THE PRACTICE OF
"The habit of the mind is to end all forms of silence."
When we open space for another to speak we invite the unknown into our lives.
To listen first is an act of courage.
You have been enjoying a concert, clapping along with everyone else in the audience when the soloist sits back down at the piano to play an encore. Quickly, silence is restored. There is a long pause as the soloist waits. In the quietude she seems to be already hearing the music.
You’re listening to an interview on the radio and you notice that there is always a delay between the question and the answer. At first you think that the participants must be separated by a long distance – maybe the interview is being conducted internationally, and the silence is representative of the time it takes to send the question across the world and to wait for a response. Suddenly you realize that the two people are in the same room.
You have just received great news – probably the best news of your life - and you see a friend nearby talking on a cell phone. Excited, you want to share your joy and, as you approach you hear him say, “I got the results from my doctor and it doesn’t look good.”
There is an old cliché: “You have one mouth and two ears. Listen twice as much as you speak.” It is a clever sentence but it begs the question, “Listen to what?”
There is always something to hear. Our minds banter constantly inside our heads. To try, even for a moment, to silence the speaker within is to discover what every meditator learns upon the first time sitting on the cushion: The voice talking inside of us is relentless. Nothing seems to stop its flow. The traditional first form of meditation, a concentration on the breath, is simply a tool to focus on something beyond the habitually verbal interior discourse; we try to quiet the mind’s self-talk.
The restlessness of that inner talk can be deafening: We hear a din of stream-of-conscious meandering river of words. Faced with such a constant onslaught, we reach out for something to break the pattern, distracting ourselves with entertainment as we flee from our mind's babble. When we converse with others, the interior talk can be so loud and reactive that we can hardly wait to give it voice. So busy are we preparing our own next comment, we don’t notice the words being said to us. If there are awkward silences we fill in the gaps with idle chat, preferring meaningless prattle to the nothingness of waiting between words. The habit of the mind is to end all forms of silence.
So, “listen to what” is the right question. Are we to listen inside or out? When we open space for another to speak we invite the unknown into our lives. To listen first in conversation is an act of courage. When we allow another to speak, we change the interactive terrain, and our ability to navigate is affected. We have to think on our feet, improvising as we go.
The Practice of Listening First changes us tactically as we converse, and it also changes our inscape. New interior sensitivities result. While it is true that in listening we gain information of all kinds, we are also able to discover the ever-changing emotional landscape around us. We listen beyond words for their accompanying melodies. We contextualize the content, and those melodies affect our own song. We are far more interactive when we sit still in silence because we have become attentive to another’s voice.
The practice aspect of this activity is defined by repetition and subtle improvement. Ultimately, as in any practice, with time and repetition we become the embodiment of the activity. When we listen first we create gaps in our thoughts, increase our attentiveness and become proficient in patience. Listening is active; it is a result of wakefulness, an expression of concentration, an outgrowth of presence.
This kind of listening neither searches nor judges. True listening is born of respect.
There is a difference between hearing and listening. To listen fully is to quiet the speaker inside, to become a blank slate, to lose expectations, to allow life to unfold. This kind of listening neither searches nor judges. It allows the raw content of words and emotions to be expressed. It permits subtlety and takes note of ambiguity.
True listening is born of respect.
The word "first" implies self-control and the knowledge that soon enough we shall also speak. But, if we gain enough insight, even that act of speaking will be another form of listening. Just as the intermittent silences in the radio interview reveal, there is something involved that changes the rhythms of speech because we are now speaking in a more complex way.
The Practice of Listening First means that before I speak I have already heard myself. I can observe myself creating and editing what I am about to say. I watch each word forming in the background of consciousness, rising to the forefront of my mind, locking itself into a sentence structure and becoming more and more concrete until I have a “thought” that can be conveyed verbally. If I rise above that level, I can evaluate that content and my intentions. I can hear my words and ask, “Is this what I mean to say?”
We can go further and become the ears receiving our words. We ask, “Is this what I intend for them to hear?” This aspect of listening invokes our shared humanity, moving beyond self toward community. It is the moment we take a mirror to our words before we release them to the world. We can ask what emotions, motivations, and reactions are evoked, asking, “Is this what I want them to feel?” What is the connotation of our words? Have we added emotions that we know will do damage? Have we weakened our speech so much that it lacks courage?
The Practice of Listening First means that before I speak I have already heard myself.
Is our sentence a salve or a salvo? What is extraneous? What is essential?
Lastly, we can notice the willingness and capability of our partner to listen. This is not unlike the moment when we see our friend dealing with a medical crisis on the cell phone and we realize that this is not our moment. We enter into the life of our potential listener, see their priorities, and relate to them rather than to our need to share. We become mature enough to wait or courageous enough to speak even though it might interrupt the prevailing mood. Our decision will be mindful though, because we will have moved beyond ourselves as the only reference point to consider. We will have become inclusive in our listening.
Before we speak, we learn to listen. Not unlike the soloist who is about to perform her encore, long before the music begins, it is already playing within us. Only after engaging in the Practice of Listening First are we ready for the world to hear our music.
©2020 John Thomas Dodson All Rights Reserved
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