A few of you may have read a bit of this content posted elsewhere sometime ago (on FB 2013) while I was still teaching at Boise State (my last semester was fall of 2015). In spite of my retirement status, now that it’s fall 2017 I can’t suppress the feeling – that I’d like to return to the classroom; I miss lecturing about listening and interacting with students wanting to learn more about what listening is. I listen better in the company of good students determined to listen. Practically speaking, I still feel that listening is a struggle; but now more than ever, as our current political unrest sadly attests, the urgency to listen more intentionally is, not very surprisingly, plain as the noses on our facebook pages. Moreover, to listen with ‘mindfulness’ in this present political drama takes courage plus constancy, which in my case too frequently wanes. Retrospective is a means by which to update outmoded perspectives. How we think about the nature of listening must always be under ‘review.’ Hopefully, this reflection will give impetus to that end. Mark Nepo’s book Seven Thousand Ways to Listen has thankfully, as I reported previously, given me encouragement to keep at it – the ‘constant effort’ that is listening. Nepo writes:
“It’s our ability to listen that saves us from the sheer fact of things. . . . So how do we listen in a way that allows us to be touched by life? It helps to stay devoted to moving below the literal facts of things. For waiting under the surface, like an inner sun, the life-force or heartbeat of the Universe will reveal itself and connect us to the sheer power of what is vital in life — all through the heart and overflow of earnest listening, through a being-with that keeps us alive. . . . U Thant defined Spirituality as ‘the tuning of the inner person with the great mysteries and secrets that are around us.’ That tuning is a timeless art. No one can really teach it. And yet this is a helpful way to describe the work of being, which necessitates deep engagement and constant listening. The great Jewish philosopher Abraham Heschel suggests that the reward for such inner tuning is a sense of peace, and that by finding and inhabiting our place in the ever-changing Universe, we strengthen the fabric of life itself.
‘By being what we are . . . by attuning our own yearning to the lonely holiness in this world, we will aid humanity more than by any particular service we may render.’
Heschel implies that the world is not complete until fitted with our yearning; that just as the Earth would be barren without trees, plants, vegetables, and flowers, the holiness of the world, waiting just below the surface, will stay barren without the spirited growth of our dreams, creativity, generosity, and love. It seems that the first destiny of being here is to root our being in the world, that the world needs this as much as we need each other. . . . How do we begin then to inhabit our destiny of being here? I believe it starts with reverence and listening, with honoring every bit of life we encounter.” (Mark Nepo Seven Thousand Ways to Listen: Staying Close to What is Sacred)
Perhaps if we were to show more gratitude for those who take the time to listen we would jump-start the project that otherwise seems a lonely and individual undertaking. If indeed you’ve read the original opening post on this website you should note that I’m asserting what at first appearance is contradictory; does listening begin with the self or with the social communities in which we are embedded and shaped? Being a listener, in the moment, immediately present to the listening processes, clearly entails awareness of each essential element, oneself and others; since listening is a kind of relationship we have within ourselves and within our communities.
In fact, to say listening “begins” is to suggest an origination, a starting point, whereas to acknowledge that one’s listening is, on one hand, at the behest of another, anything but self-incipient, is also, on the other, to concede that listening is impossible apart from self-initiative. Listeners infrequently receive appreciation for their effort at attention when it is given, as an act of individual effort. But likewise, infrequently is the listener aware that already their listening disposition is actually a predisposition, bearing the influence of former interactions and influence derived from a social community. Each listening event is perhaps a new event, requiring the listener to engage; but each listener is always-already programmatically biased, to listen after the manner or disposition that they have acquired in a community of listeners.
Dane Rudhyar, writing of this tension in what he deems the need for “A Reassessment of Individualism and Freedom,” noted that “in physics today, indeed in every field of thought, we find a struggle between an ‘atomistic’ and a ‘holistic’ (from olos, whole) approach. Atomism has dominated the official thinking of Western thinkers and particularly of modern science, but holism is now in slow but gradual ascendancy. The two approaches are complementary–just as tribal consciousness and individual consciousness are. What we need in the days and centuries ahead, is a dynamic solution to the problem of harmonizing in a steady society the requirements of both the individuals and the community.” I could not agree more with Rudhyar’s observations, nor with his bold assessment that “what is needed today at the threshold of the evolutionary phase of synthesis is an organic sense of community, and this community can now include all human beings in a global organism, Man.” (Dane Rudhyar Directives For A New Life)
I fully intend to return to Rudhyar’s claims in a future post; his views have been crucial in the development of my ideas about the formative force of listening community and its coincidence in the individual listener. But next up I want to examine Nepo’s practice to glean a few practical insights. For now let’s just summarize that our listening ability is constrained by the communities in which we learn to listen (or not listen).
