The Lost Art of Listening: A Soul Skill

The morning is steeped in pastel hues of quietude.

clouds6 copyI am up with the dawn in my usual way, stepping outdoors with bare feet to greet the arrival of another day, savoring the lingering tranquility of the world around me as it slowly wakes to life. Even my little friends, the birds, are still quietly sheltered on their night perches. Descending from the heavens (or a tree overhead), a fuzzy black and gold caterpillar spirals slowly down on a strand of gleaming silk beside me, alighting gently on the earth and promptly inching his way towards some unknown destination. I watch him go, following his progress for several minutes with a soft gaze, listening to the gentle voice of the daybreak breeze in the trees, offering my own silent thanks for the unspun promise of the day ahead.

Our daily lives groan and creak under a constant load of noise. In our physical environments, we are constantly bombarded by television and radio, our children’s requests for attention, the neighbor’s lawn mower and the hammering of construction, alarms and ringing mobile phones, the steady whine of the city with its ever-present discourse of cars, trucks and sirens. In the modern crush of energy and commotion, our senses dull and retract rather than heighten and expand. Even in a relatively tranquil rural setting, there is still noise, much of it made by us, whether it be music, conversation, work or machinery.

Silence rarely exists in our internal worlds, either. Our minds rumble and race as they replay scenes from the past and invent new ones for the future. We fuss and fret, speculate and rehearse, busily spinning our mental and emotional gears so loudly that we barely hear anything else or notice what we’re doing or where we are going.

Nature itself is rarely silent. Gaia speaks constantly with voices of wind, water, trees, birdsong and animal languages. Yet somehow the wordlessness constitutes something other than merely noise, allowing our senses to expand and become receptive once again. In our clamorous world, it tends to be only the loud sounds that draw our attention; the rest we have tuned out. Yet in ignoring the middle notes, softer sounds and subtle whisperings, we miss out on a very large part of the overall conversation. What if the hushed, understated, and pianissimo tones are actually the most interesting or even the most important?

There is precious little space for silence in our lives, rarely a pause for quiet reflection. Most of us are so unaccustomed to quietude, that in the brief moments when it actually surrounds us, we feel the need to turn on music or the television, or initiate a conversation to clutter it up. With our senses both overwhelmed and desensitized, the window of our attention scattered like broken glass, how do we nurture a deeper relationship with life?

Hand in hand with presence, it begins with listening.

There is a tremendous difference between hearing and listening. With our dulled senses and distractions, both inner and outer, the majority of individuals are merely hearing. Our ears register a certain frequency of sound waves around us and we are generally aware of the noises and voices, perhaps even the content of a conversation. Engaged in a dialogue or spoken exchange, even a very important one, we are merely ‘hearing,’ however, because simultaneously we are internally agreeing or disagreeing, recalling similar situations or emotions we have experienced, or simply waiting (or not!) for an opening in the other’s speech to insert our opinion or story. We are focused on being ‘right,’ pressing a point or, worse, arguing and flushed with so much energy and emotion that we nearly explode.

In our talk happy culture, we are more focused on speaking than either hearing or listening. Partly this is cultural modeling, yet it is also because our minds are seldom still; talking is active, thus the wheels keep rolling on. We sometimes speak simply because we feel uncomfortable with silence. Often we talk because we have a desire to connect with others yet few of our words are authentic or meaningful. Instead, they arise from the well-trodden corridors of stories told a hundred times but only half inhabited. Our exchanges are familiar old tires that carry us down the same roads we’ve always traveled. In our most intimate conversations, we are half hearing and half ‘tuned out,’ and in that, we are not listening.

The vast majority of people, both men and women, have ineffective communication skills to the detriment of all their relationships. Largely, we have learned our communication habits, skilled or unskilled, from the modeling of our parents. To a lesser extent, we absorb and mirror the culture around us. One can only speculate what a different world it would be if we taught effective conversation and listening in school rather than algebra. It is listening that forms the heart of a meaningful or heart-centered conversation. Far beyond merely hearing, listening is a conscious, present-centered awareness and a mindful receptivity.

How can one begin to have an authentic conversation with the world, an expression welling up from the soul, when he has never learned about true listening? The first step in meaningful, skilled communication is to pay attention. We do this by settling into the body and breath, resting in the arms of the present moment. Then we take the internal step of clearing the clutter, debris, and noise from our minds—perhaps with a deep inhalation—and casting the shutters of the heart wide open. We set aside the need or urge to immediately reply, invoking a receptive field in our being. Only then can we compassionately receive what is being shared, only then can we begin to gather the precious truth of the deeper story told in words, gesture, and energy by our fellow humans, or the more abstract, non-linguistic communication of the ‘more-than-human’ world.

fox_earsWhen we begin to truly listen—to our partner’s headache, the whispering of the trees, a pain in our body, the invitation of an open field of grass, the silent cries of our own despair—an authentic response naturally arises. A response not needing to explain, console, or parry a perceived attack, but rather one that is a true and meaningful expression. It is not a habitual, half-inhabited reply. Whether in conversation with a lover, friend, or child—or a communion with nature—our rejoinder emerges from the deeper place of heart and soul, and a different sort of energetic resonance unfurls.

To what will we choose to give the gift of our attention, to really listen to?

Soul Artists know that listening is a skill, one that is learned and requires practice until we become adept. They also realize that listening is easier when the moment is not discombobulated by noise, distractions, and chaos, that cultivating a tranquility in our own lives (and minds) opens the door to a deeper conversation with life. Much of what is being communicated is not actually spoken in words. They know too that only when we listen to the soul, its whisperings, yearnings and summons, will we find the meaningful existence we long for.

Gentle reader, it isn’t easy to unhook our well-worn habits, but if we consider that many of them don’t really support our unfolding or the deeper connection we seek—that they often block what we are trying to achieve—then perhaps we can become more malleable and willing to shift. Unlearn. Relearn. Here’s hoping that there is someone in your life who truly listens to you without the need to fix, console, or attempt to make things better, and that you recognize the skill and grace in that. And may you consider what it means to really listen—to another, to yourself, to nature, and the Source.

I wonder, what are you listening to right now, or are you merely hearing something…?