Oliver Wendell Holmes
One way to think of meditation is careful listening to one's own body/mind. So, lets think about listening, and maybe we'll learn something about meditation too.
If you are reading a book and someone slams a door behind you, you will hear the door slam, even though you were not listening for it. If you hear a noise in the middle of the night, and you think it may be an intruder, you will listen carefully. So listening suggests a more attentive state in which we intend to hear.
Listening is a skill to be cultivated. To a musician, it is the key to creating art. To the counselor, it is an essential tool in therapy. To a lover it is the bridge to intimacy. Our ears receive sound. Our mind engages us to listen.
While listening is an active state of awareness, it is also passive in the sense that it is receptive. You can't really listen to another if you are focussed on interpreting what they may think of you or what you are going to say next. To listen to a person is to give your attention to them. This is hard when we are full of ourselves.
If we are attending to our anxieties about the relationship, evaluating the other, or developing theories about what they are saying, we are not fully present with them. Deep listening requires an emptiness of self, and openness to the other. Sometimes, this occurs automatically. New lovers may listen enraptured to each other. Their focus is totally on the other. They desire to know the mind of their beloved, so their listening is intense. After years of familiarity, these same lovers may need to intend to focus their attention in order to fully hear their partner. A characteristic of a great lover is this ability to hear the needs and desires of the partner, even after the initial flush of passion has subsided.
Normally, when we listen carefully, our consciousness shuttles between listening to the other and monitoring our own mental activity. We intend to hear and understand the other person. We listen with our ears and with our eyes, and our body. We hear words and intonation, read body language, and feel the emotional tone they project. We also briefly check our own response and observe what we are doing mentally and emotionally as we listen.
Perhaps as we do this we will find ourselves enraptured by the conversation and the self checking will dissolve as we respond effortlessly and purely to the other person.
It is this way in meditation too. Initially, we may need to focus on a mantra or on our breathing to create one pointedness of mind, and we may need to repeatedly bring our wandering mind back to the experience, but eventually, with practice and persistence, we find it more natural to slide into an open and receptive mental state of clarity.
This week, deepen your capacity for listening. Try these experiences:
- Take some time to listen with your full attention to a piece of beautiful music. Spend some time with the music when and where you won't be bothered by external demands. Give yourself to the music. Let yourself feel what the composer intended for you to feel.
- Sit in meditation and attend to the sounds that come to you. Hear the sounds of humans and animals and other natural or unnatural things. Allow yourself to hear without evaluating the sound. If a sound irritates you, let go of the irritation. Just hear it for the vibrational pattern that it is. Notice where you meet the sound.
- Have a conversation where you allow yourself to be fully present for the other person. Listen to their words. Listen to their emotion. Notice your response to their communication. See if you can stay with them without being overwhelmed by your own thinking and feeling.
- Notice what you do with silence in conversations. Do you allow any, or do you feel the need to fill the open space with talk?
© 2002 Tom Barrett