Sunday, 2 September 2012

Listening: Making Space for the Other

A man approached Nasrudin and asked him, “how does one become wise?”. To which Nasrudin replied: “listen attentively to wise people when they speak. And when someone is listening to you, listening attentively to what you are saying!”

Ah Mulla Nasrudin, the wise fool. The “Holy Fool”. We can learn so much from listening; we can learn so much from really listening; we can learn so much from really listening not only to others, but to ourselves too.

Listening is about invitation. It is about inviting the other into our lives; it is about making space for the other. This is not always easy to do especially when engaging in conversation.

“Listen with the ear of your heart”, has become one of my mantras. It comes from “The Rule of Benedict” a set of ancient principles for monastic orders. The foundation of the rule is listening, deep attentive listening. It begins, “listen carefully, my child, to the instructions...and attend to them with the ear of your heart “.

This is no easy task. It is so easy to get wrapped up in so many other things. That said in order to make space for the other we do need to learn to listen; to listen “with the ear of our hearts”.

Ernest Hemingway once said "When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen."

How many of us can really say that we listen to one another? When we begin to converse do we take time to truly listen to what the other person is saying? Or are we merely waiting for our turn to make our point? When we engage with one another are we really attempting to make space for them or is it all about us? Is it about our need to be heard? Are we engaging with others in the hope that they will agree with us?

In “Forgotten Art of Deep Listening” Kay Lindahl asks us to:

“Think of the difference it would make if each of us felt really listened to when we spoke. Imagine the time it would save to be heard the first time around, instead of having to repeat ourselves over and over again. Envision a conversation in which each person is listened to with respect, even those whose views are different from ours. This is all possible in conversations of the heart, when we practice the sacred art of listening. It takes intention and commitment. We need to slow down to expand our awareness of the possibilities of deep listening. The simple act of listening to each other can transform all of our relationships. Indeed, it can transform the world, as we practice being the change we wish to see in the world.”

By listening we can begin to transform the world; by listening we begin to practise being the change we wish to see in the world.

 There is an old Buddhist proverb that roughly translates as “when the pupil is ready the teacher will appear”. I can vouch for the truth in this statement. That said I can’t always vouch for another well known cliché “first impressions count”. Looking back at my life there have been times when first impressions really got in the way. My first impressions have proved to be way wide of the mark at times.

I often talk of this wise man I met in Oldham eight or nine years ago. Now when I first met him I did not like him at all. I certainly didn’t want to listen to what he had to say. I quickly built some barriers between us, barriers based purely on unfounded fear. I’m extremely grateful that those barriers came a tumbling down because I am pretty sure that if I hadn’t learnt to listen to what he had to say, I might not be here today. I am not understating things when I say that he saved my life.

Of the many things that he taught me one of the greatest was how to listen. This all began by practising and noticing when I wasn’t listening, especially when others were talking. He taught me to observe when my mind wandered off or to notice when I was listening how much of my time was spent on working out what “brilliant” response I was going to make, in an attempt to refute what the other person was saying. He taught me that when we are listening to another we are extending ourselves to that person, we are giving them a gift; a gift that we can both share in. In making space for the other, we create a sacred space, we make space for God and we get a taste of heaven.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said “There is guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening, we shall hear the right word”

When we listen to others and when we truly listen to ourselves when others speak, as the “Holy Fool” Nasruddin suggests, we may just uncover what the root of the things that are troubling ourselves are and even better what the solution to these troubles might be. As that wise man in Oldham taught me we can uncover what the problem is, we can discover its root cause and we can cut it out and discard it and move on with our lives. We can remove the barriers that are blocking us from living the lives we would like to lead.

He taught me that when we listen to another we truly give of ourselves. Whereas when we only appear to be listening and are in fact judging or comparing ourselves to them we are in actual fact judging ourselves. He taught me that if we learn to listen to others, without judgement, we can begin to learn to accept them for who they truly are. By doing so we are learning to love them; by doing so we give them the dignity to be themselves; by doing so we dignify ourselves. We create a sacred space in that relationship between one another.

Now of course not all the great sages come from Oldham. Those of ancient times taught similar lessons to this ordinary man. That said I am not sure that I could have accessed what they taught eight or nine years ago. It required simple language from an   ordinary man. He spoke the language of the heart and I was prepared to listen. I learnt a valuable lesson that day; I learnt that the language of the heart is universal, it can break down any barrier.

Karen Armstrong has highlighted that human dialogue has tended “ be aggressive, a tradition we inherited from the ancient Greeks.” If we look at our world today we tend to debate competitively whether we are public figures or just talking in the playground, the pub or through social media. Often when we are engaging in conversation we are trying to trip one another up, or prove one another wrong. How many of us can truly say that we are truly listening to one another?

Since ancient times the great sages have offered solutions to this competitive and aggressive way of communicating, but I’m not sure they have ever won out.

As Armstrong has highlighted:

“The Socratic dialogue was a spiritual exercise designed to produce a profound psychological change in the participants - and because its purpose was that everybody should understand the depth of his ignorance, there was no way that anybody could win.” The key as Plato highlighted “ to ‘make place for the other’ in his mind and to listen intently and sympathetically to the ideas of his partners in dialogue...” Can you imagine this happening during Prime Minister’s Question Time?

Other great sages such as the Buddha and Confucius conducted discussions in a similar manner. Confucius always developed his ideas in conversation. He did this because he felt that in order for anyone to achieve ‘maturity’ required this kind of friendly interaction. The Buddha taught his monks to converse kindly and courteously with one another. His lay disciple King Pasenadi of Kosla observed the contrast between his Royal Courts and the Buddha’s communities. In the courts everybody seemed to be looking out for themselves and were always quarrelsome. Where as he observed the monks were “ together as uncontentiously as milk with water and looking at one another with kind eyes...smiling, courteous, sincerely happy...their minds remaining as gentle as wild dear.” They were showing reverence to one another.

Listening is about making space for the other, it is an invitation; an invitation to create true spiritual intimacy. Listening is one way to release ourselves from the treadmill of own ego centric little worlds. It can release us from hell.

Listening is a loving practise and as such it requires discipline, it requires spirit and it requires devotion. It begins by being aware, mindful, of when we do not listen and re-committing to listening once again. It is one step towards living more empathically, more compassionately with one another. This is a lifetime’s project. As Karen Armstrong herself says “...the attempt to become a compassionate human being is a lifelong project. It is not achieved in an hour or a day - or even in twelve steps. It is a struggle that will last until our dying hour.”

It begins with us listening, by us attempting to be the change we want to see in the world. We can turn away from judgement toward empathy and understanding, we can truly invite the other into our lives.

Here is a link to a "Talking Head" reflection I recently recorded based on these ideas


  1. Ahh if we could all have 'kind eyes' what a world this would be

  2. What a world it would be indeed

  3. I hear you! Great job. Let's hope people listen and hear!