It can be said in general that most people no longer know how to listen–either to one another or to themselves. Though most of us have ears that can hear very well, we do not actually know how to use these ears to listen. Listening has indeed become a lost art. And the results are obvious not just in education, society, business, and politics but also in the very fabric of our individual lives.
To be sure, there are many who teach listening skills for education and business. In a classic and informative article (“Listening to People”) written in the 1950s and published by the Harvard Business Review in 1988 in a collection entitled People: Managing Your Most Important Asset, the authors (Ralph G. Nichols and Leonard A. Stevens) remind us that whereas the average speech rate of the majority of Americans is around 125 words a minute (and, of course, comparable numbers would hold true for other languages as well), the human brain processes words at a much faster rate. When we listen to someone speaking, therefore, we are asking our brain to slow down dramatically in relation to its ordinary speed. This means that we are left with a lot of spare time for thinking, “and the use or misuse of this spare thinking time holds the answer to how well a person can concentrate on the spoken words. … A major task in helping people to listen better is teaching them to use their spare thinking time efficiently.”
The relationship of thinking to listening is an important subject, not just for individuals but for society as a whole, and one that the authors go into in great depth in relation to developing better listening skills. In this essay, however, we will keep this relationship in mind but our emphasis will be slightly different. Our emphasis will be on listening as a way of self-knowledge and self-transformation. Our emphasis will be on the being of the so-called listener. Our emphasis will be on what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “deep listening.”
Deep listening has to do with the very essence of our relationship to ourselves and others. Deep listening requires love, being, and understanding. From the perspective of self-knowledge, self-transformation, and self-realization, to listen deeply means to welcome, to make ourselves fully available to, what is actually taking place now both in and around us. This is only possible, however, when we are inwardly quiet, alert, and sensitive, when we are in a state of receptivity. Deep listening requires a balance between activity and passivity. It requires us to empty our minds without losing them. It requires us to find a “middle ground,” a space in ourselves, where the vibrations of life can enter and be reflected in our consciousness without discrimination, where the forces coming from both outside and inside can be experienced without attachment, fear, interpretation, or judgment.
Deep listening has nothing to do with our so-called will power. It most often begins spontaneously at the very instant we realize that we are not listening, when we see our self-importance puffing up, when we see clearly how our “identification” with our thoughts, feelings, or sensations interferes with what is being said or offered. At that moment, if we continue to be sincere with ourselves and don’t react with inner criticism, we realize that there is something in us–a deeper level of silence, a deeper “self,” a witness–that can include our own thoughts, feelings, and sensations in the process of listening. We also realize that this deeper silence comes into play only when we can confront the truth about ourselves without any judgment, or, in other words, with compassion. It is this inner silence that will not only allow us to hear the subtle nuances of what is being said but will also bring us to a central, more-balanced place in ourselves. For if our attention goes too far outside ourselves we begin to react to the events around us too aggressively, whereas if it goes too far into ourselves we fall asleep or dream. In both instances we lose touch with the subtle dance, the moving interaction, of inner and outer impressions that sustains our lives.
Opportunities to Experiment
Our day provides us with many opportunities to experiment with listening. From the moment we wake up in the morning and our thoughts and emotions begin to propel us automatically into various activities, to the numerous discussions we have at work, to the intimate conversations we undertake with friends and loved ones, to our own thoughts about the many aspects of our lives, to the various voices within us, we can study listening in many different ways.
One exercise, which is always useful, is to sit quietly when you can and simply turn your auditory attention inward. Listen not only to sounds reaching you from the outside world but also to the various sounds and voices of your own body and psyche. Start by listening to your breathing, especially to the movements of exhalation and inhalation. Once your mind has become quiet enough to follow your breathing, include any sensations and tensions that seem to be speaking to you. Listen to your thoughts. See if you can actually “hear” them emerging out of silence. It is important, however, not to try to analyze what your hear. Simply listen to everything without discrimination.
Another exercise is to listen to yourself as you speak to others. The aim here is to listen to yourself as though you were a stranger whom you wanted to get to know better. For you are a stranger. We are all strangers to ourselves. And when we are confronted with strangers in whom we are interested, what do we do? We listen not only to their words, but also to their intonations. Consciously or unconsciously, we notice where their voice is coming from: is it coming from up high in themselves, their throat or even the top of their head, or lower down from their solar plexus or belly? We also watch their movements and gestures. We sometimes even try to “feel” their atmosphere. In this experiment we are open to perceiving all of these things–but in ourselves. As you listen to yourself in this way, of course, you will see just how much your attachment to your self-image, supported by your habitual thoughts and feelings and expectations, interferes with actually listening.
Letting Go of Expectations & Interpretations
Real listening requires inner relaxation. To listen to ourselves and others means to let go of our own psychological expectations and interpretations and to allow our attention to move in new, spontaneous ways in ourselves, to move toward the unknown. It means to let go of the narrow habits of mind and feeling that block this “free” movement of attention and channel it toward the known. Such habits include, for example, thinking that we know how someone is going to finish their sentence. (We may well know the words they are going to use, but while we’re thinking about these words we probably won’t hear the subtle meaning the speaker may give them.) Real listening means first of all to observe and then to find a way to free ourselves from the mental and emotional noise that arises automatically during the “spare time” we have for thinking, no matter what value we may give to the noise of these thoughts and emotions. Real listening means that we open ourselves to the deep, underlying silence in ourselves, the ground of our own being, and realize that it is only this silence that can truly listen. In real listening, “there is not a you and not another. Call it love.”*
Copyright 2009 by Dennis Lewis.
*Jean Klein, The Book of Listening,” (Non Duality Press, United Kingdom, 2008)