Note: In 2018, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche became the subject of a number of allegations of sexual assault and misconduct and stepped back from the community he led, Shambhala. While Lion's Roar does not endorse him as a Buddhist teacher, we understand that some may want to access his past teachings in light of recent events, and so we are continuing to make this article from our archive of past issues available for those who wish to do so.
The receptive state of listening is a kind of auditory meditation, says Sakyong Mipham. It is an important way to gain wisdom and insight. But it’s not easy.
It is said that when the Buddha first taught, two deer approached, knelt down, and raised their ears. The two deer symbolize the act of listening, a sublime way of being present in the moment. Their perked-up ears represent keen attentiveness, their kneeling bodies relaxation and respect. The receptive state of listening is an important way to gain wisdom and insight. It is auditory meditation.
True listening is not always easy. It is a skill we develop. In this era of technological expertise and emotional unavailability, all too often there is more speaking than listening. We are not really conversing but merely exchanging rhetoric.
For a genuine dialogue to occur, speaking and listening must both play leading roles. Conversation is a dance and play between two interlocking human minds, which naturally creates harmony. Therefore, having a good conversation is an art that benefits oneself and others.
In the art of conversation, two people are equal partners. When one is speaking, one is more active; when one is listening, one is more receptive. A conversation where someone is speaking but no one is listening fosters disharmony—within the conversation and within the relationship. Thus, in order for the conversation to be healthy and productive and to grow, both participants need to take turns listening.
One reason we have conversations is that often we just need someone to hear what we have to say. However, in a world where we are constantly encouraged to indulge and gratify our own desires, it can be difficult to find someone to listen, because that means focusing on the other person rather than oneself. Unfortunately, we are creating a culture in which everyone is expressing themselves but no one is listening.
Listening often requires a greater sense of calm and self-assurance than talking. A good listener is not threatened by another taking the reins of power.
These days we have to hire people to listen to us. Coaches and therapists are trained in the art of listening, providing a space in which we can simply express ourselves. Their listening enables our stress, fear, worries, and insecurities to be revealed and liberated. In the same way, by learning to listen we can digest, contemplate, and engage in the thoughts of another, understanding and responding to their emotional state.
As in any other activity, it helps to practice listening. The best way to listen is to learn to hold your seat. The exchange of power has been handed over to the speaker, who is now directing the conversation’s mood and energy. If you feel insecure about your role as the listener, you may feel intimidated and anxious, inadvertently or compulsively interrupting the conversation in order to regain control. Thus, holding your seat is a process of engagement and self-assurance. It also clearly expresses your discipline in controlling your speech, especially in a conversational setting where the purpose is to volley back and forth words and ideas. When it is your turn to listen, it is clearly the other person’s opportunity to serve. Thus, listening often requires a greater sense of calm and self-assurance than talking. A good listener is not threatened by another taking the reins of power.
When we are unable to listen, a number of things are occurring. The first is related to time: we are unable to be in the present moment, for listening requires us to be on the spot. Therefore, listening is clearly a practice of mindfulness. It is engagement or attentiveness. Listening also requires us to feel and to care. Listening helps us balance our relationship with others.
When we do not care and are inattentive—and thus cannot hear—our mind is focused on ourselves. We care more about our thoughts than what the speaker is saying. We let memories of past experiences or fantasies of the future interfere with our present act of listening. This can happen quite unconsciously: we ask a friend about the food at a new restaurant. She says it is good, and casually mentions liking the fish tank in the entryway. As we remember the fish we saw while snorkeling on vacation, we cease to care, and by the time we come back to our friend’s words, she’s describing dessert.
Even brief moments of genuine conversation can uplift our entire life.
When we are unable to listen, we lose connectivity. At the least, daydreaming while someone else is speaking is a subtle form of rudeness. As well, in tuning out of the conversation to rehash old memories, we are slowly ingraining our tendency to be jaded. The present moment and other people are not interesting to us, so we are less available to new stimuli. Losing touch with human connectivity, we forget that conversation is not simply about dialogue but also about caring for another and appreciating human interaction.
In engaging in conversation, our attention should first be on the other person, with our ear faculty focused on their speech. This focus should be specific, so we are not simultaneously paying attention to music, other conversations, birds chirping, or dogs barking.
In order for this focus to occur, we have to relax. When we do not listen well, there is often tension in the body, which is related to aggression. Something about the other person is preventing us from truly listening. Perhaps we do not fully trust them or we do not really respect them.
To relieve this blockage, it can be helpful to inhale or exhale, sit down or stand up, uncross our arms or legs, or touch and feel the place of tension in our body. After reconnecting with the body through our posture or breath, we may find ourselves relaxed enough to listen.
True listening, like the art of conversation, is a skill we develop. We have to come out of our own insecurities and self-absorption, which takes confidence and relaxation. We have to care about another person, which takes maturity.
Even brief moments of genuine conversation can uplift our entire life. They can help us touch the core emotional elements that make us truly human. They can keep us from feeling isolated and introverted. The art of conversation is not just based upon what clever wordsmiths we can be but equally on how perceptive we can be as listeners.
True listening, like the art of conversation, is a skill we develop. We have to come out of our own insecurities and self-absorption, which takes confidence and relaxation. We have to care about another person, which takes maturity. Some stories and dialogues are painful or disturbing, so listening also takes bravery. They can also be boring, tedious, and irritating, so patience and compassion are required. Thus, the noble qualities of a good listener can overcome many of the faults of a poor conversationalist. And even though listening is a receptive act, it is a simultaneously dynamic endeavor that allows everyone to grow.