The Art of Listening
In English, to ‘listen’ to someone has two meanings. The first is to hear with attention what the person is saying. The second meaning is to ‘obey’ what the person is saying such as when parents tell their children to listen to them.
Since the explosion of cell phone usage, it has become harder to get anyone to listen at all even in the first sense of actually paying attention. In a restaurant, people at the same table are checking their phones every few minutes. Some statistics suggest that, on average, people check their phones every five minutes. In India, it is every three minutes, even when they are driving! In the middle of a conversation, we hear our phone chime with a message and we are tempted to check the phone in spite of being in the midst of a conversation. At a concert during the interval, look up and down the row of seats and you will find everyone checking their phones. No one is talking to anyone.
This habit of constantly messaging or checking Facebook or emails develops into a pattern of having a short attention span. When we want to discuss something important with a family member or friend, we feel an enormous pressure to hold their attention. We can feel that they are often tempted to check their phone. When we talk to teenagers, we often feel that they are not listening at all. We can even test this by talking nonsense and they will just nod automatically.
So this is how we are and yet the most important spiritual exercise we are trying to learn is to listen to the Sound Current within ourselves. How can we expect to listen to this inner sound, when we can barely focus on listening to anyone in our normal day? Just as we are encouraged to practise simran during the day, we should also practise listening.
Try this exercise the next time you meet a friend. Try really listening to them. Make eye contact, look at them, resist checking your phone, actually absorb what they are saying and wait until they are completely finished before speaking. One of our bad habits is that we do not listen as much as we wait to speak. Before a person has finished their sentence, we are saying ‘I know’ and before they have made a point, we are trying to interrupt with our views and arguments. Practise taking a full breath after the other person finishes talking and before responding. It is amazing how hard this is and it reveals how assertive we are and how little we listen.
Satsang is a great opportunity to practise listening. We often tune out at satsang and drift along daydreaming or doing simran rather than paying attention to the talk. That is why when someone asks us what the content of the satsang was about, we can barely recall anything. As an exercise in listening, we can make a point of trying to note three points from a talk and remember them afterwards.
The best form of listening to satsang is not merely hearing with attention but obeying the Master’s teachings. Try to implement in our lives each week one thing which we have heard in satsang. As disciples, we must become expert listeners. With practice, we can learn to listen well to our friends and family, listen to satsang, listen to the Master and, as a result, we may begin to listen to the Shabd.
Part of our daily meditation practice is to do bhajan, which is listening to the Sound. The Master emphasizes that disciples must do bhajan. Many of us neglect this. It is this inner listening practice which will develop our inner faculty to hear. If we do not do the listening practice, then the inner faculty will remain dormant.
The very concept of ‘disciple’ derives from the idea of a student with a willing, listening and obedient heart. The journey from initiate to disciple involves the art of listening.
Mere reading of the scriptures or listening to the teachings of saints is not enough. We must put the teachings into practice and travel the path ourselves.
Maharaj Charan Singh, Die to Live