In September of 2016 I came down with the worst flu of my life. I had all of the usual flu symptoms—chills, fever, a GI tract that couldn’t keep anything in—and it took five days until I was mobile again. A few days later my ears started to ring and it felt like my head was under water. Fast forward a few years and the final diagnosis was nerve damage thanks to the flu virus. Besides the constant ringing I have hearing loss in my right ear, in the tonal range that corresponds exactly to my husband’s voice. I literally have selective deafness!
Although I’ve worked with seniors through most of my career and have been told a million times about the frustrations of hearing loss, there’s nothing like experiencing it to bring it home. I’ve found the hardest part is that so many people treat you like an idiot when you ask them to repeat themselves. And sometimes I get tired of asking and just play the fool. But listening and hearing are about much more than the processing of sound waves.
Once, when I was working as a home care therapist in rural Ontario I was asked if I could do anything for an elderly man who was living in a trailer on his son’s farm. The nurses who saw him regularly were alarmed by the method that he was using to get up and down from the couch, and were convinced he was going to have a bad fall.
When I met the man (let’s call him George, not his real name of course) I realized that he pretty much lived on the Chesterfield, and the cushions formed a silhouette of his body whether he was on it or not. The couch was circa 1968 and covered in a green, orange and brown floral print. When I asked him to show me how he got up he rolled from his reclined position down to the floor, and then used an adjacent Lazy Boy (with the footrest extended) to crawl his way up to standing. I could see why the nurses were alarmed.
Excited that this was a problem I could solve, I went out to my car and came back with a set of wooden furniture raisers: four-inch blocks that would increase the height of the couch to make it easier to stand up from. I had quite a time lifting the couch on my own to get them in but I’m pretty determined and I got’er done. We practiced going from sitting to standing a few times and then made a date for my next visit.
The next week I went back expecting praise and gratitude and was greeted by a very angry old man. I found him in his usual position on the couch, and his first words to me were “get these #@$%ing things out of here…they hurt!” I was confused until I asked him to explain and he rolled from the couch (which was now four inches higher) and climbed up the Lazy Boy the way he’d always done it. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but it quickly became apparent that he was done with me and my fancy contraptions and that a change of his method was non-negotiable.
All this to illustrate the point that listening happens at many levels: physical (ears, eyes, body language, attention), psychological (willingness, trust, openness, habits) and spiritual (where we investigate our relationship to change, mortality, and meaning). I didn’t really “see” George other than as a problem that needed solving. He couldn’t “hear” me because of the force of his habits and experiences with female know-it-alls.
We live in a culture that is obsessed with talking and broadcasting. We all want what we want, and we have a cultural story about ourselves as isolated units competing in an economy of scarcity. We haven’t been interested in listening to Nature, or science, other spiritual and philosophical traditions or Indigenous knowledges. In the last few years we’ve become shockingly divided and confused by the internet—which has joyous benefits (I love looking up “how-to’s” on Google) but no conscience or mechanism for filtering truths from fictions. And human beings are wired to have a confirmation bias: even if we know what we’re reading is probably untrue we’ll believe it because it jives with what we already “know.” And of late, hyper-partisan politics (and social media) have made a mockery of communication altogether, leaving us zero capacity for problem solving or creative thinking. I can’t think of another time in history where we’ve been more in need of real fact-based communication and a willingness to cooperate to solve extinction-level problems.
We’re all experts at speaking, but we have a lot to learn about listening.
Listening requires effort, tenacity and discomfort. It requires cleaning our interior slates long enough to absorb what’s being communicated. We have to bracket our favourite opinions and resistance based on our past experiences and prejudices. This is really, really hard to do (and I fail at it frequently). Meditation helps. Body awareness helps. Having a community and the support of friends also helps.
Listening is about more than the words being spoken. At the sangha where I practice we often partake in partner discussions where one person speaks and the other just listens. It’s intimate, anxiety-provoking, and incredibly useful. I can’t think of anything quite so satisfying as feeling fully seen and heard.
The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn developed a manifesto for his community called The Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. The first of these is Openness. It reads as follows:
Aware of the suffering created by fanaticism and intolerance, we are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. We are committed to seeing the Buddhist teachings as guiding means that help us develop our understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight, kill, or die for. We understand that fanaticism in its many forms is the result of perceiving things in a dualistic and discriminative manner. We will train ourselves to look at everything with openness and the insight of interbeing in order to transform dogmatism and violence in ourselves and in the world.
I think this is a tall order, but I find it inspiring. In the face of global inequity, climate change, and a whole host of other problems we need to be open to listening as well as speaking if we’re ever going to change anything. It may feel impossible, but we can affect change within our own hearts and minds. It might not be enough but it’s a good place to get started.
Let me know what you think in the comments below. I’m practicing my listening,