Mindful Listening

Do you really hear what others have to say?

I recently went out to dinner with a group of friends. Over the course of the evening, I noticed that none of my friends seemed all that interested in hearing what anyone else had to say. Each person took turns either interrupting someone already speaking, or being interrupted in the middle of a sentence. Since then, I’ve noticed that most people don’t really listen to one another; they interrupt each other or they mentally rehearse their response or they simply don’t pay attention.

I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.
– Ernest Hemingway

So what’s going on? For over a year now, I’ve made the conscious decision to incorporate Mindful Listening into my daily practice. This practice has been one of the most challenging, rewarding, and life-altering mindfulness activities I’ve engaged in to date.

This past week, during an Asheville Insight Meditation meeting, our group explored “Mindful Listening”. Most of the members could vividly recall past experiences when another person deeply listened to them. Those experiences of being heard evoked powerfully positive emotions.

Deep listening is miraculous for both listener and speaker. When someone receives us with open-hearted, non-judging, intensely interested listening, our spirits expand.
– Sue Patton Thoele

Roadblocks to Listening Mindfully

Most of us rarely listen well for very long. Once we start paying close attention to our mind’s process of listening, we soon see roadblocks to our ability to pay close attention to another person. We often notice intrusions such as the following:

  • ongoing internal commentary
  • discursive thinking
  • planning
  • agendas
  • evaluations
  • judgments
  • attempts to control
  • preconceptions
  • interpretations
  • anticipation of imagined outcomes

So what to do? First, to engage in mindful listening, we need to increase our awareness of our own mind’s activity during the listening process. We pay attention to whether we’re completely present and focused upon what the other person is saying. If we discover we’re not truly listening, we practice letting go of our mind’s meanderings as we notice the errant thoughts arise. And we reset our intention to bring our fully engaged presence back to listening.

The Necessary Mindset for Mindful Listening

St. Benedict referred to mindful listening as listening with the ears of the heart.

The following suggestions can help us cultivate the space of pure presence that creates a mindset supportive of mindful listening:

  • The Buddha said that everything rests on the tip of intention. So we repeatedly set our intention to engage in mindful listening each time we become aware we’re not truly listening.
  • We commit to the belief that listening deeply is important – it matters!
  • We practice empathy and put ourselves in the other person’s shoes.
  • We view our relationships as part of our spiritual practice by treating each person as a sacred being who deserves our utmost respect.
  • We maintain a curiosity about other people, never assuming that we fully know them.
  • We allow our heart to lead by caring deeply about others.
  • We engage in the sacred pause, wherein nothing is more important at this moment then stopping in order to be actively present with another being.
  • We practice, practice and practice!

I would be remiss if I failed to mention some another great opportunity for mindful listening: listening to the sounds of nature when outdoors. Such close listening to the natural world can calm and heal us. One can even experience greater depths in one’s spiritual practice by listening to – silence.

I doubt that many of us were taught how to engage in mindful listening by our parents or educators. So, let’s be patient with ourselves if we find ourselves rehearsing what we plan to say next rather than listening. By repeatedly setting our intention to listen deeply, we will slowly and gradually improve. A commitment to mindful listening cultivates an open and receptive awareness, in which deep listening becomes a natural and effortless process.

It’s important also to recognize that we can’t give to others what we don’t first give to ourselves. So let’s also practice listening mindfully to our own hearts, with a desire to fully and honestly understand ourselves. If we hold ourselves with the gentle love and appreciation, we will develop the ability for genuine connection and compassion not only for ourselves but also for others.

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