In Sant Mat there is a saying that ‘Seva is what we are asked to do.’ Not necessarily what we want to do, and not necessarily what we would like to do, but just what we are asked to do. And in order to do this successfully, we first have to listen – listen very attentively – to what we are being asked to do.
So this discussion is all about the importance of being able to listen and listen well. ‘Listen’ is a word that is often used by the mystics when speaking to their disciples. Many times in answering questions Hazur Maharaj Charan Singh would say “Listen, I will tell you," and in letter after letter, Baba Jaimal Singh Ji would advise his beloved disciple Baba Sawan Singh to listen to the Shabd-dhun every day, to listen for, and attend to, the Shabd.
This advice, to listen, in both the worldly sense as well as the inward spiritual sense, is given by all the great mystics. They advise us of the need to become good listeners.
Dictionaries define the verb ‘to listen:’ “to give attention with the ear; to pay attention to, to heed, to notice.” They also list: “to wait attentively for a sound, to take notice of a sound, to attend to a sound for the purpose of hearing.”
And there is a difference between hearing and listening. Hearing is “the faculty or a sense by which sound is perceived.” It is passive. It is what happens when sound waves strike our eardrums and are processed into audible information. We can hear the sounds around us that are within our hearing range as they occur. We can say hearing is an unconscious action.
Listening, however, is active, a deliberate or conscious action; it’s what we do when trying to hear a specific sound, or what we do after a sound is perceived – when we actually pay attention to what we are hearing. If we just hear something without listening, it is easily ignored and quickly forgotten. But listening requires concentration, focused attention. It is a deliberate activity with an intended result, which is to hear something specific, with clarity and attention.
So let’s discuss listening: in our daily lives, listening to the Master, and listening to the Shabd.
Listening in our daily lives:
From our birth, the process of acquiring language takes place through hearing, listening, and imitating. Long before we learn to read, we learn to speak and to communicate, and we've learned to do this through listening, mostly to our parents and family.
Then when we go to school, learning success is heavily dependent on our ability to listen to our teachers with focused attention. Teachers at every level from kindergarten through graduate school spend a lot of time talking to their students. If a child is a poor listener the teacher often asks ‘Are you listening?’ or ‘What did I just say?’ And the response is often ‘What did you say?’ or ‘I'm sorry, could you repeat that?’ As children we often missed what we were being told because we weren’t listening with full attention.
And what about listening in our personal and family relationships? Many of us do not listen well to our friends and family members; we often display poor listening skills with the people we are closest to. If we were to deliberately decide to just listen one-pointedly to our family members, giving them our undivided attention, not interrupting them, just letting them talk, we would demonstrate much more love for them than hours of talking to (or at) them. All we have to do is learn to listen.
Frequently in question and answer sessions, when young people ask him for advice, Baba Ji tells them to listen to their parents. He says the parents have their children’s best interest at heart. And we should listen to Baba Ji for he has our best interest at heart.
Then there is work. We obviously need to listen to our boss, to know what is expected of us. We also need to listen to our co-workers and our customers, and again most of us do not do this well – most of us are more eager to talk than to listen, which results in poor communication.
And with today’s modern technology, good focused communication is even harder to achieve. With the use of cell phones, iPhones, smart phones, music players, and I-tablets, it’s even easier to ‘tune out’ in class, or meetings, or when spending time with family or friends. While they are speaking to us we are sending instant text messages, reading e-mails or surfing the net, Googling or updating our Facebook page – not paying any kind of attention, let alone really listening to them.
All of these many and varied activities involving modern technology we call ‘multi-tasking,’ and multi-tasking results in our having scattered attention, shorter attention spans, and reduced ability to retain information. The best way to learn effectively is to listen with focused attention, and if we consciously practice this, the better our listening skills will become, and the better we will understand and absorb what we are hearing.
Listening to the Master as an aspect of a spiritual life:
In Sant Mat, the act of listening begins for many of us when we first hear about the teachings of the saints. We listen to stories and have conversations with other satsangis about the Sant Mat teachings. We attend satsang given by the Master or an appointed speaker who is discussing the Sant Mat philosophy, giving us encouragement to understand and live our lives in accordance with these teachings.
The Shabd Masters tell us it behooves us – it is to our advantage – to listen attentively to what we hear at satsang. There is no substitute for the advice, the wisdom, and the guidance of a mystic. There is a transformative power to the Master’s words – if we listen to them and apply them in our daily life. We have a wealth of Sant Mat books, we have satsang, we have tapes to listen to and we have the opportunity to do seva (service) of the Master. We have a living teacher who we can talk to, and get advice and answers from. We just need to take the opportunity to listen to him sincerely, and then follow his advice unconditionally.
Baba Ji has told us that we often ask for his advice, but do not really listen to his answer and do not always follow his instructions – so then, he asks, why do we bother to ask for advice?
Maharaj Jagat Singh used to say in satsang that we are like the man who was feeling ill and went to a doctor who prescribed some medicine. The man got the medicine, took it home and put it on a shelf in a back cupboard. Most of us, having got the medicine (meditation), then simply wander out and complain to the first person we find about our illness.
In Sar Bachan Prose, Soami Ji Maharaj says:
Mere reading and memorizing the Bani (teaching) of the saints will avail nothing so long as the teachings are not translated into action. Make the Bachans (discourses) that you hear, the rule of your life; otherwise what you hear and understand will be useless.1
Soami Ji is telling us to listen with deep attention, to hear what the Master tells us, to follow his instructions, to think about what he says and put it into action. Reading books alone will not help much if we do not internalize them, because, as Baba Ji tells us, this is a path of action, discipline and obedience.
