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Deep Listening As Awareness Practice

by Grace Fisher

We live with a dominant culture that does not value listening. Listening is not a class that’s generally offered in elementary school, high school or college. And it’s rarely taught to graduate students in the fields of medicine, law, business or psychology — fields that arguably rest upon an individual’s ability to listen to others.

Listening has become an almost radical act — a stand against the barrage of superficial noise and fixed views. Deep listening is a commitment to slow down, to be curious with a desire to understand and connect. It’s an antidote to the fears and rage that plague our culture. And like most radical acts, it begins with us on the individual level.

Deep listening is in many ways synonymous with awareness, as awareness begins with a willingness to listen to our bodies, our minds and our hearts with an openness that is unencumbered by the habitual chatter of opinions, stories and conditioning. A deep listening practice invites us to lean in, with a clear and steady presence to become more intimate with our moment-to-moment experience. This intimacy, this willingness to fully listen, is an essential component to our relationships as it offers both the space to be with what is actually occurring and the pathway to truly know another person. Listening in this way enables us to hear the tones of despair or frustration, sense the cadence of joy or happiness, and feel the pitch of uncertainty or doubt.

By allowing ourselves to be fully present with ourselves and others, we can touch into the vast and mysterious world of resonance, understanding and deep connection. The practice of listening, “of leaning in softly,” as Mark Nepo writes, is a doorway to true intimacy.

We begin with ourselves, noticing our bodies, touching into the pulsations of breath and the flow of energy. We orient our attention in the body. In essence, we begin to listen fully to the expression of the body, moment to moment, noting what is occurring or simply being with the sensations that arise and pass away, all the while perhaps feeling the pull, the siren song, of our inner narrator who wants to replay last night’s conversation, plan the weekend, or figure out what do about a vexing work or relationship situation.

When we sit with listening as a primary intention, we can filter out the noise of the discursive mind, much as we do when sitting with a friend in a crowded café; we filter out the background chatter and lean in to listen to the other. Can we undertake the training to understand how our body communicates? Not in a way that requires figuring out yet another thing but rather simply sitting with, allowing the space for knowing, “This is how my body is just now without the need to change it or wish that it were otherwise.” A first step on this path of understanding can be to offer ourselves the stance of a compassionate witness, being with as opposed to struggling against whatever may be occurring in the body.

Sometimes we may find the busyness of the mind overshadows the more subtle intonations of the body’s narrative. So, we then offer this listening awareness to the busyness. Yes, we hear the repetitive phrases of our inner monologue, and we begin to attune to what lies beneath the story. We listen for the pauses, the fluctuations in tone, the changes in cadence. We lean in with a curiosity not about the “what” or “who said what when,” but rather to the felt experience. We engage in the dance of listening to the narrative while simultaneously listening for clues of understanding in the nuances of expression.

When we meditate, we are invited to listen deeply, to listen to body with an intention to understand or decode the body’s language. We listen to the mind and gain insight into the habitual patterns of how we talk to ourselves. We also listen deeply to the heart. Sometimes, however, the volume of our thinking, both in frequency and weight, can drown out the tender communications of the heart. We’re not often trained to listen, nor do we necessarily honor the language of heart. Indeed, creating the space to listen to the rhythm, desires and expressions of the heart can be unfamiliar and challenging. The thought-churning engine of the mind will often rush in to fill the void. Yet, we can undertake the training to lean in and begin to hear the soft murmurings of the heart. On a practical level, it can be helpful to place your hand on your heart as support and affirmation to focus your attention. It may also be helpful to listen to the texture of the beating heart, the pulsing and pace. Is it fast or slow, faint or strong? Can you imagine engaging in a conversation asking, “How is my heart in this moment?” and then listening to what arises? Listen deeply and see if you can discern where the answer arises from. Learning to recognize the voice of the heart may take time and require sustenance in the form of faith, or saddha, with the almost paradoxical invitation to place our heart upon the deep knowing of our heart center, and patience, or khanti, with a willingness to wait until the murky waters of our internal world momentarily clear.

This radical act of listening deeply invites us to know ourselves more fully and be more attuned and steady in the presence we offer others. But perhaps most radically of all, this open spacious awareness allows us to truly embrace the stance of love.

Grace Fisher has practiced Insight Meditation for over fourteen years. She is a former lawyer who holds a Masters in Education from Stanford, a Masters in Counseling Psychology and is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) working with individuals, families, and young adults in Marin. At Spirit Rock, she was a member of the Teen Council for many years and co-led parenting and teen classes and assisted on the young adult, family, and women's retreats. She is part of the teaching team of the weekly Women's Class. As a mother of a young girl, she is especially interested in holding and supporting parenthood as a spiritual path.

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