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).