The great value of mindfulness practice can be found in the ordinary activities of daily life. It is not necessary to engage in extraordinary pursuits to realize the full depth and breadth of Buddhist practice. Listening is one of the ordinary, daily activities that can serve as a powerful vehicle for cultivating mindfulness, insight, and freedom. Dharma practice is to develop the ability to “see clearly;” listening well is a way to do this. Through listening we can better appreciate what others are saying and gain greater self-understanding.
Imagine yourself standing in front of a great wall stretching far to the right and far to the left. In the middle is a closed door. You open the door, and step through. On the other side of the wall is a vast sky and a great panorama of mountains and valleys receding toward a far distant horizon. From this view you appreciate the great vastness and spaciousness of the world. Then you turn around and step back through the door to the other side of the wall. Standing on the other side you see that here is a vista of a vast ocean sprinkled with beautiful islands. In fact, on either side of the door there is an equally wide, large world to be explored and studied. Listening can be understood as the door between two vast worlds, the world outside of yourself and the world inside yourself. The first is what your ears can hear. The second is what is going on in your body, mind, and heart as you listen. To practice mindful listening is to reside in the doorway between these two worlds so you can be attentive and wise in both.
To listen well, it is helpful to distinguish listening from hearing. Listening is an active, deliberate activity while hearing doesn’t require any effort or intention. With a loud sound, no effort is needed to hear it. However, one might need to intentionally listen to identify the source of the sound. If we were to mime someone listening we might cup a hand behind one ear and lean in the direction of a sound. It is much more difficult to mime ‘hearing’ because hearing is not an activity we do, it is a mode of receptivity to whatever sounds that might occur. By having a clear distinction between listening and hearing we can then choose one over the other. Sometimes, it can be deeply relaxing to make no effort to listen except to rest in the hearing, especially with meditation, music, or sounds of nature. More often in daily life however, we either listen actively or not very well, for example, when we don’t fully listen to what others are saying.
One form of active listening is to listen mindfully, that is, with clear attention and interest. Listening mindfully is to intentionally bring greater awareness to the experience of listening rather than listening habitually or perhaps half-heartedly. To make it a mindfulness practice we also give priority to listening for the purpose of listening rather than letting another purpose dominate. We attend to listening in such a way that we both listen better and are aware of our attitude while listening.
The better your understanding of what goes on within you as you listen, the better you can understand the obstruction to listening well and what you can do to listen more mindfully. Mindful listening requires a willingness to put aside, at least temporarily, the agendas, preferences, opinions, and judgments that interfere with being able to listen well. At the same time, it can involve actively noticing the internal impact and response you have to what is heard. Then, you can choose to keep your focus on the different dimensions of what you listening to rather than easily wandering off in thought. Not only can you listen more carefully to the content of what someone is saying, you can notice their facial expressions, tone of voice, posture, and attitidude.
Without mindfulness, listening can sometimes be done with eagerness—even impatience—for someone who is talking to finish. An internal pressure to speak, or having anticipatory thoughts, can interfere with our full listening to what others are saying. In contrast, to listen mindfully is to be generous with our time; to live in the flow of time, each thing allowed its own time.
You know you are listening mindfully when you continue to listen after someone has stopped speaking. Listen to the silence. Or let the receptivity with which you listened become an additional occasion to notice what is happening within yourself or with the person to whom you are listening. Such a pause—even a two second pause—gives you time to digest what was said. It is also a time to discover what you want to say before you actually say it. Such self-awareness can protect you from saying things you later regret. The pause may also give others a chance to discover what is going on in their own minds and bodies.
Mindful listening is embodied listening. This means that you don’t just listen with your ears. You can feel the physical impact of what you hear. What sensations arise in the body in response to what is heard? What parts of your body get energized in the hearing? What gets tense, what relaxes?
Embodied listening includes assuming a posture that supports better listening. Perhaps sitting up straighter with the chest open. Perhaps turning toward the person who is speaking. It can be helpful to assume a posture or a gesture that indicates you are listening. Perhaps leaning forward slightly. Or nodding your head to the points the person is making. By being actively involved in listening we listen better. It also helps the speaker to know we are really listening.
A famous story from the Ramayana, an epic poem in the Hindu tradition, illustrates the power of careful listening. The story tells of Rama walking in the forest with some companions. When Rama starts hearing the faint whisper of a voice, he asks his companions if they can hear it. They say, “No.” Rama begins to walk toward the whisper. As he gets closer he recognizes it is his name that is being spoken, “Rama…Rama.” As the voice becomes louder, his friends still say they can’t hear it. Finally Rama comes to a large boulder from which the sound comes. He then places his two hands gently on the boulder. At this point the rock breaks open and inside is a person who has been stuck in the rock through a magic spell. By listening to the whisper he was able to discover what was locked up and then release it.
In this way, to listen mindfully is to give care in order to hear the faint whispers inside others and ourselves and to discover the significant thoughts, feelings, and desires that may be shy or overlooked. Once discovered, the quiet whispers then have the opportunity to be heard.
Listening—as all forms of active attention—is an intentional act, and as such is connected to our desires, emotions, attitudes, values, and preferences. Because of this connection it can be helpful to use the following questions to help explore your listening. You might take your time with each question, perhaps giving yourself a week to reflect on it before exploring the next one.
- What purpose motivates your listening?
- What concerns and desires influence your listening?
- Are there emotions coloring what you hear?
- How interested and attentive are you to what you’re listening to?
- When someone is speaking, how much are you listening to the person and how much are you engaged in your own thoughts?
- What expectations do you have when you listen?
- In different situations, you will have different answers to these questions. The answers may point to how to listen more attentively, with greater wisdom.
Mindful listening is a great way to cultivate greater mindfulness in daily life. Listening is always a present moment activity; when we listen we are present. When we listen actively and receptively we are developing the faculties needed for the practice of mindfulness. Practicing mindful listening is a foundation for the more difficult task of speaking mindfully. Until we have a strong capacity to stay mindful while we speak, it is good to remember the saying that “we have two ears and one mouth so we can listen more than we speak.”