By Sensei Ken Madden
Hello! How are you today?
Why did I just say that? Was I being polite? Is there any way that I could honestly hear your individual answers? Perhaps I was trying to get a general consensus. Rather than listening to each of you, I put a question out and had to assume that I was going to get a certain answer. I pre-judged what I might expect to hear.
But perhaps there are some of you that aren’t okay and my inability to listen to you as an individual may be doing you a disservice. One of the most important things that we can do for each other is to listen, to give our time to another.
If this is so important, what skill can we bring to this? We have the idea that Right Speech is important; it is one part of the Eightfold Path to happiness. But what about Right Listening? What is Right Listening?
The first level of listening: one that we all do that we don’t even think about is that we physically hear things.
We might hear a starting bell call us to Service and act as a signal to separate our upcoming time to be here and ready to the Buddha dharma. This is physical listening and we can do this without effort or judgement.
We also have the opportunity to do even more with our listening. We can apply our awareness: Listen now to the small sounds. Perhaps there is a child, perhaps a chair moving, a rustle of a jacket, or outside traffic passing. We can hear these things and our minds have built the habit of classifying them.
A child can be annoying, or we can choose to enjoy that sound. How we hear things changes us.
Sounds such as the chair moving, a jacket rustling, we think of these as neutral sounds. They might ground us in location. Traffic outside can either be neutral or it can be annoying—again we get to choose. This is a 2nd level, where we might just pay attention to sound: more hearing, still no judgement applied.
This is our awareness. It is a not a deepening of the natural sense of hearing that we have, but rather a deepening of our mind’s interpretation of what is physically heard. This is to say that we hear, which is a sense that we might have, and we listen which applies our interpretation to what has been heard, and listening has a mind component.
As Buddhists, we understand that we can do things that make our minds more present—more aware—and that this leads to an alignment with what we might call the Buddhadharma. We can also call it naturalness, or even that happiness arises from this alignment. This 3rd level of listening, we can add interpretation, we choose how our physical hearing can be perceived and reacted to, in our minds.
This level is where our listening may affect how we interact with other people. If we are aware of them, and choose to hear them, we can then choose how that occurs.
What about when we are with another person? Do we talk over them?
Is that great listening? If good listening includes awareness of the sounds going on around us, then even better listening involves awareness of the other people and beings that are around us. In turn, best communication happens, best being communication that might lead to compassion and kindness, when we listen to one another. But what is quite often our regular habit is that we don’t listen to understand, we often just listen in order to respond.
Who has been at a fast food drive through and as you ordered your burger, the order-taker says, “and you wanted coke with that?” when you haven’t even said anything about your beverage yet? They have had the habit instilled in them to assume what is about to be said. It should be noted that this is just a habit and ut is normal. We all have them; everyone is equal in that we have habits.
In our Tuesday meditations at our Sangha, we aspire to practice Deep Listening. This is the first level of deep listening: to form a habit that is to actually listen to what another person says rather than pre-forming what you are going to say.
I’ve done this one: someone is telling me about a recent trip they have returned from. I love trips. Sometimes, when I hear about a trip, rather than enjoying the other person’s wonderful experience with them, I will tell about a trip that I have been on. I might have pre-formed what I was going to say even while hearing the other person’s experience.
Deep Aware listening involves just hearing the other person. Perhaps you can have joy in hearing what they have said. You can encourage them to tell you more, and then even listen to that. Our perfectly normal habit is to make the listening about ourselves instead of the speaker. But it is giving and compassionate to make the listening awareness about the other person. This is a useful habit that our Buddhist awareness can build. This could be said to be a 4th level of listening: to listen for others, not ourselves.
There is even more we can do. As we are now aware that our listening has a component that occurs within our minds, we can take a further step towards offering compassion when we listen.
Buddhist Teacher Thich Nhat Hanh explains in a lovely gently way about the idea of Compassionate listening.
Our natural habits while listening lead us to make the conversation about us. When we learn to instead offer kindness to others, we can take a further step to truly give to the other person what underlying need they may have.
For example, your friend may buy a new shiny pick-up truck. She is really proud of it and can’t stop telling you about it. Our natural habit is to shy away. We might say to ourselves, “Eww, she is bragging about her new truck.” But if we have learnt the habit of compassionate listening, we might instead say, “She is bragging because, like all beings, she needs affirmation.” This might lead us to respond, for a time, in a way that affirms our friend, “That is a nice truck, I know you worked hard for it.”
Who here could hear the sound of a dog whimpering and not go to the dog to relieve its hurt?
In Buddhism there is the idea that we can do various practices in our lives, such as these, to live in awareness, kindness and compassion. Compassionate Listening is yet another deep way to relieve the suffering of all beings. This is a 5th level of listening by my count.
But what about at that ultimate level of existence that Buddhism also speaks about? Our so-called “enlightenment” or our aspiration to become a Buddha? Buddhism has a special something to say about listening in this ultimate Awareness sense also.
Buddhism understands that we inter-be with all-that-is, and that that other is interdependent with what we think of as ourselves. To us, we are normal and imperfect beings. But we are not separate beings.
All we need do is trust: Everyone who is listening, smile now.
Did anyone doubt that they would smile, move their face in the way we all know? This is a form of trust. This is acting in complete confidence. Buddhism teaches us that we can have this complete confidence in our ultimate goal. We have complete confidence, not from our own imperfect normal actions, but because we inter-be and are not alone.
This trust refers to deeply listening to the dharma, which is all things. It is, like basic hearing, something we can do without attachment, without worry, without interpretation, it is natural to us if we let it happen. This is a 6th, deepest level, of listening available to us: the ultimate level that takes us beyond our own, subjective hearing into a type of hearing our beingness itself, and not separate from All-That-Is.
I thank you for listening to me today. I hope that hearing me speak about listening will encourage you to build practices in your own lives of more awareness of what you hear, more right perceptions built, more compassion in response to what you hear, and more trust in the teachings of the Buddha.
Sensei Ken was ordained in Kyoto and joins us after teaching for over a decade at a local Buddhist Temple. He is the University of Calgary Buddhist Chaplain and actively works for Interfaith harmony. He created and has run The Circle Sangha: their mindful practices of emotional intelligence align with Calgary Buddhist Meditation. His approach is non-sectarian and practical, and he is delighted when Buddhist understanding aligns with science. Oh! and this life can be joyful and fun and kind when we allow our difficulties to drift away!
Editor: Dana Gornall
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