Before inquiring into a new way of listening, let me just share the joy of walking through the fields and woods on this extraordinary land. Just stepping out of the reception area, closing the door behind me, walking away from the overhang that shields one from the sun and rain, there isn’t any enclosure left—not even a body! All I am is the birds singing and fluttering, bare branches swaying in the breeze, the ground partly frozen yet melting, the pond covered with a thin layer of ice, and the blue hills, sky and wandering clouds within close reach. There is also a throbbing heart and the people walking on the path. Even those who are not here—aren’t we all together this one moment—beholding everything out of stillness?
It is the stillness of not being identified with me—the endless stories of the past and the various images that have represented me to myself and others. Identification with me is a living prison. In it we constantly want to be accepted, feel important, be listened to, be encouraged, supported and comforted in this separate life of ours. But now, here, in the fresh air under the open sky there is the freedom of not needing anything, not needing to be anything—just being this open listening space where people walk, crows caw and ice cracks underfoot.
Why do I feel that listening is so immensely important in living alone or together? It is because listening quietly, passionately, now, without expectation or effort, is the gateway to living in wholeness, without the separation of you and me.
This is our main question: Can we listen in a deep way in a moment of silence and stillness? Or is the mind preoccupied with the 10,000 worries of this world, of our life, of our family? Can we realize right now that a mind that is occupied with itself cannot listen freely? This is not said in judgment—it is a fact. It’s impossible for me to hear someone else while I’m worrying about myself. Birdcalls and the songs of the breeze do not exist when the mind is full of itself. This is within the experience of all of us. So, can the mind put its problems aside for one moment and listen freshly? This moment! Are we listening together? The caw of the crows, the quiet hum of a plane, a dog’s barking, or whatever sounds are alive where you are listening right now.
It is relatively easy to listen happily in nature—the leaves, grasses, flowers, trees, lakes and hills do not think and worry like we do, and therefore do not provoke thinking. Maybe for deer and birds there is some rudimentary thinking going on but that need not engage us in thought (unless we are avid birdwatchers or we worry about the plight of too many deer and too many hunters next season). Thought can make a problem out of everything, but most of us find the beauty of unselfconscious listening much easier to come upon in nature than among people.
Why is it so inordinately difficult to listen to each other? When I am present with the abundant energy of listening, I do not find it difficult to hear what you are saying. Instead of being busy with self-concern, the space is open to hearing, seeing, and understanding the meaning of your words. If I don’t understand, then there is the freedom to ask you for clarification.
Without this open space of presence—energy, the inner tapes of human conditioning press hard to be heard—they do not want to make way for listening to others. How can I possibly hear you when I am dying to say something myself? How can I take the time and care to understand you when I think that I am right and you are wrong? When I’m sure that I know better? When I sorely need attention and resent anyone else getting it?
Can I hear you when I have fixed images about how you have been in the past, how you have criticized or flattered me? Can I listen freely when I would like you to be different from the way you are? Do I have the patience to listen to you when I think I already know what you are going to say? Am I open to listening to you when I am judging you? Judgments and prejudices lie deeply hidden in the recesses of the mind and require curiosity and inner transparency in order to be discovered. Only what is discovered can end.
Do I really hear what you are saying when I take you to be holy, to be worshipped, adored and surrendered to? Will I expect every word you say to be infallible wisdom? Or the opposite: Can I hear what you are saying when I am convinced that you are stupid? Am I listening to you in the same way that I listen to someone else?
We can add more and more to this list, but the important thing is to start fundamentally questioning our listening. The point is not to ask, “How can I achieve pure listening?” but rather, “Where is my listening coming from this moment, in light of all these questions?” Is it hampered by different ideas and attitudes or does it arise from a moment of being truly present?
Many of us sincerely desire to become better listeners and may think that it will only happen once we are free of the me sometime in the future. This is an erroneous assumption. Even though the me circuit is deeply ingrained within brain and body, a genuine desire and interest to understand you allows energy to gather in listening attentively to what you are saying. This attentive listening may empty out the preoccupation with myself. Through listening to your words and truly wishing to understand what you mean to convey, I enter you—your question, your condition, the whole you.
When I’m not really interested in what you are saying, can I pause and listen within? Can I take a glance at what is going on inside? Is it resistance? Boredom? The passing by of words that are not really heard? When there is clear seeing, that in itself is a shift.
Listening purifies itself. It’s not that there is necessarily a new interest in what you are saying. I may prefer to dialogue deeply while you want to relate your story or get my attention. When listening comes out of wholeness, an appropriate response happens. That is the wisdom of listening.
Sometimes, when I’m talking in a meeting and a flock of crows flies by—caw, caw, caw, caw, caw—I raise my hand a bit and ask: “Do you hear that?” The person may shake her head—the listening space was filled up with other things. Are we here right now?
When you hear that question, what happens? Is it simply caw, caw, caw, or are you thinking, “Am I doing it right?” or, “What does she want me to say?” Hear those thoughts like you hear the wind in the trees. It’s the same listening. It’s different things—the sound of wind and trees and birds is different from the sound of thoughts—but it’s the same listening. One whole listening!
For marvelous unknown reasons, once in a while we are completely here. For a moment we hear, see and feel all one. Then the mind comes in to explain it, know it, compare it and store it. This is not an intentional process—it’s habit. No one is doing it. The naming, liking and disliking, wanting to keep something and fearing the loss of it—these are all ingrained mind processes rolling off on their own. If we get a glimpse of that, get a feel for what is purely habitual, then we will be much more tolerant and patient with the so-called others and with ourselves.
When I talk about listening, I don’t mean just listening with the ear. Listening here includes the totality of perception—all senses open and alive, and still much more than that. The eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind are receptive, open, not controlled. A Zen saying describes it as “hearing with one’s eyes and seeing with one’s ears.” It refers to this wholeness of perception. The wholeness of being!
Another Zen saying demands: “Hear the bell before it rings!” Ah, it doesn’t make any sense rationally, does it? But there is a moment when that bell is ringing before you know it! You may never know it! Your entire being is ringing! There’s no division in that—everything is ringing.
So can we learn more and more about ourselves, not by studying in order to increase our store of information, but through asking in wonderment what keeps us from hearing the bell before it rings?