“The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.” —Thich Nhat Hanh
I recently viewed a TV special with a segment from the PBS children’s television series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in which Nick, a young boy, was invited to play the piano. As Nick played a Bach minuet, Mister Rogers listened in a way that suggested he was not just hearing the notes but actually experiencing them in the same way his young player did. He watched Nick’s facial expressions, not his hands, and was thoroughly present and connected in his listening. Indeed, a Mister Rogers hallmark was encouraging kids to connect with others, especially those different from them. That passion for connection is reflected in the title of both the song for which he is best remembered and the recent documentary film about him: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Passive and active
How often are you really present with what is happening in your life? Do you find yourself easily distracted while engaging in activities or listening only partially when people are speaking? Thoughts, feelings, and perceptions have always had their power to distract us from the present moment. But nowadays texts, emails, and various social media have become all consuming, taking us away from what is before us, and even what is inside us. Yet with all this connectivity, research reveals that Americans feel more isolated and disconnected than ever before. All these electronic distractions interfere significantly with our ability to truly listen, focus, respond—and even to feel fully alive.
Hearing is generally a passive experience. We are bombarded with a myriad of sounds as we move through our daily lives and simply cannot be present to all of them. But how often do we really stop to listen?
Listening is not limited to hearing through our ears. We have the capacity to listen with our whole body, heart, and mind. Although hearing depends on the transmission of vibrations from the eardrum to the inner ear, sound vibrations also produce a felt sense in the body. I once attended a conference at which the entire audience was deaf. To my surprise, the event ended with a dance; the participants’ bodies moved with exhilarating joy to incredibly loud music. So loud it felt like my eardrums might burst. But I also felt its deep vibration throughout my entire body.
As I write this, the hissing sound of cicadas is present outside and I occasionally pause and listen. I feel it vibrating inside and around me. Listening can be an active inner experience that that requires our full presence and fosters openness and absorption.
We all have a need to tell our story and truly be heard. Our minds often ruminate over stories of our daily experiences as well as our life challenges, which can cause us to feel stuck or blocked. Sometimes just letting it out verbally can release some of what is pent up inside. But that may only provide a temporary fix. We all need a Mister Rogers–like listener. When someone truly listens to us, a powerful human connection is created. We depend on and thrive as a result of such inter-relatedness with others.
When no one is available to listen, journaling can be a meaningful outlet. Some people keep a journal as if they are opening up to another person. Thirteen-year-old Anne Frank was forced into hiding with her Jewish family in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam in 1942. For two years she kept a diary in which she shared her deepest thoughts and feelings with an imaginary friend she called Kitty. Kitty became Anne’s safe and intimate confidante. Her diary, subsequently published as The Diary of a Young Girl, has become a classic that continues to inspire countless readers.
How to listen to another
I believe that most of us listen to one another halfheartedly, or, more colloquially speaking, we are half-assed listeners! When someone is speaking, a transient thought may surface in our mind, and we stop listening. We may think we’re listening, but we get busy thinking about what we want to say in response and become focused on when we might have the opportunity to interject our thoughts. The result is a fragmented conversation that does not provide the sense of connection we all need.
How do we listen? You might practice the following exercise with a friend or partner. Choose a time and place away from conflicts when your stress hormones are not activated. As one person shares something important to him or her, you, the listener, should slow down and breathe deeply. Perhaps evoke Mister Rogers! Become calm and absorb what the other person says—like a sponge. Set aside judgement and assumptions; don’t analyze and don’t interrupt. This is especially important when listening to someone whose views don’t agree with yours. Notice if you become triggered by what is being shared. Stay grounded and present with your breath while continuing to remain open and accepting; maintain eye contact.
Rather than wanting to fix, change, or give advice, be curious. Respond with nonintrusive, clarifying questions. For example, paraphrase what you’ve heard and ask, “Did I get it right?” Ask the speaker to “say more.” Ask about their feelings, which will allow them to know you care; they will feel validated, something we all seek.
Listening in nature
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote: “In nature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else which is before it, beside it, under it and over it.” Nature may be our best teacher for learning to listen. As the cicadas continue to hiss outside my window, I feel their presence subtly vibrating in my body, calling me to go outside and walk amongst the trees. According to biologist David George Haskell, author of The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors, “There is no such thing as an individual within biology…. Instead, the fundamental unit of life is interconnection and relationship.” A tree shares the sounds of its leaves rustling in the wind; the insects and birds inhabiting its branches make their own unique and beautiful sounds. Nature’s sounds can help lure you away from your busy thinking mind. When you relax into listening, it’s possible to empty your mind of unnecessary thoughts. When you are deeply present, you experience the sound of silence and feel its peace and equilibrium. Listening can become your best companion.
As the spiritual philosopher Jean Klein, author of numerous books including The Book of Listening and The Ease of Being, said: “When you come to innocent, unconditioned listening, your body goes spontaneously into deep peace.”