A perfect example of this is Hazur Maharaj Ji, who would always follow the Great Master’s (Maharaj Sawan Singh) advice. He said that when Great Master spoke, he listened to what he said and followed his instructions. This was the way Hazur lived his life: he listened to the instructions and advice of the Great Master in every aspect of life – his family activities, his school activities, his career activities and his seva activities.
Paul Tillich (1886–1965), a German-born American theologian who wrote on Christian mysticism said, “The first duty of love is to listen.” If we wish to demonstrate our love for the Master, then it is our duty to listen to what he has asked us to do, and just meditate, just attend to meditation every day. This act alone will demonstrate our love for the Master.
Hazur recalled his early years with Great Master, saying: “Worldly things – we always discussed everything with him. Actually, not discussed – we listened. We received orders and obeyed them; no questions had to be put. For everything else, we kept quiet.”2
Keeping quiet means to remain silent, and it’s interesting that the words ‘silent’ and ‘listen’ are spelled with the same letters. Having the ability to remain silent and just listen is a rare quality to have in this world, where everyone is encouraged to speak their mind no matter what the consequences or who they may hurt.
There is a saying:
When we are talking we are not listening
When we are truly listening we are learning.
When we are learning we are improving.
However, Baba Ji often tells us that we are good at asking questions, but we are not always good at listening to the answers.
If we observe Baba Ji when he is answering questions or when he is speaking with someone, we notice that he gives them his full focused attention, listening with undivided attention to what they are saying. He is not distracted by surrounding activities, but just focuses on the person, looking at them. He lets them speak, does not interrupt, lets them finish – then he speaks. It is as though, at that particular moment, no one else exists but the Master and the person asking the question.
So if we were to follow Master’s example by listening to him first and then to one another, without judgment, without anger, without trying to offend the other person, we would in effect be practising tolerance and respect for one another. One of the most sincere forms of showing respect to someone is actually to listen to what they have has to say without interruption, just the way Baba Ji does.
Listening in our spiritual practice – our meditation
When we are given Nam, every detail of the Sant Mat way of life is thoroughly explained. We are taught how the do the practice of simran (repetition), dhyan (contemplation) and bhajan (listening to the Sound Current). And bhajan is the act of listening – in the spiritual sense.
Mystics explain that the soul possesses the faculty to see (nirat), and the faculty to hear (surat), to listen. All Shabd mystics teach their disciples to listen to the Shabd, to listen and to merge into it.
The very essence of the spiritual practice, the meditation, is ‘listening’– listening to the Shabd, to the spiritual sound of the Dhun that the mystics tell us created and sustains everything. It is listening to the Shabd with focused attention that is the royal highway to the soul’s salvation.
In the book Living Meditation we read:
Each time we sit, even if it’s only for fifteen minutes, we should create the habit of becoming receptive to the Shabd-dhun by giving time to bhajan. Even if we don’t hear a thing, we should develop the habit of being receptive to whatever is there. Even if what we here is silence we should pay attention to it. That silence will give rest to our mind, will settle the thought waves, and from the silence, the Shabd-dhun, will become audible. If we don’t practise being receptive, how will we ever listen to the Shabd? If we don’t become receptive how will we ever obtain the full benefit of our meditation?3
The Great Master wrote to a disciple:
I would enjoin on you the paramount necessity of regular repetition of the holy words taught to you at the time of initiation, and of constant listening to the sound current. It is this practice, regularly performed with loving devotion, which can give you salvation.4
In the Dera, from the 1960’s to the early 1990’s, Professor Bhatnagar, a disciple of Great Master, would give satsang. He used to say that as students most of us get D or F grades, but that we should listen to the Masters and at least sit every day – get a good attendance record. He said this might be all we have, but it would be enough to get us home and not have to come back here.
Great Master also wrote:
You also ask for the method I worked out for myself during my own early experiences. In regard to that, I may say that I never worked out any method for myself. I took instructions from my own Guru and he gave me the exact method.5
In other words, he listened to his Master.
In another letter in the book Spiritual Letters, Baba Jaimal Singh tells Baba Sawan Singh, “Whether for an hour or two, or for fifteen minutes, or ten, or five, whatever free time you have you must listen to [the Shabd-dhun] regularly.”6
Once again we see that it is a matter of listening to the Master’s advice and then following the instructions – doing the practice. It’s not always easy to do this, but it is always possible to do.
So in summary: We have had a brief discussion about the advantage and the need to become good listeners during our daily lives in dealing with the people of this world; to listen to and act on the advice of the Master, which is a true expression of our love for him; and to try to listen regularly to the Shabd during the inner practice of our Sant Mat life.
Baba Ji often tells us that it’s all about focused attention and thinking clearly about our situation – why we are here, why we are following this path – and acting accordingly. As we mature spiritually we will learn to become good listeners like the Masters. And if we do this in our lives while focusing on the Master, we will become better human beings, better listeners of the Shabd, better lovers of the Master, better devotees of the Lord.
In Sar Bachan Poetry Soami Ji offers a conversation between the soul and the Lord (Radha Soami). The soul asks several questions, and then at the end of the exchange the Lord answers the soul simply:
Dear surat, it is time you listened to my advice –
go up and on and listen to the Shabd of Sunn.
By listening constantly to the Shabd melody,
you will reach my country, my home.
I have now made you my own.7
- Soami Ji Maharaj, Sar Bachan Prose, 11th ed., p.57, #23
- Legacy of Love, Radha Soami Satsang Beas., p.18
- Hector Esponda Dubin, Living Meditation, p. 119.
- Maharaj Sawan Singh, Spiritual Gems, letter 85
- Spiritual Gems, letter 154
- Baba Jaimal Singh, Spiritual Letters, letter 2
- Soami Ji Maharaj, Sar Bachan Poetry, 1st ed., p.273