In some ways my cat Freya possesses attributes that would make her an excellent mediator. There is the calming influence she exudes as she sits next to me on the couch. She listens and has an extraordinary ability to hear things. She will know well in advance that my wife or some other family member is approaching the front door or that someone is about to descend the stairs. She is always at the ready to greet and meet them with a welcoming chirrup. Okay, perhaps the impression that she is actually ‘listening’ is slightly adrift. I am under no delusion that when I am speaking to her (as one does) that she is actually engaging. I suspect the mantra ‘food source, food source, food source’ more likely goes through her head at such times. In fact, in some ways, she is an appalling listener. ‘Freya, stop doing that!, ‘Freya, leave that alone!’ or ‘Freya, don’t do that inside the house!!’ etc. rarely meet with a positive response. But, at the very least, her calming influence and attentiveness – if not obedience – do suggest positive examples for mediators or anyone interested in genuine and active listening.
Recently the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, addressed a Synod of Roman Catholic Bishops. He spoke on the theme of contemplation and its importance in shaping the ethos of the inner person and just action in the world. (He cites the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonheoffer’s words written from a Nazi prison cell to the effect that we are called to ‘prayer and righteous action’. He presents contemplation as something rather different from navel gazing and establishes it as an integral base for transforming action in the world.
While prayer and contemplative practice – or religion per se – may not be every mediator’s cup of tea, there is something to be said for a practice that sustains and develops the mediator or active listener’s skill and quality of presence. (In fact, a friend of mind wrote his MA thesis on the connection between meditation and mediation a few years ago.) It is the presence’ of the helper, not merely their technical skills, that is key to effective mediation or support at times if crisis.
What is it to be present to someone else? Louise Gold, in her article ‘Influencing Unconscious Influences: The Healing Dimension of Mediation’ describes ‘presence’ in terms of the mediator’s centeredness (inner stillness and grounded quality), a connection with one’s own governing set of values and belief, a connection to the other person’s humanity, and congruency. The latter quality is about integrity and consistency: being what you do and doing what you are.
Whether one comes from a religious or secular perspective, meditative practice is potentially a great enabler for those who deem being fully present to others is important. In my own experience it is vital to my vocation as a priest and my work as a mediator. It is certainly crucial to any relationship we may value in our professional or personal lives. Developing your own personal discipline of meditation is well worth the bother and may prove transformational on all levels.
Now I must go and feed my cat.