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Dharma Teachings
True Listening

SMR May 2011Dharma Teaching
by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

It is said that when the Buddha first taught, two deer approached, knelt down, and raised their ears. They symbolize the act of listening, a sublime way of being present in the moment. Their perked-up ears represent keen attentiveness. Their bodies kneeling down represent relaxation and respect. The receptive state of listening is a way of learning, a way to gain wisdom and insight. It is auditory meditation.

True listening is a skill that we develop. It is not always easy. In this era of technological expertise and emotional unavailability, all too often there is more speaking than listening. Frequently, when we are speaking to another, we are not having conversation as such but rather an exchange of rhetoric. For a genuine dialogue to occur, speaking and listening must both play leading roles. The verbal exchange in a conversation is the dance and play between two interlocking human minds, which naturally creates harmony. Therefore, having a good conversation is an art that benefits oneself and others.

In the art of conversation, two people are equal partners. When one is speaking, one is more active; when one is listening, one is more receptive. A conversation where someone is speaking but no one is listening fosters disharmony — within the conversation and within the relationship. Thus, in order for the conversation to be healthy and productive and to grow, both participants need to take turns listening.

One reason we have conversations is that we often just need someone to hear what we have to say. However, in our busy and speedy world, where we are constantly encouraged to self-indulge and gratify our desires, it can be difficult to find someone to listen because the act involves placing one’s mind on another person. That requires the release of self-indulgence. Unfortunately, our modern culture is in danger of producing a cycle where no one is listening and, at the same time, there is a tendency to indulge in self-expression. We want to speak rather than listen. As a result, we are all rushing to express ourselves and no one is listening.

In fact, these days we often hire people to listen to us. Coaches and therapists are trained in the art of listening, providing the space in which we are allowed simply to express ourselves. To sit quietly and listen demonstrates strength. Their listening enables our stress, fear, worries, and insecurities to be revealed and liberated. Likewise, in everyday conversation, by learning to listen, we can digest, contemplate, and engage in the thoughts of another, understanding and responding to their emotional state.

As in any other activity, it helps to practice listening. The best way to listen is to learn to hold your seat. The exchange of power has been handed over to the speaker, who is now directing the conversation’s mood and energy. If you feel insecure about your role as the listener, you may feel intimidated and anxious, inadvertently or compulsively interrupting the conversation in order to regain control. Thus, holding your seat is a process of engagement and self-assurance. It also clearly expresses your discipline, particularly in controlling your speech, especially in a conversational setting where the purpose is to volley back and forth words and ideas. When it is your turn to listen, it is clearly the other person’s opportunity to serve. Thus, ironically, listening often requires a greater sense of calm and self-assurance than talking. A good listener is not threatened by another taking the reins of power.

When we are unable to listen, a number of things are occurring. The first is related to time: we are unable to be in the present moment, for listening requires us to be on the spot. Therefore, listening is clearly a practice of mindfulness. It is engagement or attentiveness. As well as being present, listening requires us to feel and to care. The ear itself is meant to decipher sounds to communicate feeling, and the inner ear is responsible for balance. Listening helps us balance our relationship with others.

However, when we do not care and are inattentive — and thus cannot hear — our mind is focused on ourselves. We therefore care more about our thoughts than what the speaker is saying. We let memories of past experiences or fantasies of the future interfere with our present act of listening. This can happen quite harmlessly: we ask a friend about the food at a new restaurant. She says it is good, and casually mentions liking the fish tank in the entryway. As we remember the fish we saw while snorkeling on vacation, we cease to care, and by the time we come back to our friend’s words, she’s describing dessert.

When we are unable to listen, we lose connectivity. At the least, daydreaming while someone else is speaking is a subtle form of rudeness. As well, in tuning out of the conversation to rehash old memories, we are slowly engraining the tendency to be jaded. The present moment and other people are not interesting, so we are less available to new stimuli. Losing touch with human connectivity, we forget that conversation is not simply about following dialogue, but also about caring for another and appreciating human interaction.

Thus, in engaging in conversation, first, our attention should be on the other person, with our ear faculty focused on their speech. This focus should be specific, not general, where we are simultaneously paying attention to the music, other conversations, birds chirping, and dogs barking.

Next, in order for this focus to occur, we have to relax. Often, when we do not listen well, there is tension in the body. This tension is related to aggression. Something about the other person is preventing us from truly listening. Perhaps we do not fully trust them; we are not ready to be receptive. Or perhaps we do not respect them; we are not ready to be submissive. To relieve this blockage, it can be helpful to inhale or exhale, sit down or stand up, uncross our arms or legs, or touch and feel the place of tension in our body. After reconnecting with the body through our posture or breath, we may find ourselves relaxed enough to listen and hear.

Even brief moments of genuine conversation can uplift our entire life. They can help us touch the core emotional elements that make us truly human. They can keep us from feeling isolated and introverted. Fortunately, the art of conversation is not simply based upon what clever wordsmiths we can be, but equally on how perceptive we can be as listeners. Ultimately, listening is the price you pay if you want to be heard.

True listening, like the art of conversation, is a skill we develop. It is not always easy. We have to come out of our own insecurities and self-absorption, which takes confidence and relaxation. We have to care about another person, which takes maturity. Some stories and dialogue are painful or disturbing, so listening also takes bravery. Some dialogues can be boring, tedious, and irritating, so patience and compassion are required. Thus, the noble qualities of a good listener can overcome many of the faults of a poor conversationalist. And even though listening is a receptive act, it is a simultaneously dynamic endeavor that allows everyone to grow.

Read more by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche by clicking here.

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3 responses to “ True Listening ”
  1. Ellen Berger
    Mar 18, 2015

    This teaching is exactly what is needed. What a meaningful relief.

  2. Timaree Bierle-Dodds
    Mar 16, 2015

    Thank you so much Rinpoche! The teaching is very helpful and most inspiring .
    The delightful humor is also appreciated!

  3. Anne Saitzyk
    Mar 16, 2015

    Such an important teaching. Thank you, Sir!

Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.

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