I don’t know how to listen to myself, and so I don’t know how to listen to others, so desperate am I to be heard. – A letter to Sophia
The biggest question that came out of my February practice was: if it is our natural inclination to instinctively reject what we haven’t experienced, how on earth do we cultivate genuine diversity? Diversity that doesn’t just look different, but sounds different, because it represents different values. And furthermore, what do we do about the experiences we can’t share? I can’t experience the world as man, or as a person of color, or even as my children do. I can’t experience the world as a frog does, or as the earth does, even when I guess. Perhaps, it requires, horror of horrors, trust, that a perspective we will never share is equally valid to the needs we intimately know.
An emerging pattern in my practice is the value of very simple responses in the face of overwhelmingly complex questions or problems. The power of a present witness, is immense. And so March is dedicated to the very simple, and immensely difficult, value of listening, in hopes that I might learn enough to know just a little bit.
Listening, like love, seems like an essential component perspective. And perspective seems essential to appreciating experiences and values different than our own. I may never get to a point where I am able to cross the chasm between myself and another, and in that case, it would be awfully helpful to at least be able to hear each other across the void.
I want to learn to listen in a way that I haven’t been taught. I spend a lot of time in a second, internal, conversation with myself while someone is talking to me, in an effort to figure out what I think about it before they’re even finished. Needless to say, it’s a distraction. So this month’s practice is, in part, an investigation into the relationship between judgement and comprehension. Is it possible to understand what someone has told me, without judging what they mean?
I experience listening as having three general components: Comprehension – this is the most automatic response and includes understanding the literal meaning of words, or recognition of sounds, like a car door shutting. External Interpretation – this is the presumed meaning I layer onto the external event, for example, interpreting someone’s speech as sarcastic and understanding their words to mean the opposite of their literal definition. Or hearing my son start crying when he is playing with his brother and assuming that there was an altercation between them. Sometimes I get this right, and sometimes I don’t. Internal Response – this is the internal series of events that unfold based on what I’m hearing – mental imagery, emotional reaction, and especially mental talk: do I like what I’m hearing, dislike it, agree, disagree, is it causing me to remember, plan, distract myself, want to respond, etc. This is the area in which I most commonly disconnect from the external event, stop listening, and co-opt my attention into my own affairs. It is in this space I primarily want to engage, and practice listening without rejection.
As kids, we’re taught that “listening” means doing what we’re told. You’re not listening to me, and put on your listening ears – are common refrains from parents and teachers that signal: you’re not doing what I want. Listening becomes a euphemism for compliance, and given this, it’s no wonder we’re not very good at it as adults; we have come to equate listening with an infringement of our sovereignty, and a rejection of our sacredness as unique beings. This continuous message also conflates listening with the sense that we’re supposed to do something. It’s hard to just listen and not be compelled into some sort of action – a verbal response, the getting of an object, or entering into an agreement. Often these are perfectly appropriate responses, but often – maybe more often – they are not. With my children especially, there is a tacit, shared expectation between all of us that I have the role of the “fixer”. When children are very young, this is true and appropriate, but the weening required to transition my children off their physical and emotional dependence on me, is surprisingly hard to do – and I see these patterns show up in all relationships. We start from a shared engagement point and begin a dance of repetition, often forgetting that we need not stay bound to our paths of least resistance.
My intention in cultivating listening is to develop the skill of engaged observation. To neither say, with a glance, oh, it is raining, or to chase raindrops all the way down to the lake bed, pointlessly muddying the water. But to watch instead with attention and clarity the distinctions in the pattern, so that I might hear each echo across the surface and know what’s shifting.
- Meditate every day on Talk Space (internal sound) or Sound Space (external sound). This is formal skill building for the tasks of listening to my internal and external experiences.
- In conversation, put my attention into listening fully, rather than on inner commentary, preparing a response, or simply wandering off into some other mental process. This will require slowing down, not doing so many things at once, and much more focused attention.
- Three times a week, listen for 20 minutes or more to non-English language sound. This is similar to the formal meditation task, but designed specifically to practice deep listening in a context that will create less reaction.
- Pray daily, ask and listen to know my work for the day. Prayer and meditation are increasingly blended experiences for me, and what I experience over and over again through my practice is humility for my smallness, and gratitude for my life. There is great joy in this, and a deep desire to live my life in honorable service to the greater context in which I exist.
I expect this to be really hard, and strangely lonely. I just don’t have a lot of experience listening this way, and I most people I know don’t either. It will also be hard because I so often have multiple people talking to me at the same time – I get overwhelmed and want to control the situation. I expect that I will get better at staying out of stuff I don’t need to get into. I expect my life will be enriched by valuable perspective that I wouldn’t have previously noticed. I expect I will have more insight into my own behavior. I can’t decide if I expect to have more or less insight into other people’s behavior.
What do I value?
I value honoring the expression of other people. I value the chance to show someone I respect their humanity by how I receive their words, regardless of what they say.
What do I want?
I want to be taken seriously. I want to be thought of as someone who is trustworthy.
Where is the Resistance?
I will want to be right. When I perceive that someone doesn’t agree with me, I will be tempted to think that it’s only because they don’t understand what I’m saying, and I will try to explain myself again.
I will have a hard time not agreeing or disagreeing. I consider these somehow to be an indication that I have “heard” what someone said and that my response is a validation of this. Sometimes this can be true, but more likely it only serves to reinforce my own sense of self relative to them.
What am I willing to do?
I am willing to be misunderstood.
I am willing to say less.
I am willing to acknowledge what I don’t know.
What is Gained and Lost?
- Freedom – by keeping my attention on listening, I hope to be freed (a little bit) from a compulsion to act immediately as a result of what I hear.
- Acceptance – other people are not me, and don’t need to be.
- Patience – like freedom, I hope through practice to learn how to wait, and gain better discernment about what requires action and what doesn’t.
- Confidence – words can become a way to ease and divert discomfort. By sitting more with my reactions, I will learn what I value by experiencing my discomfort, or the discomfort of others.
- The sensation of intimacy. By building a sense of “sameness” through my internal experience I create a sense of being like others. In an effort to suspend some of this, I think I will end up discovering the gulfs I paper over with assumption.
- The sensation of separateness. The abstraction I use to create a sense of intimacy should, theoretically, also be what creates my sense of separateness, but somehow this feels less true. Perhaps because my sense of individuality is so deeply conditioned, it’s harder to shake loose.
Sidebar, Fear and Sadness
Since this exercise is about discovery, it’s worth noting the rather despairing fear that writing this has roiled up. I am suddenly very, very worried that listening to people is going to identify all sorts of differences between us and leave me feeling separate, isolated, unseen and alone. Oddly, the reverse of this – that I should also see the many ways in which I am like other people – does not feel like it will happen. It’s hard for me to imagine how this will work if I don’t create it. There is some really low-level emotional response in me that connects listening to vulnerability. I guess this is good to know, but it feels awful, and discouraging. I sincerely want to appreciate the differences between myself and others. I want to share in the value others bring and that I cannot create myself, and yet it’s hard for me to imagine how I might move from acknowledgement to appreciation. So many people hide their beauty, masterfully, and guessing can end in a mess. It feels like I’m missing some critical, connective piece that allows the transition between these two parts of experience.