Thursday, November 26, 2015

Listening is Loving

Happy Thanksgiving, NIP!

            Some months ago, Erin and I watched Hector and the Search for Happiness, a film starring Simon Pegg as a psychiatrist who takes a sabbatical of sorts in an effort to travel the world and, as the title suggests, search for happiness. The story is replete with common sense wisdom, much of which I was aware from my own learning and living over the past several years. Ever since we watched it, though, a particular line from the movie has lingered and resonated with me on many levels: during his travels abroad, Pegg’s character is told “listening is loving,” and it hit me immediately. That simple sentence set off a chain reaction of realization that I hope to somehow convey with this letter, but I do so hesitantly because I know that I still have a lot to learn about putting this idea into practice in my own life.

            If reading any of these letters is an indication, I can talk. I’m a verbal guy. I like words, and I like a lot of them. It’s no wonder that several of my favorite words include garrulous, loquacious, and verbose (I’m especially fond of words that begin with the letter P or V). I’d like to think that my words are measured and well-thought out, but that’s not always the case and I’m learning more and more as I get older that sometimes no words are better than even a few. And as much as I like to think, read, write, and talk, I’m really starting to understand how truly powerful listening can be. Though the word listening itself is a verb and we might think of it as an action, I think that when we truly listen, it becomes a state of being, a radical way to surrender to the moment and become a witness to all that is, especially including the person right in front of you.

            Since coming across the line in the movie several months ago, however, I’ve really tried to actively listen much more, and I can see how this can be synonymous with loving in two ways—one external, the other internal. The external way that listening is loving is by offering ourselves to other people. Human beings are social animals by nature, and most of us require the company of other people. Add to this the fact that part of the human condition involves creating narratives to make sense of ourselves, our world, and our place in it—and to then communicate that narrative through language and shared experience—it’s no wonder why listening is such a critical component of life. When we listen to others, it’s fundamentally to share information. But there is a deeper way to listen to other people, too, a way in which we are letting others know we love them without saying words. In those moments when we listen wholeheartedly, giving our entire body and mind over to the process, we connect with the other person in some ineffable yet palpable way. There is a subtle shift in the moment and dialogue, something that I believe both people can feel. I really can’t explain it beyond that, but I think it’s something we’ve all experienced when we’ve shared something that was intellectually or emotional meaningful to us with another human being. While I know I don’t attempt to listen like this in every moment, I am positive that I will be able to further cultivate the ability to do so over time. I realize its potential to help me become a better person in the long run generally, and I have already seen its beneficial impact in my relations with family and friends as well as my work with new teachers.

            Although listening can be loving externally when we offer ourselves completely to another person, it can also take place internally and act as a form of self-love. This realization came to me about six weeks ago when Erin wasn’t feeling particularly well and wanted to lie down to take a nap, so I went for a long, slow amble around “the big loop,” as she and I call it, which is effectively a mile-and-a-half route that circumscribes our neighborhood. Most of the time when I take these strolls by myself, I use the time to reflect on the day or think about weighty matters; on this day, however, as I rounded the back end of the first turn in the loop, my mind became incredibly quiet and increasingly so as I turned my attention to all the sounds of life that surrounded me. In that moment life seemed to bloom with aural pleasure: the sounds of various birds on the branches, the whisper of the wind passing through the trees, the rustle of leaves blowing along the sidewalk, an unseen dog barking in a backyard, the repeated clank of a hammer hitting a sheet of metal, the hum of the highway as cars passed in the distance along Interstate 75, the sound of my sneakers making contact with the pavement, the rhythm of my breathing, and the beating of my heart were all part of a mélange of sound that quieted my normally talkative mind. This moment led to an epiphany that taught me precisely why this type of listening is an act of self-love.

Though we may still be turning our attention outward to the sounds that saturate our lives, by giving ourselves over completely to these sounds and being in awe of their inherent magnificence we find no room for our own thoughts in that otherwise silent mental space. I don’t know about you, NIP, but my mind does a lot of discursive thinking when I am not deeply reflecting on a single topic; typically, my mind is going about its own business by affixing labels to every single phenomenon, making judgements about my present circumstances and, occasionally, beating myself up about something I did in the past or fretting about something that may happen in the future. I know this is not good, and my personal mindfulness meditation practice has helped me combat much of these deficiencies. Heck, after six years of a daily practice, at least I am aware that these thoughts are happening inside my own mind rather than being completely ignorant to them, which allows me to disengage from them and focus on the here and now. The first step—this awareness, if you will—is exactly why listening can be an act of self-love. When we focus on the sounds around us in an effort to practice mindful listening, the busyness of the mind seems to dissipate, which is why I think this form of listening can be categorized as internal. The quiet that emerges within becomes profound because it lacks the typical noise of self-recrimination, worry, doubt, judgment, and a whole host of negative thoughts that seem to pop-up out of nowhere when our minds are not focused. Moreover, not only is it quieting, it is comforting. A sense of ease and relaxation emerges that helps us pay even greater attention to the present moment and all of the gifts within it.

With today being Thanksgiving, it is perhaps the perfect day to begin putting into practice the maxim of “listening is loving.” As we reflect on gratitude and all for which we have to be thankful, really open up to the moment in whatever way it manifests. If you have a few spare minutes, take some time to sit quietly and really listen to all the sounds that comprise “silence”; don’t be too concerned if your mind wants to continually label each phenomenon as it arises, but as soon as you do notice your mind doing this try to bring it back to the act of listening. I promise, a deep sense of peace will arise once you’ve surrendered completely. But perhaps more importantly on this day, be sure to really listen to the loved ones with whom you gather. Be grateful to have the experience of being with another person (or people) in and of itself; there is no need for an agenda, let any discussions that do occur arise naturally and let your interlocutor take the lead in any conversation. Look and listen at that person lovingly, and you both will feel a connection that goes beyond the words that you are sharing and truly realize that indeed “listening is loving.”

Keep listening and loving, NIP.
          - Ryan  
P.S. – I may have shared this some time ago (although I didn’t see it as I scrolled through past letters), but I figured it would be worth sharing today. It’s a 5-minute excerpt from a TED Talk by Louis Schwartzberg, a professional videographer and time-lapse photographer who specializes in capturing every day moments with his lens. What really makes the video, though, is the narration by Brother David Stendl-Rast, a Benedictine monk and mystic who happens to be one of my favorite religious thinkers. The piece is especially poignant because it reminds us that in some sense every single day should be Thanksgiving…
P.P.S. – I’d also suggest clicking on the frame in the lower-right of the embedded YouTube clip so you can watch it full screen and get the most out of visuals within the video.     

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