Mindful listening

We all know people who only seem to be listening to us in order to jump in at the first opportunity and start telling their own story. Perhaps we even do this ourselves at times? For example, you might be complaining to your friend about your teenage son who is spending far too much time in front of his computer, and your friend interrupts you with,

‘Yes, I know just what you mean, my husband’s sister’s husband’s second cousin had a neighbour whose son was just like that, blah blah, actually, that reminds me a bit of the movie we saw last night, did I tell you we went into the city…’

Just as annoying can be the tendency to give advice, especially if it’s not asked for, or if the other person knows little about your situation. So your friend might say,

‘Oh, that’s easy, what you have to do is get a system where you agree on how much time he is allowed to spend in front of the computer, and then for every minute he spends over that he has to pay you a dollar, and for every minute under he gets a dollar, and so you buy this special software to keep track but you need to physically monitor it as well because these kids often know how to get around the software, so he needs to use his computer in the kitchen, and only when you’re around…’

And you’re looking at your friend and thinking of a hundred reasons why none of this would work in your family.

The art of listening can often get a little lost in our hectic lives. Sometimes there is so much to get done, who has the time to sit down and listen to every long-winded story someone wants to share with you? There is the elderly neighbour who is a bit lonely but repeats herself six times in four minutes. There is your partner who wants you to be interested in some convoluted tale of office politics when it’s the same old saga – you’ve heard it all before. There is your parent who always seems to ring up just as you’re trying to get dinner on the table and who says, when you ask to ring back later, oh no, this won’t take long – but of course it does.

And yet, when we are able to listen to someone with our full attention, without wanting to interrupt with our own story, or give advice, or wishing they’d hurry up and find a more efficient way of speaking, we know we’re offering the other person something truly precious. We can almost sense them relax, feel appreciated, know that they matter. Being listened to produces oxytocin, the feel-good hormone which is associated with particularly strong human bonding, such as during breast-feeding. There is an exercise we teach in the MBSR course where people pair up and take turns telling their partner about a difficult conversation, while their partner listens in silence and then retells the story back. It feels strange to listen while saying nothing at all, and of course in real life we wouldn’t be completely silent while listening mindfully. However, it is an interesting exercise to realise just how much of our listening can be caught up with either wanting to speak ourselves, or else offering unwanted advice. To what extent can we simply allow the other person to say what they’d like to tell us, without charging in with our own agenda?

Weekly practice idea:

Try listening to someone without interrupting with your own story or advice. See if you can relax into the listening, without rushing somewhere else, and notice how this feels for you, and for the other person.

Anja Tanhane

 

Vulnerability

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

Leonard Cohen

 

Our lives can be seen as a constant balancing act between protecting ourselves, and yet remaining open enough to ‘life as it is’ for presence, kindness, intimacy.All of us are somewhere on the continuum between being completely closed off and being very open, and where we end up on the spectrum depends on many factors, including our personality, gender, family history, our culture, and life events. Many people become interested in learning mindfulness when they feel the cost of their old self-protective patterns is too high. They may experience a sense of disconnectedness, or struggle in relationships, or realise that their coping strategies seem to cause more problems than they solve. Or their health and emotional wellbeing might show the strain of constant chronic stress.

We certainly need to protect ourselves – there are plenty of people around who’d happily take advantage of us if we let them. A sense of professionalism, of not imposing on our colleagues with our own dramas day in and day out, will help us in our career. Our children rely on us to be strong, to guide them. Yet it’s all too easy to mistake common sense, professionalism and good parenting with needing to appear invulnerable, perfect, beyond reproach. The more we reach for perfection, the more vulnerable we feel underneath. We know it’s only a matter of time before someone discovers a crack in us, and, if we have a tendency towards perfectionism, the slightest visible crack might feel like the end of the world. And striving to be perfect all the time also tends to make us judgemental and unforgiving towards others.

We like stories because they show us the vulnerability of their heroes, their struggles to survive despite their fragility. Even the great warrior Achilles had his Achilles’ heel. The story of Jesus has inspired people for thousands of years, and his is not a story of invincible power but of great openness and vulnerability. When he said, ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,’ he was pointing to our common humanity, to the fact we all make mistakes.

