I wonder about the capacity for openness and intimacy when listening.  Though I’ve defined listening as the desire to be intimately present to the meaning of another, I readily admit this seems a rare occurrence.  A significant factor is the impediment of will, i.e., the willingness to listen.  Over several years now my interest in listening revolves around imagination, creativity, poiesis. My take is that few people have had formal teaching or training in listening; that is not to say that most people have been exposed to what passes for listening as my previous salon post asserts (Listening Begins in Social Community) — we acquire our listening behaviors and what we deem to be listening in a community of listeners.  Visit any elementary school on any given day and a likely phrase you will hear oft repeated is “shhh listen.” The implication is the students already know what it means to listen: leave off talking and be quiet and pay attention.  Little changes throughout elementary school and high school.

Even today as I ‘research’ listening and what other social ‘scientists’’ views are on the phenomena taken to be listening, it’s agreed upon in these academic circles that listening is ‘a complex cognitive process’ that is ‘observed as a behavior’; yet, even at that, in the models I’ve seen, ‘creativity’ isn’t commonly held up as necessary let alone exemplary, nor is creativity examined as a contributing factor, as a facilitative behavior; despite that circulating in the same circles are constructivist models that insist listeners co-create meaning.  I’ve held a similar notion over the course of my inquiries, and firmly believe that comprehension entails just that – the co-construction (creation) of meaning.  Furthermore, some listening researchers, Michael Purdy[i] among them, believe that the formation of community isn’t possible apart from listening; I hold that view as well: no listening no community.  For that reason I think it worthwhile, indeed urgent, that we understand the nature of creative imagination and it’s affect on listening (and vice versa).  I’ve discovered several well informed sources on poiesis, and the following by Mark Nepo is surely as practicable as any I’ve explored.  What I like about this piece is that the “will,” which is often a barrier in my listening experience, and perhaps too frequently and unconsciously governs my listening, can be transcended; subordinated to a creative spirit will may be realigned in such a surrender.  As you will see, in Nepo’s mind creating is as much about being as it is doing.  Enjoy and whilst reading be attentive to your imagination — any suggestive images that come to mind.

OUTWAITING THE CLOUDS (excerpt from Mark Nepo Seven Thousand Ways to Listen: Staying Close to What is Sacred)

“The role of spiritual practice is basically to exhaust the seeker. If the practice does what it’s supposed to do, it exhausts our energy for seeking, and then reality has a chance to present itself. —ADYASHANTI

I’VE LEARNED A great deal drifting in and out of wakefulness over the years. In the beginning, I used to do a lot of things—write, play music, draw, garden—one after another. But along the way, it stopped being about creating things and started being about the space that is opened in the act of creating. Now the experience of creating brings me such joy, because somehow I came to realize that it is the space that creating opens that saves me, not what it produces. Now it doesn’t matter if I finish anything. I just need to be in that space. In that holy interlude, I am grounded. Only when in conversation with what-is-eternal am I able to stand in a fundamental knowing that is unshakable. When I stand there, I feel calm. When I stand there, I’m attuned to different weather. Eventually, whatever our devotion, because of our devotion, the practice we commit to is used up like wood in a fire. Even the fire is used up in the creation of heat and light. And what is care but human wood? Time and again, I keep learning that, for all my effort to shape and create, it is I who am shaped and created for my engagement with life.


Tell the story of one lesson that awaited you on the far side of the exhaustion of your will. How has this experience affected your understanding of will?

