From Listening Below the Noise
When she first arrived at her uncle’s estate and was exploring the grounds, Mary Lennox caught sight of a bird with a bright red breast sitting on the topmost branch of a tree, “and suddenly he burst into his winter song – almost as if he had caught sight of her and was calling to her.”
On one particular morning my friend Ann and I were sitting in her backyard, which is bordered by woods. Suddenly Ann leaned forward, her body as poised as a hunting dog in point.
“Listen,” she whispered.
“What?” I concentrated.
Ann cocked her head. Her face was lit with delight. “Carolina wren,” she said.
From the woods, I heard the call. Three clear syllables. Tee-ka-lah. Tee-ka-lah. Tee-ka-lah.
“What I love about the Carolina wren,” Ann said, “is that for such a small bird, it has such a loud song.”
I have always been amazed that, like music lovers who can identify the composer after hearing only the opening bars of a sonata, serious bird-watchers can identify so many different birds by their songs. To distinguish subtleties – whether of music or birdcall – requires both stillness and the careful and attentive listening that is a form of love. Are we our own bird-watchers? How do we learn to recognize our own calls? How long do we have to wait to recognize all the songs? And like Mary’s robin, could they be calling to us?
Life-birds. That is what birders call birds they see for the very first time. Could we hear our own life-birds if we learned to listen?
And how would the world change if we did?
The discipline of silence was leading me not only to a keener attention to language but to an improved capacity for hearing. On silent Mondays, I began to listen differently – to myself, to others, and to the world around me.
It was a listening I would call both active and without an agenda.
I discovered how often, in silence, I heard the echo of what I would have said if I had been talking. I was surprised at how frequently I was frustrated because I couldn’t offer my opinions. And, of course, busy with my own thoughts, I realized that I wasn’t fully listening to others.
But gradually, as Mondays came and went, I began to observe that when there was no expectation for me to respond, to acknowledge, analyze, disagree, or otherwise comment, I listened differently. My ego relaxed. With the distance and space that silence provided, I was able to recognize the motivations and intents beneath my unspoken words, and I was more receptive to the ideas and opinions of others.
Of course, conversation can stimulate, inform, and build strong connections. It can be the thread that weaves us together and binds us to our tribe. At best it can inspire, comfort, motivate, and kindle creative thought. But as I listened more carefully I discovered that much of the dialogue in our culture is what someone once called “talking and waiting to talk.” We engage in chatter, not conversation, and our chatter reveals our egos’ needs: Love me, admire me, envy me, fear me, help me, see me. There is little space for truly hearing others.
In silence I was hearing others more keenly and witnessing my own thoughts, too, and seeing how they served to separate or to connect me. I was learning not to turn away from the parts of myself that were difficult.
In the fifth year of my practice, I was again a resident at the Ragdale Foundation in northern Illinois. The first evening of my stay, I entered the dining room and placed my “I Am Having a Day of Silence” card in front of one place at the table. Others came into the room, chose seats.
The buzz of conversation filled the air. Wineglasses were filled. The chef set out food on the sideboard. Plates piled high, we all sat down and then, at the suggestion of the director, we went around the table and the other fellows took turns telling where they were from and what their discipline was.
I didn’t know any of the other residents and was growing more and more anxious about being in silence. Were they judging me? Not speaking, had I become invisible? The thought made me uncomfortable, pricked my ego.
I listened as one after another told about himself. Without even being aware of it, I slipped into critical mind. One person was boastful. Another authoritative. Still another boring. And a fourth dominated the conversation. I was not speaking, but my mind was busy – impatient, disapproving. Once again, I was so busy judging, I was unable to hear. I was separated from my fellow artists not only by my silence, but by my own insecurities, which had engendered a need to be superior, so very often the place out of which judgment is born.
But after a while, my silence created a space around me and my anxiety eased. While the hum of conversation continued, I withdrew to the safe place of inner stillness. My mind quieted. The spinning of the world slowed. And then I began to watch myself watching others. I saw how, to validate my own ego, I judged others.
