“A wise old owl sat on an oak;
The more he saw the less he spoke;
The less he spoke the more he heard;
Why aren’t we like that wise old bird?”
It’s a nursery rhyme, from that internationally renowned poet … unknown.
Listening. There are times when I wonder if it’s a lost art. But then, calling it a lost art would imply that at some point the art actually existed. I wonder, if you will, if that’s not an alternative fact.
One example. Thomas Edison, he of the light bulb, is frequently credited with that wise saying, “We have but two ears and one mouth so that we may listen twice as much as we speak.” Good stuff. Modern humanity. We need to start listening again! The problem, of course, is that the electric Mr. Edison was not the first to notice two ears and but one mouth and give us that quote. The Roman philosopher Epictetus, seems to have said it first, though not of course in English, around 100 CE. And still, problems with listening predate that era as well.
In Judaism, my spiritual tradition, one of the most important lines in Scripture comes in Deuteronomy, 6:4. It is traditionally translated as “Hear, O Israel the Lord thy God, the Lord is one.” But I take issue with tradition here. I believe that a better translation would be “Listen, O Israel” rather than “Hear, O Israel.” The Hebrews were being called not simply to hear the words of the Lord but to (gasp) listen to them. And, of course, not listening seems to be a problem that all of our spiritual paths are continually trying to overcome.
Today as well, much too often we hear someone but we haven’t really listened. Or as Stephen Covey put it, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply.” And folks, that’s not listening. That’s hearing without listening.
It’s not easy to listen. It is not easy to listen. That’s the truth of it. It never has been – not in the time of ancient Israel, not in the time of Epictetus, not in the time of Edison, and certainly not in our own.
Listening, I believe, does not come naturally to us. It must be taught – and retaught, which is something our spiritual paths have known for centuries. Yet listening seems absent from our cultural curriculum. Indeed, for anyone who might be interested I would urge you to check out compassionatelistening.org. There are some wonderful people there who spend their time and efforts teaching people … well, how to listen. And they are very much needed because it’s something our culture for too long just hasn’t considered all that important. Speaking is important. Listening … not so much. And some pretty famous people have reacted to this most unfortunate situation.
Ernest Hemingway, an author I greatly admire, wrote, “I like to listen. I have learned a great deal by listening carefully. Most people never listen.” Being a writer, Hemingway couldn’t leave well enough alone and he revised this a few years later to read: “When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”
Another American writer, William Arthur Ward, suggested a revolutionary idea – one that to be honest has never truly caught on: His idea? “Before you act, listen.”
Why? Because, if we’ll return to Jewish Scripture, from the first Psalm: “Listening is the beginning of understanding.”
And Buddhism, of course, calls us to listen … to everything from own breath to the breath of those around us, and the world around us. Pay attention, Buddhism urges us. Good advice.
So, we’re all going to listen better, right? Case closed. Problem solved. … Not.
There’s a Cuban proverb I love. “Listening looks easy, but it’s not simple. Every head is a world.”
I love that. It’s so true. Though in all humility I might revise it just slightly and say, “Every head is a galaxy.” Ok then, listening between the galaxies is going to take some effort. Where do we begin?
Psychologist and writer M. Scott Peck put it, “You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.” That’s worth repeating. “You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.”
Well, bummer! So much for multi-tasking! What our culture has taught us is what Stephen Covey talked about: that when someone else is speaking, that’s the time to thinking about what we’re going to say in response. And now Peck is telling us that we can’t truly listen and be thinking about how we’re going to respond at the same time?
And it gets worse! Particularly today, particularly with smart phones. Have you ever … well, I have a feeling all of us have had the experience of talking with someone and realizing that they are either sending or receiving a text message while we’re talking. Yes? As Mr. Peck would put it, they are not truly listening. So one of the things we’re going to need to do if we are to recapture or just flaming create the art of listening is to put the phone down.
And that, my friends, is just the tip of the iceberg. So far, all we’ve been talking about is listening to each other. Well, what else is there? Actually, there’s much more to listening than that.
A part of listening is listening to ourselves. How often have we said, “I knew I shouldn’t have done that.”? Yet we don’t usually complete that thought. “I knew I shouldn’t have done that, but I just didn’t listen.”
And sometimes the question is not, “Do we listen?” Sometimes the question is, “What do we listen to?” Frequently, as example, we listen to our vanity instead of our conscience. It’s been said, “It can be hard to hear the calling of our conscience over the braying of our vanity.”
Listening then, actually involves not only work but intent. And … and it doesn’t stop there.
Our not listening extends to nature. In my opinion, nature has been crying out to us, screaming at us if you will: “Look at what you are doing … to me, to your children, to their children.” And far too many of us just aren’t listening. We’ll get more into this in a month when we observe Earth Day … a month early.
For now, I’d ask us to connect two words, representing two ideas that aren’t usually spoken of together but for me are inextricably interconnect. Listening and awareness.
Awareness is tricky. We go through life, day after day, and how much are we really aware: of what we do, of what say, of how we feel, of how others feel? How aware are we of what is happening around us? Is our awareness antenna functioning? Being informed is a good thing. Indeed, I do recommend it. But it’s not the same as being aware. If we will not truly listen, we can be informed, I believe, and still unaware.
In terms of ourselves – I don’t believe we ever become truly self-aware if we will not take the time and make the effort to quiet down and listen to ourselves.
In terms of others – I don’t believe we ever truly become aware of the humanity of the people we encounter if we will not take the time and make the effort to listen to them.
In terms of nature – I don’t believe we ever truly become aware of all that is around us, the air, the plants, the animals, the land, if we will not take the time and make the effort to listen to them.
Yes, plants speak. When they wither and die they are telling us something. Yes, the land speaks. When it blows away in a dust bowl it is telling us something.
So, how might we take the time and make the effort to be aware?
Time to become just a smidge controversial, because I’m going to suggest that one answer, one good answer to listening and becoming aware, lies in the sacred and something that all of our sacred paths have provided us throughout the centuries – not that we’ve paid much attention, but there it is. It’s called: prayer.
When I think of prayer, I don’t think of asking God for favors – or as Janis Joplin put it, “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.” When I think of prayer, I think of taking the time, making the time, to shut up and listen. Whether it’s five times a day, twice a day, or once a week; whatever ritual we may choose to make our time of prayer special, for me the essence of it is, be quiet, to open ourselves to what is outside us and then: listen. For some of us, this may be listening to God. For some of us, this may be listening to the call of the Cosmos, or of Nature. But whatever form it takes, the essence of it is to stop what we are doing, quiet our thoughts and our ego, put our next task on the backburner, breathe deeply, and listen – listen to the calling of our own hearts and all the hearts around us … listen to everything around us … and remembering that each of us is a small part of that everything.
For me, one of the great gifts of prayer, if indeed we pray, is to break out of the prison of “me, me, me” and to listen to all that is beyond “me” in its magnificent diversity. If we as a people we will listen, we may finally get a leg up on hate … and fear. If we will listen, we might just survive. If we will listen.
In that spirit, let us pray now, together. Let us listen.