Our Inability to Listen to Others

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Silver Spring, Maryland, Community Online on Thursday Evening
September 10, 7:00 to 8:45 pm
Open to all Online on Friday Evening
September 11, 7:00 to 8:45 pm

Dear Still Water Friends,

In Thich Nhat Hanh’s Five Mindfulness Trainings, the Fourth Training on Loving Speech and Deep Listening begins:

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and compassionate listening in order to relieve suffering and to promote reconciliation and peace in myself and among other people, ethnic and religious groups, and nations.

As I reflected on the training, I was intrigued by the phrase “inability to listen to others.” I asked myself “When is it difficult for me to listen to others?” and I started a list. The first three were: When I am arrogant; When I am defensive; When I am suffering.

My arrogance. Sometimes I believe I already know what the other person is going to say. Sometime I am invested in being “right” and the other person being “wrong.”Arrogance, however, inhibits deep listening and growth.

Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) began many of his  Dharma talks with a reminder to let go of what we think we know:

Listen to the talks with an open mind and a receptive heart. If you listen only with your intellect, comparing and judging what is said to what you already think you know or what you have heard others say, you may miss the chance to truly receive the message that is being transmitted. (From Happiness: Essential Mindfulness Practices.)

My defensiveness. Sometimes I believe what is being said, or about to be said, is an attack, a challenge, or a criticism. I don’t want to hear it, or I want to explain why it isn’t true.

Thay, in an interview with Oprah, noted that Deep Listening requires us to be open-hearted rather than defensive:

Deep listening is the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person. You can call it compassionate listening. You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her to empty his heart. Even if he says things that are full of wrong perceptions, full of bitterness, you are still capable of continuing to listen with compassion. Because you know that listening like that, you give that person a chance to suffer less. If you want to help him to correct his perception, you wait for another time. For now, you don’t interrupt. You don’t argue. If you do, he loses his chance. You just listen with compassion and help him to suffer less. One hour like that can bring transformation and healing.

My suffering. When something the other person says, or just the topic itself, pokes at a deep suffering or a personal failing, I close down. I don’t want to experience the pain.

Thay often taught that if we want to be helpful to those who suffer, we must first transform our own suffering:

That is why, to listen to the suffering of other people, we should listen to our own suffering. But in our society not many people have the time to listen and understand their own suffering and difficulties. If we are able to listen to our own suffering and if we understand the true nature and roots of our suffering, then we will suffer less. We will be able to see a way out.

After that, we can listen to our loved ones, our community, our nation. And listening like that can bring relief because the people who are listened to in that spirit feel that they are now understood. (From “Leading with Courage and Compassion” The Mindfulness Bell, Summer 2009.)

Looking over my list, I realized that our capacity to listen deeply is like a muscle. In some of us the muscle is little used and weak, in others it is well-exercised and strong. But we all have the muscle. Our ability or inability to listen to others depends on whether the particular conditions place too great a demand on the listening muscles we have.

Mindfulness practice give us many ways to build our listening muscles. Thay writes in Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise :

The practice of mindfulness is very simple. You stop, you breathe, and you still your mind. You come home to yourself so that you can enjoy the here and now in every moment.

All the wonders of life are already here. They’re calling you. If you can listen to them, you will be able to stop running. What you need, what we all need, is silence. Stop the noise in your mind in order for the wondrous sounds of life to be heard. Then you can begin to live your life authentically and deeply. …

Silence is essential. We need silence, just as much as we need air, just as much as plants need light. If our minds are crowded with words and thoughts, there is no space for us.

Recently, I have been working with a simple meditation practice that directly develops the listening muscle. During a sitting meditation, after settling my body and stabilizing my mind, I give some of my attention to the physicality of my breathing  and most of my attention to what I am  hearing. With wordless attention I listen to each sound, and let it go. I also listen to moments of silence, which are like a sound. And when thoughts or emotions arise, I smile to them, and return to the  breathing and the listening.

This Thursday and Friday evening we will work with the listening practice during our meditation period. During our program, we will recite together the Five Mindfulness trainings and focus our Dharma sharing on the Fourth Mindfulness Training, Loving Speech and Deep Listening. We will begin our sharing with these questions:

  • When is it difficult for you to listen to others?
  • Have you noticed any changes in the strength of your “listening muscle”?

You are invited to join us.

The full text of the Fourth Mindfulness Training, Loving Speech and Deep Listening,  is below, and, also,  a related except from Thay..

Many blessings,


The Fourth Mindfulness Training, Loving Speech and Deep Listening

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and compassionate listening in order to relieve suffering and to promote reconciliation and peace in myself and among other people, ethnic and religious groups, and nations.

Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am committed to speaking truthfully using words that inspire confidence, joy, and hope. When anger is manifesting in me, I am determined not to speak. I will practice mindful breathing and walking in order to recognize and to look deeply into its roots, especially in my wrong perceptions and lack of understanding of the suffering in myself and in the other person. I will speak and listen in a way that can help myself and the other person to release the suffering and see the way out of difficult situations. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to utter words that can cause division or discord. I will make daily efforts, in my speaking and listening, to nourish my capacity for understanding, love, joy, and inclusiveness, and gradually transform anger, violence, and fear that lie deep in my consciousness.

A Spiritual Dimension
By Thich Nhat Hanh, from Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise

We need to cultivate a spiritual dimension of our life if we want to be light, free, and truly at ease. We need to practice in order to restore this kind of spaciousness. Only when we have been able to open space within ourselves, can we really help others. If I am out for a walk or on a public bus—anywhere, really—it is very easy to notice if someone has a feeling of spaciousness. Perhaps you’ve met people like this—you don’t even know them well, but you feel comfortable with them because they are easy and relaxed. They are not already full of their own agenda.

If you open the space within yourself, you will find that people, even someone who perhaps has been avoiding you (your teenage daughter, your partner with whom you were in a fight, your parent) will want to come and be near you. You don’t have to do anything, or try to teach them anything, or even say anything. If you are practicing on your own, creating space and quiet within you, others will be drawn to your spaciousness. People around will feel comfortable just being around you because of the quality of your presence.

This is the virtue of nonaction. We stop our thinking, bring our mind back to our body, and become truly present. Nonaction is very important. It is not the same thing as passivity or inertia; it’s a dynamic and creative state of openness. We just need to sit there, very awake, very light; and when others come sit with us, they feel at ease right away. Even though we haven’t “done” anything to help, the other person receives a lot from us.

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