upbringing. Who cares, right? It’s no big deal. What is so dangerous about this teaching that children, like plants, can be manipulated into absolute obedience?

The danger is this: Physical growth isn’t enough. Children need to stimulate their mind in order to develop their brains so they can function as adults. By making individuation a sin, my father automatically made growing up an act of rebellion.

I recognize that he is, to some extent, the victim of this teaching too. He didn’t come up with it on his own. It was taught to him, maybe by his parents (ironically, I don’t know what their parenting philosophy was), probably more so by his college and seminary training. And for that, I do not hold him responsible.

However, I do hold him responsible for perpetuating that teaching onto his own family and the church that he pastors.

Shortly before I left, my dad said, “I’m sorry I raised a daughter like you.” I suppose it must have been terribly disappointing to realize that his parenting method didn’t work as well as his gardening methods. Unfortunately for him, children aren’t chia pets.