Close your eyes and remember an experience where you were listened to, really listened to. If you can remember this time, try to remember how you felt in your body, what you thought and what the entire experience gave to you.
So often, in this life of hurry and defend and plan and convince, we lose the daily practice of deep listening. Or maybe we haven’t lost it, but never really developed it in the first place. We often: worry about all the things that need to be accomplished today; think about how to respond to the current conversation; make judgements about what the other individual is saying; are distracted by events occurring simultaneously in the environment around us; jump to conclusions before contemplating what is being said. Obviously, this contributes to the relationship we have with the speaker. When we do a loving kindness meditation, we say something to the effect of “may (this person) be free from suffering” or “may this person be safe from inner and outer dangers.” we can move toward making that experience happen for the speaker if we practice listening mindfully.
Mindful listening is a skill we are not born with: we learn from the parental and familial role modelling we see, we build habits for listening in one direction or the other based on life experience and how communication happens around us, and we adapt our skills to the messages we receive from our own nervous systems. For example, when we are anxious in our bodies, we are less able to sit and listen, to really hear. Listening is such a big part of communicating, but how in tune with what we are hearing are we, really? How open and curious are we as we listen?
If we take all that we are learning through this mindfulness practice about paying attention to ourselves, our thoughts and our bodily sensations and apply that learning to listening, let’s think about what we might have available to us. We might use beginner’s mind as we listen. What might that be like inside our mind? We might slow down and use patience in our listening style. What might this look like? We might let go of judgment. How might that look or sound in conversation? If we use non-striving in our listening, how might that influence the speaker who wants to be listened to (don’t we all?) We might truly commit ourselves to the intention of just that one activity...listening. And imagine if we embodied the mindfulness attitudes of gratitude and generosity as we listen? Can you imagine how this might change a stale (at best) or hostile (at worst) dynamic of communication you find yourself in with certain people, beloveds even?
If we decide to listen, we can do one thing. Listen. With beginner’s mind, non-judgment, non-striving, patience, gratitude and generosity on the part of you, the listener, you can create an energy that allows and eventually invites a speaker to open up, like a flower in the warm sun.
When we are truly listening deeply, we are aware of our own sense of ourselves as we listen. We can attend to the internal experiences even as we tune back again and again into the listener, to be surprised by whatever information the speaker is sharing and to catch the speaker with soft arms of deep listening (or to bathe the listener in the warm sun of your mindful attention). This ability to allow ourselves to stay in what is being heard, regardless of our discomfort with it is something Keats talked about: when someone “is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” He called this negative capability. Wouldn’t this be wonderful, to ‘be in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without irritable reaching’ much of the time we are supposed to be listening?
Let's Practice...We can prepare our bodies for mindful listening by doing a couple minutes of centering, both physically and mentally. So, as we sit….(head over spine, over hips and leaning forward ever so slightly to ensure uprightness that can be lost over the years of aging and slouching into our lives) Once we are physically centered and ready, we can spend a moment clearing our minds, noticing what is present for us, and using the outbreath to clear space for listening. If you have any particular internal experiences that are holding on, perhaps you can imagine that those experiences can recede to the background and you can promise yourself you will work with them later. As you breathe, you are preparing yourself for true listening without so much interference of your own internal experience.
--Take a couple minutes to focus on your breathing, just as we do in the beginning of many meditations. Allow this to be your cuing to attention and your clearing out of previous experiences.--Pair up with a partner, and invite the partner to talk without interruption about whatever s/he wants to share for about 5 minutes.
--When you are the listener, you can simply listen. Don’t comment or question, don’t answer, just listen. This is practice not for a conversation but for listening and allowing the talker to fill the space with her/his own thoughts.
--You can offer direct eye contact as much as feels comfortable, and let other non-verbal cues such as nodding, smiling, demonstrate your “getting” your partner.
--Notice your own impulse to speak, your wandering mind, any indications of emotions or urges that you can notice in your own body, even as you come back to just listening.
--You can switch roles so each person gets a chance to speak and a chance to listen.
Maybe you want to reflect on this experience with your partner:
Now let’s settle back in to our own experience and take a few deep breaths to settle the mind, and just be present.
And now let’s turn our thoughts to the person or people who might be most impacted by this kind of listening that you have just practiced. Notice yourself thinking about how it might impact you as the listener and your relationship to that person in general.
Deep Listening by Mary-Elizabeth Cotton - Hello Poetry
Let us listen...
Just for awhile
let us silence our minds
and open our hearts
Just for awhile
let us listen from within
not to gain knowledge
not to formulate questions
rather to chance upon
sacred bonds and
Just for awhile
let us not seek information
Let us not rouse the intellect
but embrace the spirit
If thoughts cloud the brain
let them pass
If replies tingle on the tongue
let us breathe them away silently
Return to them later
here in this precious time of sharing
Let us listen
let the words wash over us
and seep into a still quiet pool
Let us listen.