Sometimes when people talk to us, we aren’t really listening. We may hear them speak and look them in the eye. We may nod our heads in encouragement. But inwardly we are distracted by our private concerns and want to turn the conversation in our own direction. Before they complete their sentences, we are busy composing our own responses.
And sometimes, of course, they are doing exactly the same thing. We may be sharing ideas and feelings that are very important to us; we may want to be heard and taken seriously. But inwardly they are distracted by their own private agendas. They, too, are composing their responses to our sentences before we have finished uttering them. An observer might say that the two of us are having a conversation, but in fact we are having two monologues simultaneously. Two people are talking, but no one is listening.
In order for genuine communication to occur, then, at least one person in the discussion has to set aside his or her agenda and be present to the other. Of course this willingness may not come easily. The problem, though, is not always that we are sinful or selfish or self-absorbed. It is that we are distracted.
Buddhism and Christianity
The religions of the world – Buddhism and Christianity, for example – offer various approaches to this distractedness. Buddhists typically approach it directly and in psychological terms. They compare our minds to drunken monkeys that are flitting from one branch of a tree to another, such that, for most of us, having a calm and undistracted mind – a mind of presence – is very difficult. We think that we control our thoughts, they say, but in fact our thoughts control us. Accordingly, many Buddhists recommend a daily practice of meditation as one way of developing a calm mind, so that we can then bring into our daily activities a less distracted presence. With practice, they say, we can gradually find ourselves more centered and more available to the call of each present moment.
Similarly, some Christians who are influenced by the contemplative traditions within Christianity recommend a daily practice of centering prayer. If we learn to “center down” even for a brief time every morning, say these Christians, we slowly understand that we can live from the center in our daily lives. We realize that each present moment is a sacrament of sorts, and that the very light of God shines through the face of the other people who need our listening ear. Some such as the Benedictines go further and say that we meet Christ in the other person, whether stranger or friend, attractive or frightening. “When I was hungry you gave me good, and when I was in prison you visited me,” says Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. “And when I needed someone to talk to,” the Benedictines add, “you listened to me.”
The life of listening is creative and flexible, like that of a jazz musician. Consider the words of the Catholic writer, Joan Chittister, who is a sister in a Benedictine community in Erie, Pennsylvania. What Chittister says of Benedictine spirituality; I want to say of the listening life in general.
"Benedictine spirituality is the spirituality of an open heart. A willingness to be touched. A sense of otherness. There is no room for isolated splendor or self-sufficiency. Here all of life becomes a teacher and we its students. The listener can always learn and turn and begin again. The open can always be filled. The real discipline can always be surprised by God."
To be surprised by God. Is this so different from being surprised by other people, by hills and rivers, by the promptings of the spirit within the heart? Is it so different from being surprised by a sunset, or a blade of grass, or a dragonfly wing? And when we are surprised in this way, are we not saying “yes” to life itself, even with its suffering and sadness? Were we not born for this reason? Were we not born to listen and to be surprised? In the surprise there is a kind of awakening. Buddhists call it enlightenment. Christians call it gratitude. Are they so different?
Even God must Begin with Listening
In the beginning is the listening. Families cannot live happily as families, and friends as friends, unless they listen to one another. Neighbors cannot live peacefully as neighbors, and nations as nations, unless first they hear one another’s concerns. Farmers cannot till the soil, and poets cannot stir our minds, unless they listen to the sounds of creation: to the rhythms of the seasons, the songs of the birds, the howling of the wolves, the music of the spheres.
Even God must begin with listening. If God couldn’t listen, how could God respond to the cries of the world, or the laughter of children, or the songs of whales? How could God hear prayers? How would God know what is happening in the world as it happens?
Of course some people may reject the notion of a listening God because they think that God does not need to listen. From their perspective God knows all things that happen in advance of their occurrence on earth, because the script of human history is already complete in God’s mind. Even before you were born, God knew the exact day that you would die. In God there are no surprises. To support this idea, they sometimes appeal to idea that there was a time, some twenty billion years ago, when there was nothing for God to listen to, because God was the sole reality. In this time, they argue, there were no atoms or molecules, stars or galaxies, hills or rivers, people or animals. God said “Let there be Light” and somehow the heavens came into existence and after that the earth. But this new creation added nothing to God, who existed perfectly complete, all by himself, long before the dawn of creation. The world could be destroyed tomorrow and God’s life would in no way be affected.
The creation story in Genesis suggests an alternative to the image of God as an unmoved Mover. It offers the image of God as the deep Listener who was listening to something other than God even before the world was created. More specifically it suggests that when God began creating the universe, there was a watery chaos from which God called the universe into existence. If something like this creative energy really existed alongside God, then God had to listen to the potentialities with the chaos in order to call the chaos into existence. Still more poignantly, God had to listen to a yearning within the divine heart: a yearning for the chaos to evolve into the heavens and the earth. What was this yearning? Did God seek companionship? We really do not know. What we do know is that, even in God, there had to be a listening.
The Listener is the Listening
What is listening? It is the act of being present, of being aware, of being open and available, to what is given for experience, in a respectful and attentive way. Of course there are many kinds of listening. It is listening to other people to be sure, and also to the deepest of our deep desires, which are to love and be loved. If God sought companionship at the dawn of creation, then God was listening to these desires, too.
Of course there are many kinds of listening. An advertising executive will listen to the public in order to sell a product; a celebrity will listen to fans in order to receive flattery; a torturer will listen to a prisoner in order better to understand what causes pain. We have in mind what a Buddhist might call wise and compassionate listening. When this listening is responsive to another person it is gentle and non-violent. It is guided, not by the aim of conquering or controlling, but by the aim of being with another in a sensitive way, and of responding with wisdom and compassion.
Understood in this way, then, listening is not simply a matter of the ears. It can also occur through touch, sight, smell and sound; and it can be guided by intuition, imagination and reason. When a nurse gently binds the wound of a person who is injured, she is listening with her hands; when a businessman calculates the possible outcomes of a business decision with an eye to serving the poor, he is listening with his reason. There are many ways to listen and there are many kinds of listeners. People who do not hear very well can listen very deeply; and people with perfect hearing can fail to listen.
When we truly listen to others, we are not self-preoccupied or anxious. We are not even aware of ourselves because we are absorbed in who they are, in what they are saying, in how they present themselves. From our side of things we become them for that moment, not unlike the way in which we become music when we listen to music we love. And so it is that God becomes the world, moment by moment. At least this is how Whitehead saw things. For him God is not different from the act of listening to the world and sharing in its sufferings. God is the act of listening. Thus we can speak of God as the Deep Listening, everywhere at once, both witness to, and sharing in, all the sufferings of the world. Like Christ; like Kuan Yin. When we listen to others in caring ways, we become their ears and hearts. People meet them through us. “When I was hungry you gave me food, when I was lonely you listened to me.”