What if we could hear the sounds around us in a new way?
Not long ago, I saw a video produced by The New York Times about an ecologist named Gordon Hempton. The short film follows him as he seeks out places deep in the forest that are free of artificial noise. Hempton isn’t seeking silence as a means of escape. Rather, he’s trying to make a connection. “Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything,” he says.
If we are silent and listen, if we really, truly listen to the subtle sounds of the natural world or the words of another person, we are drawn into a more full experience of reality that otherwise would have passed us by. It’s the chance to get out of our own heads, away from the thoughts that rattle around in that ceaseless inner monologue we carry around every day. It’s also the chance to remove ourselves from the distracting noises that surround us on a daily basis. We are drowning in noise and because of this, we’ve lost the ability to listen.
When it comes to listening, we can hardly get out of our own way. Hempton, towards the end of the film, says, “What I enjoy most is that, when I listen, I disappear. I disappear.” In order to listen, the ego must be put aside. Think about it, how many of us aren’t actually listening to each other? How many of us are only waiting for the other person to stop talking so that it can be our turn? We are so eager to hear ourselves speak that we no longer listen; we simply wait until its our turn to talk again.
Think about how much we are losing – the chance to quiet down and find inner calm, the chance to learn something new, the chance to make a genuine human connection. That last one is important. Most of all, it seems to me, we should take the time to listen because we love. I listen to my wife tell me about her day because I want to share her life. I listen to a friend over coffee because it’s my gift to them. I pause and listen to the wings of migrating geese overhead because I love every single day of life that I am privileged to experience on this beautiful earth.
One of the real gifts of Lent is that it forces us to listen. It’s a season of quiet contemplation, marked by extra prayer and sacrifices that take us out of our normal routine. Each Lent, as I think about how I want to take a step forward in my spiritual discipline, I find that it is vital to take time in silence so that I can really listen.
I pastor a parish and often, as I lock up the church in the evening, I turn the lights off until all that is visible in the darkness is the red glow of the tabernacle candle. Then I sit. I am quiet. I listen to the poetry of the space. Every place has a sound all its own. What is the sound of a church at night? It’s the sound of a mother’s arm wrapped around a child.
A sound can transform a life. When I sit in my church and listen, I feel a sense of peace I rarely feel anywhere else. But it could be any sound, really. It could be the sound of thunder crashing into hills, drops of rain hitting the roof, the creaking of branches as they reach out to the sky. It might be the intake of breath from an infant in mid-nap, or a footfall in the snow, or the sound of children giggling in the yard. Because it’s like reading a poem, there’s a real art to listening.
The philosopher Erich Fromm believes this, and in his book Art of Listening he talks about how every art has rational principles and techniques. Here are his rules for becoming a better listener:
– Completely concentrate.
– Think of nothing else except listening.
– Apply your imagination to what you’re hearing.
– Empathize with what you are hearing.
– Discover some form of love for the person or thing to whom you are listening.
Following these guidelines, each of us can practice the fine art of listening, It’s a habit that will reward anyone who practices it. Not only is it an act of love that others will notice with appreciation, not only will it improve our relationships and help us have better, more fruitful conversations, but whenever we listen closely, we will hear the presence of a great mystery, an ancient nurturing presence embedded into creation. It is the still, small voice of God whispering.
This Lent, it’s time for us to start listening.
3 Characteristics of real listeners