Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Art of Listening

spiritual listening, spiritual photo, spiritual awakening photography
Part and parcel to finding your voice is practicing the art of listening. Lots of people hear, but they don't listen. There's a Chinese proverb that says, "To listen well, is as powerful a means of influence as to talk well, and is as essential to all true conversation."

It sounds simple enough, but how many of us really do this? How many times are you simply waiting for the person to stop talking so you can say what you want to say? How many times are you being silent so as to not make waves or upset someone? And in that silence is a discord in you that is resisting whatever the person is saying, so you aren't really listening at all.

Deaf to the World
Our egos have managed to turn themselves into megaphones. Blasting out opinions on the 24hour news cycle, in boardrooms and business meetings, and in relationships, our ego voices have been filling ears with constant nonsense. So what has happened? We've tuned out. We've shut down. We've decided that it's all crap and that we shouldn't pay attention. This shows up in so many ways. In politics, it means people celebrated a 60% plus voter turn out for the 2008 Presidential election. That means four out of ten REGISTERED voters didn't vote (and probably didn't pay attention to the election). But since 61.7% was a high water mark not seen since 1968, everyone was super excited.

Political apathy is one element of tuning out, and it's a symptom of tuning out in the rest of our lives. If you think that you don't have any power and you tune out, you've created a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you aren't listening and paying attention, you don't know what's going on. You make yourself that much more powerless. The same principle applies to raising a family. If your children are upset about something and you don't listen, then how can you help them and resolve the problem? If your husband has had a hard day, tuning out because he's just "complaining again" doesn't help him to feel heard and validated (and he's probably felt unheard and unvalidated for most of the day, which is why you're getting to hear it now). You can see the cycle can you not? You don't have to solve other people's problems for the most part. Generally speaking, you just have to listen.

Listening with Intention
It's a strange thing, but because so many people have never been fully listened to, the experience can be very intense at first. When I'm talking with a close friend and we're chest deep in a conversation, we're super focused on each other. There are a variety of levels of listening that happen between us as well as other people. A lot of it has to do with body orientation, so let's start there:

  • Eye contact. This is a no brainer, right? Strong, steady eye contact confirms that someone is with you. You can look away and blink, though. This isn't a staring contest. You don't need to bore a hole through someone's skull. Soft, but steady gaze is the way to go.
  • Chest direction. You can definitely feel the difference if someone is listening to you with their head turned toward you and the rest of their body pointed else where. The body does tell you where most of someone's attention is.
  • Hip/Lower torso direction. When someone's whole body is pointed at you, that's a whole other level of connection. Some of the deepest conversations for me end up with my friend and me having our whole bodies directly opposite to each other. That's whole body listening.
Making Space in the Mind
Now that you've got your body pointed in the right direction, let's talk about clearing some of the debris between the ears. Don't worry. You don't have to get it all at once, and you will be spending a lot of time clearing out this space. In many respects the spiritual path is like a big yard sale--you start getting rid of what you don't want or need (a spiritual awakening is like a store clearance/going out of business sale, btw, but I'm getting ahead of myself). To start, simply notice the noise in your mind. Here are some questions:
  • What stories are running through your head when you talk to this person?
  • Why are you distracted?
  • What are your expectations about this relationship and conversation?

These are just a few with which to begin. Ask these questions of yourself. Notice the noise. Now, start to put it aside as you're listening to someone. Really focus on their words and on what they're saying. You don't even necessarily have to understand the conversation to be present to it. Reciprocating and discussion are important to active listening, but for this blog post, I'm just talking about listening and making space to hear the person and where they're coming from. I'm also talking about noticing the filters and projections you put on someone that don't allow you to hear them for who they are. There are so many things in the way to listening, which should be such a simple thing.

Find a Listening Partner
I've been around meditation groups and other gatherings where there's an activity in which one person talks and the other just listens. They don't comment on what the other person has said. They simply listen. This, of course, is the start of developing a space in yourself as a witness. The witness (which I'll also talk about in later blogs) is a powerful place. This is where you can step back to see things as they really are and to hold space for whatever is occurring without ego judgment. For now, it's enough to start to practicing listening.

I encourage you to find a friend with whom you can listen to with active eye contact and your bodies directed at each other. Spend ten minutes doing this, and then you can talk  about what you noticed inside yourselves. At this point, it's important not to be critiquing the other person. There's enough critique of the "other" in our society. You're at the beginning of the process, and you need to start to turn your attention inwards to you (and even if you're not at the start of a spiritual path, this is a good reminder). As you do this, you're going to notice some changes and become aware of how a lot of relationships do and don't work for you. You're going to start to see a lot more clearly, and in turn, you'll going to start to be able to voice your truth more easily because you started to really listen.

Next blog: Using Your Intuition

This picture is gift from Becky Stiller. You can see more of her photography on this Flickr link.
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