On New Year's Day, I listened to an On Being interview with the acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, who defines real quiet as "presence." He explores the art and practice of deep listening as a taking in of the world, just as it is. Nature, he says, is the best place to start.
I often wonder: What if I could listen to nature, fully and completely? Here in Hawai‘i, I give it my best. So many opportunities! The sound of the ocean, the wind through the grasses, it quietens me and brings me peace.
But what if could listen also to the story of who we are in this world as human beings, fully and completely? Without my inner judgements, answers, and insecurities getting in the way? What if I could listen to you? Without the chatter of my inner voices obscuring the luminous information that you provide beyond your words? I look then at the child in the photograph, me as a toddler, and know that I lost such mastery a long time ago. (A preschooler, says Hempton, will "tell you everything you need to know about becoming a better listener.") But I also feel deep gratitude that I may yet reclaim this skill.
The art of listening is needed in this aching world. Listening as a way to pause and understand the radiance of our diversity. A way to learn, grow, appreciate, to keep wonder alive. A way to connect on a real level with another. Listening to serve. Listening that is interested in true sounds and sensations, and can't be bothered by the noise. Listening because it is who we are.
From war zones to family tables, poor listening has caused suffering. Research shows that the average person listens at only about 25 percent efficiency, and retains only about 20 percent of the information heard. Businesses lose millions of dollars because of poor listening. Couples fight and children are miserable because there is no space for listening. Other research shows that in noisy places, where we purposefully cut ourselves off from listening, we are less likely to help one another.
So how do we learn to listen again? Nature, yesl: "Simply listen to the place," says Hempton. "And when you listen to the place, you take it all in, which is exactly what we're meant to do."
Then on to people, where the deep listening with quiet presence as strengthened in nature can carry us through. The security within quietude that we find in natural soundscapes allows us to listen to human beings from our center, wholeheartedly, taking in all that they are as well. Such deep listening gives us the ground to be who we are, creating a space where open-ended, non-judgmental questions emerge, answers flow and cooperation thrives. It is the space where happiness, success, and health surface. Choices are possible. Dreams unfold. It is very quiet, indeed. True and beautiful.
"Good listeners are like trampolines," summarizes a great Harvard Business Report that was written in July 2016. "[T]hey amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking." Inspiring also is the Centre for Peace & Conflict Studies, which has been effectively relying on the process of powerful, deep listening to create spaces for peace-building efforts in war-torn communities such as Myanmar. Stories of compassion, empathy, possibility, and genuine, solution-focused outreach have unfolded in these safe spaces where people from different backgrounds converge.
We can choose to listen. We can learn to shake off whatever else is going on for us and become present for what is. We can choose to listen to the spaces beyond words. Clearheaded, quiet-minded, connected to a reality we can share. I like to think of this as an engaged presence in a world rich with possibility, with a heart that is compassionate and kind. Calm and still amid a forcefield of information.
What does it feel like? Take a deep breath. You are here. Things are as they are. For me, for sure,'ll continue my effort to reclaim listening as a practice.
"Listen, and feel the beauty of your separation,
the unsayable absence.
There is a moon inside every human being.
Learn to be companions with it.
Give more of your life to this listening." ~ Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi.
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