The ability to listen is the bedrock of relationship. But what, actually, are you doing when you’re supposedly listening? Chances are you’re either oscillating between paying attention and being lured away by outer distractions, or you’re listening, sort of, and at the same time you’re thinking about what this reminds you of, and how you’ll respond, and the story you need to share, and your approval or disapproval. If you’re anything like me, an opinion will be forming that you’re itching to express. But, as Mindrolling Jetsün Khandro Rinpoche reminds us, “The whole world says your opinions are not needed. And you keep thinking, ‘It matters—who would know this better than me?’”
When you start listening to others, deeply and without clinging to an opinion, at first it might seem as though you are missing opportunities to set things straight. You may feel you have an obligation to speak your truth—after all, qui tacet consentire videtur: silence is understood to be consent. There is no question that there are times when you are morally obligated to stand your ground and speak up. This is not that.
Many of the people I serve as a hospice chaplain come from different backgrounds and hold political, religious, and societal views that are different from my own. If my goal is to support them, I can’t allow these differences to interfere with our connection. To my mind, this is an expression of the bodhisattva ethos. By listening deeply, with respect and benevolence, and without imposing my ideas about what parts of their lives or beliefs need fixing, I’m giving them space to be heard as they are rather than as my preconceptions define them. I may not agree with them, but while we’re together I can try to share their experience and meet them where they are.
We chaplains use terms such as “empathic listening,” “holding space,” and “ministry of presence” to describe such interactions. I have come to cherish these spaces of communion where I can completely relax into listening. I don’t have to have an opinion. I do not, actually, have to do anything other than offer my full attention. What a relief!
Like with any other skill, the ability to listen can be fortified and fine-tuned. Early Buddhist texts suggest using perception of sound as an anchor for mindfulness. In some, such as the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha proposes contemplation of sense perception as a means of cutting through the bonds of grasping:
A bhikkhu understands the ear and sounds and the fetter that arises dependent on both (ear and sounds); he understands how the arising of the non-arisen fetter comes to be; he understands how the abandoning of the arisen fetter comes to be; and he understands how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned fetter comes to be.”
—Majjhima Nikaya 10, trans. Soma Thera
Other Buddhist practices put awareness of sound to use in any number of ways. In the Mahamudra (“Great Seal”) tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, for one, examining sense perceptions—through both reflection and direct investigation—can lead to transformative insights into the nature of mind.
Turned inward and folded into mindfulness practice, focused listening enhances meditative stability. The process is essentially the same as with other mindfulness methods: let the mind rest in awareness of sound rather than of the breath or physical sensations. Acknowledge, with benevolence, perception of sound in the moment and refrain from judging. Observe how the mind tends to go about its usual business of clinging, appraising, naming, and building a story around the sound. See if you can distance yourself from this mental habit by letting go and relaxing into simply being with perception.
I don’t have to have an opinion. I do not, actually, have to do anything other than offer my full attention.
You can experiment with different sounds—a sound you’ve created by striking a gong or turning on music; a pleasant ambient sound like rustling leaves or birdsongs; or a noise you’d rather avoid, such as the whiny din of leaf blowers. Start with just a few minutes, then extend as desired. By developing the ability to remain peaceably with whatever is arising in the moment, without judgment or reacting, you’re releasing the ropes that keep the mind stuck in the tug of war of dualistic clinging.
Turned outward, deep listening is a practice of deep connection. Cultivating the ability to listen in relationship takes a healthy dose of self-awareness. As in the practice of mindfulness of sound, you are training to remain peaceably with whatever you hear or feel in the moment.
We might identify three dimensions of listening to others as a practice:
First, the Mechanics of Listening
Mute your phone; don’t interrupt (this one takes practice); make eye contact when the other person is comfortable with it; learn to gauge the appropriate distance.
Second, Hearing the Other
When possible, take a moment to become present and centered before engaging. Give space; fill silence with benevolence rather than with words. Tune in to nonverbal cues. Ask questions that express your genuine interest instead of questions that lead where you’d like to go.
Third, Listening to Yourself
Clarify your intent: Are you listening or speaking to benefit yourself or the other person? To understand or to convince? Try to be aware of any objectives other than giving your full attention to the moment, and set them aside. Note your physical and emotional reactions in real time; breathe into any tensions and loosen them. Try to be aware of assumptions and judgments as they arise, and set them aside.
It’s a gift to be heard. It’s a gift to able to inhabit the moment and let go of everything that draws us away from it. In meditation as in interaction, when we remain present and devote our full attention to listening, we gain access to a space where the usual constructs of self, other, and perception or cognition can give way to an experience of pure awareness and plenitude. Whether turned inward, on the cushion, or outward, in relationship, the practice of listening is a precious gift.