"We add to our suffering when life changes and we still behave as if it hadn’t."
In Seven Thousand Ways to Listen: Staying Close to What is Sacred, poet and philosopher Mark Nepo offers us ancient and contemporary practices to reflect upon the life we’ve been given. Throughout this enlightening volume, we’re invited to find the language of our own wisdom. The net result is a tapestry of deep reflection, memoir and meditation designed to create a remarkable guide on how to listen more fully.
The Big Idea
"Deep listening is more than hearing with our ears, but taking in what is revealed in any given moment with our body, our being, our heart."
Did you know there are seven thousand living languages on Earth? When Nepo learned this information from a Nigerian linguist friend, it stood to reason there must then be at least seven thousand ways to listen.
Hearing is distinct from listening. The former occurs physically when a signal is generated in the ear that gathers discrete pieces of information from all the senses and sends the aggregate to the brain. The latter is an innate process that integrates an array of sensations we encounter through different ways of knowing (sight, smell, touch, taste and sound).
To practice deep listening, we’re urged to learn how to keep emptying and opening. Such expansion is a personal pilgrimage that takes time plus a willingness to circle back. Ironically, the author came to the awareness that there exists a different way of being (and interacting with the world) as his own hearing was breaking down.
"Can you hold the door of your tent open to the firmament?"
To encourage us to listen to the part of us that life is trying to wake, we’re offered Reflective Pauses throughout. These taking-stock points are an invitation to close our eyes, inhale and exhale, and literally breathe in the core messages conveyed.
These “meditations” are followed by journal questions. Here are some especially provocative examples of inquiries to which we can scribe our responses:
- Describe a learning you were born with and how you came to discover this. Where does this learning live in you now?
- Describe a moment in which you briefly lost your way and what this did to you. What if anything was disturbing about this? What if anything was beneficial or growth-enhancing?
- Is there a feeling you’re currently avoiding or running away from? Why? What would happen if you let that feeling touch you?
- Trace your own history and evolution as a listener. Describe three key experiences that have shaped what listening has meant to you. What have you heard along the way that has opened you to life and your place in it?
- Which part of you – deep listener, speaker or questioner – is the most experienced? Which needs more of your attention? If each is a teacher, what has each taught you?
"A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions."
These questions are intended to be asked over dinner or coffee with friends and loved ones. The suggestion is to try listening to everyone’s response before discussing.
Here is a series of meaningful conversation starters:
- Consider how experience has excavated a depth in you. What has been opened in you?
- Tell the story of a time when you were slow to listen to a change that was unfolding in your life. In retrospect, what were the signs you were given that change was happening? How did not listening impact you?
- Tell the story of a moment when giving and receiving seemed indistinguishable. What did this moment teach you?
- Discuss a situation you lived through in which the truth involved more than just your point of view. How do you now understand what happened?
- In the next week, stop and listen without expectation to another person. This includes their actual words, below their words, the space that surrounds them and the presence you feel once they leave. Can you listen to the silence beneath their presence?
Typically, we filter what we hear through what we believe. This tendency limits what we take in to only that which is familiar. According to Mark Nepo, much of our trouble comes from the rigidity of obsolete definitions of ourselves and the world. As with hardening of the arteries, stale thinking becomes a silent killer.
Instead, when we can accept that beyond every so-called answer awaits a larger question, we truly begin to live. If anything, it’s when we lose our “map” of how the world supposedly works that our real knowledge of the path begins.
Being lost can be a prelude to a deeper way. Once we admit we’re not sure where life is taking us, we’re ripe for transformation.
Beyond every arrival awaits an unforeseen beginning. I personally look forward with great anticipation to what’s around the next corner!