People who begin a regular meditation practice often report an increased sense of kindness towards themselves, of being more open and forgiving. Interestingly, this tends to improve relationships even with some of the more difficult people in our lives. Sometimes we are caught in a ‘life and death’ battle, and will need to ensure that even our Achilles heel is firmly protected. Yet most of the time, our relationships will become stronger, and more rewarding, if we can open some of our cracks enough to ‘let the light shine in’.

Weekly practice idea:

What are some of your ‘cracks’, and how do you feel about them? Might some of those cracks be opportunities to’ let in the light’? What would this look like for you?

Anja Tanhane

 

Silence

‘A religious spirit in which one feels there is nothing to which one is not related… This is the experience of silence.’

John Cage

The first performance of John Cage’s seminal piece, 4’33’’, was met by outrage and dismay. It took place at Woodstock, New York, in 1952, in front of an audience which supported the contemporary arts. Yet even for this avant garde crowd of modern artists, the performance, in which virtuoso pianist David Tudor sat at the piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds without playing a note (though marking the three movements by opening and closing the piano lid), proved too provocative. They began to whisper among themselves, and some people got up to leave. Thus, along with the wind in the trees outside, and the sound of rain on the roof, they became part of the music. John Cage famously said, ‘there will never be silence’, and the concert hall setting, the prestige of the composer and the performer, the cultural expectations of the audience, created the ideal conditions for a group of people to sit quietly for almost five minutes and simply listen to the ‘sounds of silence.’

There is ongoing debate whether 4’33’’ can be considered music. It is still widely performed, by orchestras, pianists, other instrumentalists. Nowadays the audience, of course, knows the piece, so the performance doesn’t confound their expectations as the original one did.

When we are in silence, we are better able to come face to face with our pre-conceived ideas, biases, our judgemental thinking mind. Everything about a formal concert performance pre-disposes us to take our seat and wait for the performance to start with a clear set of expectations. If a concert pianist is listed as the performer, we expect to listen to accomplished piano playing, not the ambient sounds inside and outside the hall. In a similar way, we take our seat in everyday life, look forward to a mostly predictable day, and therefore often miss much of what is happening.

John Cage was influenced by Zen, and said at one point,

‘Everyday life is more interesting than forms of celebration, when we become aware of it. That when is when our intentions go down to zero. Then suddenly you notice that the world is magical.’

Is it possible for our intention to go down to zero, as John Cage suggested? Zero is a big number (ironically!). Yet we can definitely open our attention during meditation, to become aware of a greater range of subtle sensations, thoughts and experiences, to be less selective in what we perceive. And yes, there is a certain magic in simply being aware of life as it is unfolding.

Weekly practice idea:

Set aside 10 or 20 minutes (or even better, 4’33’’!) to listen to the ‘sounds of silence’. What is that experience like for you?

Anja Tanhane

 

Touching the ground

We may feel we are a long way from being a Buddha, but the story of his enlightenment can be helpful for us in our mindfulness practice. It is said that, following years of being brought up in luxury, and then a choosing a life of asceticism, Siddhartha Gautama sat down under the Bodhi tree and vowed not to get up until he found complete freedom (luckily he was already close to enlightenment, otherwise he could have got very hungry!). All night long, the demon Mara (whose name means ‘delusion’ in Pali) and his forces bombarded him with rocks and arrows, blistering sands and boiling mud, but Gautama sat calmly through it all. Next, Mara tried temptation, and since Gautama was still a relatively young man, Mara naturally chose to tempt him with three young maidens, who happened to be Mara’s own daughters – desire, pining and lust. Again, Gautama remained centred and undistracted.

It was nearly dawn when Mara confronted Gautama with his final challenge – doubt. Continue reading “Touching the ground” »

Down to earth

‘Good planets are hard to find.’

Bumper sticker

When we say someone is ‘down to earth’, we mean it as a compliment. ‘Salt of the earth’ is another expression which implies high praise. To be down to earth means to be grounded, real, not caught up in high-flying fantasies or delusions. Like a grandmother who remembers to feed us as well as listen to our stories, someone who is down to earth doesn’t neglect the practical realities of life – eating good food, taking the time to really listen to others, getting enough sleep at night and giving our bodies a chance to move. It’s easy to get caught up in philosophical abstractions, when sometimes we might just need to sit down with a cup of tea, or potter in the garden for twenty minutes, take the dog for a walk, sit on the verandah and watch the rain. Continue reading “Down to earth” »