So I have this dear friend down the road. She’s got such a fun personality and we always look forward to visiting with her. Her boyfriend is very nice too, but he’s overwhelming with his loud, Bronx, in-your-face spirit. When the four of us are together, there is no real way for anyone to get more than one word in before he takes over.
After a visit the other day, I was telling Tomas about how I used something I learned from you years ago during our visit with our friend and her partner. See, she went to speak and had our attention when, as usual, he jumped in commanding all the attention. For a moment I reactively turned to my attention to him, but then remembered that the loud, big, “great” speaker is not really the one that has the power – it is, in fact, the listener(s). So I quickly readjusted and focused all my efforts on her. In only a moment he followed suit and she was able to take back her stage. It really is very powerful to be a strong listener!
Excellent story Nathan and what makes it for me is not simply the power of listening (yes that, but more) is the contours of the listening community that shapes our listening; think of how the expectations that shifted in you were also ‘enacted’ ‘endorsed’ or embodied and affirmed within the community; your friend had a model in your listening practice that altered how he sees what listening looks like and what is expected of those in this community. To be sure this may not translate in other communities or situations but it now has a chance to take expression here in terms of the respect due one another when there is something being shared above and beyond the significance of the saying itself without which the significance of what was said is lost in the saying. What I’ve written sure does sound convoluted but I think it’s somewhat clear. In any event the example is very down to earth and has the quality of everyday experience with a clear opportunity for change by means of “integrating listening” (by which, if I can indulge further in explanation, the type of listening that ‘integrates’ the interests of the other, not simply including listening but by the very act of listening — the net result is inclusion).
Nathan, thanks, I really like your story. I am wondering if you can help those of us who would like to try this by being very specific about your refocusing event. What specifically did you do? How much time elapsed and how much talking did this other person get in before he stopped and focused on your friend? How long did it take to make the shift? How much did this other person continue to talk until he stopped and looked at your friend? Did you say anything or literally just turn and look at your friend? I think we would be helped with the specifics here. I am sure it will not happen exactly the way it did for you when we try it, but knowing what happened for you will be helpful.
Hi Richard. Thank you for reading my story and for your response. Your questions really highlight the intricacies of the listening process in a group setting. So much can happen in the span of a few minutes that we might not even be aware of. I tend to be sensitive to the emotional expressions of others, so what motivated my decision to shift my attention was seeing my friend (the original speaker) light up when she had something to contribute and then “dim down” as her opportunity was taken away. This probably took a couple of seconds to replay her expressions and then make a conscious decision to return my attention to her after looking towards the “interrupter.” As you guessed, it did take a moment for him to realize that the listening spotlight had shifted from him. I’m not sure how long it took because I was intently focusing on her, but it definitely was effective and I saw her glow return, which is always rewarding to see in someone.
Part of the challenge for me in listening deeply is that I often am touched deeply and moved to inner spaces of awe filled silence, and subsequently feel there is little I can say that truly touches on the original thoughts expressed. This was the case also here. A few disjointed thoughts nonetheless…
I feel gratitude to all who shared their thoughts and experiences! Nathan, your story is very powerful! It in-spires me to a-spire to follow my ‘listening heart’ as well! And, the Heschel quote: “By being what we are . . . by attuning our own yearning to the lonely holiness in this world, we will aid humanity more than by any particular service we may render.” Such gratitude for this lovely thought!
I was struck by the idea mentioned above in the original entry about taking the time more often to express gratitude for the good listener! It seems an expressed continuation of the relational aspect of the listening event. There’s so much involved in dialectical conversations, which tend not to follow linear patterns but rather synergistic and dynamic. For instance, when I interrupted did it feel dynamic and co-creative, or did it feel like you, the listener, were aborted in what you were trying to express?
Again from the original post…“Being a listener, in the moment, immediately present to the listening processes, clearly entails awareness of each essential element, oneself and others; since listening is a kind of relationship we have within ourselves and within our communities.” We can talk about listening from so many different perspectives, and so many different aspects to it, it is mind-boggling, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed. When I go into the deep inner silence…stillness…when before and with another, that is where my best listening AND responding happen!
Nathan, you are a champ. Nice detail and very easy to look for on our own. Thanks.
Sandra, your first paragraph is very interesting. Why do you express a need to respond verbally? Just continuing to be there is often just right.
I want to ask you to expand the following sentence, “the challenge for me in listening deeply is that I often am touched deeply and moved to inner spaces of awe filled silence.” Can you help us understand what this experience is like. It sounds really special.