From by Oren Jay Sofer © 2018 by Oren Jay Sofer. Reprinted in arrangement by Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.
Listening is a cornerstone of dialogue and a powerful metaphor for spiritual practice. When we’re willing and able to listen, we open a conduit that allows connection and understanding to happen.
There are so many ways to listen. We can listen to the content of what someone says, to how they’re feeling, to what’s important beneath their words. We can listen halfheartedly or wholeheartedly.
To truly listen depends on a kind of inner silence. It requires that we empty ourselves and make space to receive something new. I had a powerful reminder of this a few years ago when I had a disagreement with an old friend from high school.
“Bro—you’re not listening!” Jeremy exclaimed.
We were standing in his kitchen and he was passionately upset. Though I don’t recall the details, I remember that I was only half-listening, waiting for him to finish so I could explain my perspective. Even though I was completely silent, making eye contact, and hearing every word, he could sense that I wasn’t really taking it in. I was building my case, preparing to defend myself.
I took a deep breath. Closing my eyes, I let go of my desire to explain myself. There would be time for that later. I felt my feet on the ground and relaxed into listening and trying to understand. I opened my eyes.
“Okay,” I said. “Go on.” As soon as I released my agenda to defend myself, the whole tone of the conversation shifted.
“Thank you,” Jeremy sighed as he continued, sensing that I was actually willing and available to listen. He explained how he was feeling and why. I listened, really heard him, and acknowledged his experience independent of my own feelings or views: “Yeah, I get that’s how you felt. I can see why you’d be upset.”
Things settled. I may have shared my side—I can’t recall, and it didn’t even matter much anymore. The vital shift had been letting go enough to hear him with genuine curiosity and care.
Learning How to Listen
To listen entails a fundamental letting go of self-centeredness. We have to be willing to put down our own thoughts, views, and feelings temporarily to truly listen. It’s a wholehearted, embodied receptivity that lies at the core of both communication and contemplative practice.
Every conversation requires silence. Without it we can’t listen, and no real communication happens. The silence of listening isn’t forced or strained. It’s a natural quiet that arises from interest. When you want to smell a flower, what do you do? You get close, shut your eyes, and inhale slowly. Your mind grows still as you find the aroma. This is perhaps the most powerful way to listen: with full presence.
The wilderness has taught me a lot about how to listen. The ancient steadiness of an old-growth redwood, the stillness of a high mountain lake, or the vibrant music of a stream—all have the power to quiet the mind and still the heart. In the face of such wonders, our mental chatter falls away. What remains is a state of pure listening.
We learn this kind of deep listening in meditation, discovering the stillness of awareness. With practice we can access it in the midst of conversation. The more we learn how to listen, the more available we become for others and for our life in general.
This is just as important for the wonderful moments as it is for the difficult ones. True listening allows us to appreciate the presence of a loved one or to let kindness touch us. This kind of receptive listening can nourish the spirit, heal divisions, and lead to new possibilities.