The Power Of Listening

January 21, 2013


Listening is the best ear ornament.

Listening is the prettiest ear ornament.

This is a true story. After my friend died I telephoned her credit card company to cancel her card. The Customer Service Rep who was mechanically sticking to his script replied, “I’m sorry sir, but only the cardholder can make changes to that account.”  Isn’t this what we find most frustrating about public service personnel: they don’t listen!

There is a reason why I patronize this one barber shop instead of a dozen others in my neighborhood: my barber Pat knows the art of listening. While I am waiting for him to finish with his present client, I enjoy watching his effortless way of prompting the gentleman in his chair to speak. Pat is chameleon-like in his ability to become all things to all people.

It’s a trick that served me well this week. I was visiting with one of my geriatric patients when she revealed to me that she was feeling rather depressed. Earlier that day her oncologist had advised her that her cancer had spread to her lymph nodes and because she was eight-four, there was not much that could be done. I did not know what to say to make her feel better. I remembered Pat and decided to just be a blank page. I gave her loving attention but allowed her to be comfortable with her silences. Slowly, haltingly, she opened up about her fears and anxieties. By the time her niece arrived for a visit, she was back to her smiling, stoic self. As I was leaving she sincerely thanked me for “our little chat”. I had hardly said a word.

I see around me young people voluntarily tuning out the world on the sidewalks of downtown with their ubiquitous Ipod. There are people crossing busy streets while texting on their cellphones. Does anyone listen anymore?

As a writer I appreciate that the truth of good fiction resides in the inferences and the nuances between the words. Perhaps people read less literature nowadays because we have forgotten this benefit of skillful listening. I was reminded of this fact this week at the homeless shelter. A long-haired, bearded man sat in my chair requesting a haircut. He had a slight Indian accent and as he spoke I was impressed by his vocabulary and clarity of thought. He was obviously an intelligent and educated man. Inbetween my small talk I gently cued him to speak about how he had ended up living on  the streets. He was cagey. Usually the men I barber are eager to unburden their story. He said he had inadvertently thrown away all of his I.D. and that was the reason he was homeless. I asked no more. I understood he was in Canada illegally. He was playing the system. As much as his words tried to conceal this fact, the silence inbetween had told the truth.

The pay offs are plenty in relationships but the real prize is in solitude. These days everyone is interested in ‘meditation’ without being clear about what that entails. Meditation is nothing but the skill of listening to yourself. The real reason your mind keeps chattering is because you do not listen, hence it keeps repeating the same verbiage over and over again. When we learn to listen to ourselves, our sleep is more restful, with less crazy dreams.

Many years ago I met a master of silence during a retreat in Northern California. Though his height was modest, he seemed to tower higher than the sequoias around us. It was his gaze. Intense, penetrating and personal. I felt naked in his presence. His ability to answer my questions the instant they arose in my mind astounded me. I was sitting in the front row of the tent, waiting, along with a hundred others, for him to begin speaking when I silently wondered to myself if he really could read my mind. He abruptly turned his head in my direction, looked me in the eyes and said, “I am not interested in reading the confusion in your mind.”

His name was Swami Chinamayanda, and he went on to say that people often marvel that he reads minds but really, he just knows how to listen. He gives attention to the pauses, the silences, and we supply him the rest. I understood what he meant because at that time I had the privilege of living with a cat. The only way I could anticipate her moods and her needs was by slowing down, learning to give silent attention. Just watch any mother with a newborn and it is a skill she soon acquires.

Excuse me while I plug in my Ipod before I cross the street and text at the same time. And thanks for listening.

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