To listen is to lean in softly with a willingness to be changed by what you hear.
This morning I listened to Tara Brach speak about active listening. Like, really listening. Listening is a real skill that requires effort.
Oftentimes we have to teach ourselves how to be listeners, how to be active participants in conversation. In the podcast, she talked about ways in which we avoid active listening: our propensity to multi-task while we are in telephone conversations, our tendency to try and shape the way that someone views us while we converse with them (rather than actually listening to them), and the need to develop skills of listening, which can eventually impact our deeper meditation practices.
This meditation application eventually becomes an act of inner listening, though it often begins with acts of outer listening. There are some meditation schools which encourage that you note the environmental sounds around you as you sit. There are some forms of meditation which encourage concentration on a sound or chant. Sometimes in the beginning stages of our meditation journey, even awareness of our thoughts can feel like outer listening as well. I have been inclined to think "who is that person thinking those thoughts?" a time or two in my own sitting work. In the yoga realm, we typically begin our practices by following the instruction of a teacher through outward listening.
And then through time and regular effort, listening for sounds/thoughts/instructions outside of ourselves can be replaced by inner listening. Listening to our own thoughts for instinctual feelings and habit patterns of the mind, and listening to our bodies for signs of our overall health, clues about injuries/disease and effectiveness of our practices. Inner listening is how we can know us. By taking time to get quiet, go inward and tune in to us, we can better understand ourselves and what we want, what makes us happy, what our true expectations are for not only us, but others. Sometimes through listening, we hear things that are unpleasant. But then we have the opportunity to work with those challenges rather than avoiding them.
Sometimes through this inner awareness, we begin to move toward silencing. Not necessarily silence as the goal, but pleasant quieting, softening of the typical clamor of the mind.
In her amazing Bringing Yoga to Life, Donna Farhi notes:
So, how can we move from being a so-so listener, to an active listener to inner listener?
One of the main ways to become a more active listening with others is to be present. I regularly find myself planning my day or my dinner or just generally caught up in my own thoughts when I'm talking with someone else. I think it happens to all of us. But it doesn't feel that great to me. When several moments into my distracted thoughts I re-emerge, I always feel a little like a jerk. Like my brain was telling me that another being is less interesting to it than my own being.
This is just a point of awareness. If you can first create awareness around presence in conversations with others, you can begin to work toward greater and greater presence generally.
Through deepening awareness moment-to-moment in our daily lives, we can create ease around the same work, the same desire for presence when we're on our mats or cushion. It will be easier for us to be active listeners of ourselves, to be inner listeners, if we're willing to be present with what we hear. And if we're willing to really hear what the inner teacher is offering, then we are more likely to make positive change. Or at the very least, to be open to the possibility.