The Sacred Art of Listening — Commentary by Sally Jo Gilbert de Vargas

“Those who listen closely to all that is said and follow the best of it; it is they whom God has graced with His guidance, and it is they who are endowed with insight. “(Qur’an 39:18)

“Listening is like putting your head on a person’s chest and sinking into the answer.” (Rumi)

Listening is not only an art and a skill, it may also be considered a spiritual practice. In our current culture, we tend to focus more on communicating rather than listening.  To most of us, communicating involves activities such as talking, writing, conveying our messages through images, sound bites, info grams, memes, etc.   But listening is at least 50% of communication, if not more.  And sadly, we are not very good at it, and we are not taught to improve our listening skills.  In fact, I’m not sure most people even place much value on listening.  My mother used to say, “You only hear what you want to hear.”  If that’s true, no wonder we have so much trouble communicating in this world! If everyone is sending messages and no one is truly receiving them, what’s the point?

The sad truth is, we all want to be listened to, but we don’t practice the art of listening to others.  It takes energy to listen.  It takes concentration.  Listening involves withholding judgment. It involves keeping quiet. Trying to understand different perspectives rather than solve problems or win arguments. Although it may seem passive, listening is actually very much an active process. In order to be effective, the one acting must be our higher self, not our ego self.  That’s why I call it a spiritual practice. 

Listening is something we must learn to do in stages.  It is best to practice in person, with one other person, someone we know well.  First, we must stop everything else we are doing when someone else is sharing.  Giving eye contact and other appropriate body language is also helpful: facing the person, putting down other distractions, focusing on the way the person is communicating even beyond the words they are saying. What is their affect?  Tone? We can listen on many different levels.  We can listen for facts and details, but we can also listen for emotions and values.  If we go deeper, we must check in with the person to be sure we are hearing accurately what we think we are hearing.  Questions that probe more deeply are fine as long as they are not judgmental in nature.  “Why did you do that?” is a judgmental question, implying there was something wrong with what the person did.  Instead, we can check in with an assumption we have made.  “It sounds to me like you were feeling really hurt when he said that. Is that correct?”  Then the person will be happy correct us if necessary (and may even gain some insight him or herself).  “No, I wasn’t hurt, I was shocked and afraid!” 

Once we have learned to listen to each other as equal, complex human beings, hopefully it will be possible to listen to God or our higher self.  I guarantee, that will take even more practice!  The key to any listening practice is silence.   Dan Rather once asked Mother Teresa about her prayer life.  He asked, “When you pray, what do you say to God?”  Mother Teresa replied, “I don’t talk, I simply listen.”  Next, he ventured, “Ah, then what is it that God says to you when you pray?”  Mother Teresa replied, “God also doesn’t talk. God also simply listens.”

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