When I again tuned in to the talk at the table, a major shift had occurred. As if something had cracked open inside my chest, I was overcome with waves of tenderness toward the people I had been judging only moments earlier. I saw how, in this noisy world, we shout so to be heard.
Instead of the actual words spoken at that table, I heard the desires and needs beneath them and was softened with empathy. I understood. The painter listing all the galleries where she had shown her work, the composer who interrupted a writer to talk about his new opera, the writer who talked on and on about being on Oprah, the novelist whose book had just been sold to the movies – like any of us, all each wanted was to be seen and heard and validated.
Silence brought me to a place of kindness and compassion. Sitting in silence, we are given an opportunity to develop sensitivity, compassion, and empathy. In stillness, we can develop the discipline that is required to listen fully. The American philosopher Eugene Kennedy wrote, “There is a silence that matches our best possibilities when we have learned to listen to others. We can master the art of being quiet in order to be able to hear clearly what others are saying. We need to cut off the garbled static of our own preoccupations to give to people who want our quiet attention.”
I love Kennedy’s phrase, “a silence that matches our best possibilities.”
This kind of quiet is also necessary in order to hear our own inner voice. Our own birdsong.
My friend, Dr. John Clark, a former professor of medieval literature, became a life coach after retiring form his university job. A crucial skill required in coaching is the ability to listen. He told me that during his training, his adviser told him there are four kinds of listening:
Listening but not hearing.
Listening and connecting with one’s own agenda.
Intuitive listening, meaning not only hearing what is being spoken but what is not being said. Deep listening.
Listening but not hearing. Haven’t we all done that? Been present in body but not in mind? Sat while someone chatted on, preoccupied with our own thoughts, what we have left to do in the day, looking ahead to what we have to do tomorrow, pretending to listen. Margaret calls that “giving radio time.” And at one time or another, haven’t we also been on the other side of that situation, aware while we are talking that we don’t have the other’s attention, even if the person is wearing a “listening face”?
Listening and connecting with one’s own agenda. This means talking and waiting to talk. While another is speaking, we’re rehearsing our response. A mother readying her argument that vegetables are good for him even while her son is stating his dislike of beets. The woman waiting out her friend’s tale of a romance gone bad so she can soothe the hurt by saying the man was a rat and that she’s better off without him. Cutting short someone’s grief with facile words of condolence because we find the sorrow too painful to hear.
Listening and hearing without a personal agenda. A woman who was grieving following the death of her son said that the most helpful of all the people who came to console her after the accident was an older woman. “She just sat with me, held my hand. She listened to everything. My grief, despair, guilt, anger. All of it without speaking. On that day, her silent listening was more helpful than a thousand words of consolation.” In listening this way, we bear witness for one another. My friend Ginny says this is true when we share the details of illness as well. “We don’t want solutions,” she says. “Just a sympathetic ear.”
Intuitive listening. Hearing what is not being said. This listening is a gift. It is listening with heart. It is what the most skillful and compassionate of therapists are capable of. And good parents. It is a mother knowing that when her daughter says she doesn’t want to go to a party, she is ashamed about being overweight. It is when an older parent says, “I don’t need help,” and her middle-aged son knows that what she is really saying is, “I don’t want to be a burden.”
The first Rule of Saint Benedict is this: Listen.
To be truly heard is to be understood. It is a central longing of our souls. To listen, says Paul Tillich, is the first duty of love. And the writer Rachel Naomi Remen writes, “The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well intentioned words.”
A gardener once told me that when he is completely silent in his garden he is able to hear the sound of a seedling breaking through the ground. How quiet do we have to be to hear the plant sprouting, the Carolina wren in the woods, and the small birdsong deep inside ourselves? This is the voice theologians and philosophers and poets have called the voice of God.
“Silence,” wrote Herman Melville,” is the one and only voice of God.”
What is it trying to tell us?
In order to follow inner wisdom, we have to first know it. In order to know it, we have to hear it; to hear it, we have to be still.
Habits are so deeply ingrained that in spite of best intentions, we fall back into mindless behavior. It is stopping and paying attention that awakens us.
I still have on my desk the conch shell I picked up at the beach on my second day of silence. Listen, it continues to remind me. Listen to what you can hear when you are being still.