Recently, I was in Sausalito, having breakfast in the valley, looking at the sculpted hills against the morning sky. As happens, things begin to speak. This is what I heard: ON THE RIDGE We can grow by simply listening, the way the tree on that ridge listens its branches to the sky, the way blood listens its flow to the site of a wound, the way you listen like a basin when my head so full of grief can’t look you in the eye. We can listen our way out of howling, the way the heart can soften the wolf we keep inside. We can last by listening deeply, the way roots listen for the next inch of earth, the way the old turtle listens all he hears into the pattern of his shell. That morning, my understanding of listening expanded and I was reshaped yet again. It sounds simple and obvious but it takes time to listen; time for the deeper things to show themselves. Just as we can’t see all the phases of the moon on any one night, we can’t hear the phases of truth or the heart unless we listen for how the truth of feeling grows full and dark and full again over time. Patience, the art of waiting, is the heart-skill that opens the world; the way opening our eyes is necessary in order to see. Deep listening also takes time because things get in the way that we must allow to pass. When we outwait the clouds, we can feel the sun and see the water bead on the hosta [lilies]. When we outwait the clouds, the birds in our heart come out and the webs in our mind become visible.

That morning in Sausalito, I learned that listening this deeply is an act of creation that shapes us beyond our will. I’ve always been taught that first you listen, then you act. This of course gives time for compassion to rise in the heart. But I’m also discovering after all these years that listening deeply over time is one uninterrupted growing—one continuous act. In this way, the tree on that ridge bending to the wind till it grows to the bend is how it listens over time. And in the act of receiving our darkest cries, the heart begins to soften the howl of our wound. The old turtle is mastered by time, until moving at the pace of being is how it listens. Loving you over time, I take you in, until watching you sleep in the hammock is enough to break my heart into blossom.

Always running counter to this deep listening is the noise of the modern world, where the tasks and passwords keep multiplying. The lists seem endless. You have your own. First it’s the dishes and laundry. Then gas and electric. Now the motherboard is on the fritz. And the Facebook page was hacked into. And the automatic deposit stopped being automatic. And the transfer didn’t transfer. And the laundry is still piling up. And at work there are spreadsheets that take so much time to spread. As I get older, I fear these lists will keep me from what matters. I want my best energy to go to being alive, to staying alive. Early before work the other day, after checking my list, I stumbled into this poem:


While there is much to do we are not here to do.

Under the want to problem-solve is the need to being-solve.

Often, with full being the problem goes away.

The seed being-solves its darkness by blossoming.

The heart being-solves its loneliness by loving whatever it meets.

The tea being-solves the water by becoming tea.

While there is much to do, we are not here to do. I keep forgetting this. And remembering it somehow rearranges me where I can’t see. To be sure, this is not about shunning doing or not living in the world. That would be like saying “I’m not going to breathe.” So given that there are endless things to do, how do we hold this? Is life no more than the all too brief pause between the completion of one list and the beginning of the next? It’s much like living in a body. We can’t ignore what carries us or we will die. But if the body’s a temple, what are we devoted to while living in it? This brings us to the work of reverence: to solve our darkness by blossoming and to solve our loneliness by loving everything. I was teaching in the spring in the Pacific Northwest. In that sweet group, a woman who lives on a small island taught me that serene means clear, bright, and unclouded. In deep ways, practicing serenity is outwaiting the clouds. So let us say that outwaiting the clouds is the patient, slow process of awakening that innately takes time and can’t be rushed, while parting the veil is the work of moving through illusion. We are constant students of both.

 A Reflective Pause A MEDITATION

In deep ways, practicing serenity is outwaiting the clouds.

  • Let’s practice serenity.
  • Whether inside or outside, sit where you can see the sky.
  • Breathe slowly and center yourself. Watch the clouds drift as you breathe.
  • Imagine the sun endlessly on the tops of those clouds.
  • Imagine the truth of being endlessly on top of all your troubles.
  • Inhale deeply and practice outwaiting the clouds.
  • Exhale deeply and realize that you can outwait many of your troubles.

 TABLE QUESTIONS To be asked over dinner or coffee with friends and loved ones. Try listening to everyone’s response before discussing:

The poem “Coming Out” contains the lines “Under the want to problem-solve is the need to being-solve.”

  • What does this mean to you?
  • Give a recent example where, in addressing a problem, a form of being would have served you better than an act of doing.
  • What is your relationship with lists?

[i] See Purdy’s “Listening and Community: The Role of Listening in Community Formation.”  Journal of the International Listening Association.