Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Got your ears on, good neighbor?

Lately it has come to my attention that I do not attend well when listening. My mind is very busy and the more scattered I become the more I realize the technical impossibility of trying to multi-task in this way. Trying to simultaneously listen AND think AND/OR talk yourself is like trying to listen and talk on a walkie talkie or CB radio. You simply aren't allowed to by the function of the machine. You must hold a button to talk and then stop what you're doing and let the button up to listen. The point is maybe we would all be better off if we had to choose which mode we were in and stick to it. And if that involves colorful, CB trucker talk, then so be it. Or, big 10-4, mama bears. (http://classifieds.columbiatribune.com/truckstop/articles/003.asp-these slang terms are great . I am really starting to want a handle and who didn't love "Smoky and the Bandit").

A very core principle of Buddhism is to suspend judgment even, and especially, when listening. And folks they are very serious about this. This is not some bumper sticker suggestion to hold off on judging some fella till you have walked a mile in his shoes. No, this is hard core. No judgment on anyone, anything, any act, even yourself; good, bad, or otherwise. After all, the categories of good and bad involve judgment.

Learning this has made me uber aware that my thought process is made up entirely of a steady stream of judgments. (And just for the sake of clarification for those who speak to me on a regular basis, I don't mean I'm constantly doing the church lady type of judgment. Just the inner-dialogue, categorizing type.) Not thinking in this way is purported to bring great clarity, freedom, and the end of being ruled by habitual emotional reactions. That sounds pretty great. But truthfully I don't even know where to start. And I would really like to start. Like right now. Even if that means mostly failing.

Here is what I do know (although that could also be a judgment-tricky stuff!). As it was explained to me by a Zen teacher, judgment immediately stops the listening process. It stops it in its tracks and starts an internal dialogue. "What would I do? I would never have done that. Here is what I would do and why it is more valid, etc. etc" Once you have shut listening down you are riding a wave of your own emotions, seeking to establish your own worth, and of course you are judging your head off.

So, how can I cultivate listening with an open heart? A former supervisor of mine was very big on the belief that one should invest in very select texts. She said we should stay the temptation to purchase every book on every variation of every case that could present itself to us in treatment. Rather, we should use our well selected resources wisely. This would save us time and money, but moreover, it would teach us to make broad applications and apply what we were learning in many different contexts. This is a bit of a digression, but what is occurring to me is that maybe I do know where to start. And instead of spending my Christmas gift cards at Borders on books about the art of listening, I can remind myself of what I do know and what I already have at my disposal. I don't need to re-invent the wheel here. Rather, I need to figure out what internal resources I already have, what books would apply, and who I know that is really good at this.

As a therapist I think I was actually really good at listening to my clients. I didn't feel compelled to compare or judge in the context of therapy. I was very motivated by the desire to do a good job. And there was no way that I could track everything that was going on and help my client make connections if I wasn't listening. It was job #1, way before I could hope to apply theory or help facilitate a breakthrough. Of course friends and acquaintances are not clients but it seems to be there must some behaviors I can carry over. And since I have already done them, there should be no reason that I can't start doing them right away.

The germ of this seems to be carrying the reverence and respect I had for my clients, their situations, and their resilience over to my friends and family members. I can listen with that same sense of awe and wonder to the people in my life. I can try to move to a conscious awareness that this person I am talking to is trying to share something with me, not invite a compare/contrast, but share something. Judging as a therapist would have made me inappropriate, weird, and unsuccessful. I think I would apply the same three labels to any "friend" or acquaintance who compulsively judged me, or at least moved so deeply into their inner-dialogue that they didn't really listen. FYI-I am cooking up a future post on why listening can conjure up such feelings of inner-conflict, despair, validation, etc, etc so be on the edge of your seats that.

I have had in my life the enormous gift of having been truly listened to. I have been met with compassion and genuine interest. It is an enormously powerful thing to be in the presence of someone who can listen like that. When someone experiences that they don't forget it anytime soon. It can make us realize how rare it truly is and drive many of us to do something that may seem a little silly, pay for it!

For 27 years of my life my wonderful and nurturing Grandma provided this service to me (for free-she was great like that!). If I lived to be 107 I couldn't master her skills. But if I can practice emulating a few of her habits and be able to pass on, in some small way, that gift of feeling special, cherished, and infinitely interesting, then that is something pretty special. Her "attending behaviors" were spot on. Eye contact, question asking, reflecting, clarifying, all of that and more. Those truly are skills, and ones we can all practice. The genuine interest in others and the lack of being caught up with my own self will likely come with more practice and age.

Listening is an exchange and is at the heart of the human relationship. By getting better at it and making it a daily practice perhaps I can move closer to my goal of moving closer to humanity. Or at least I will be able to more reliably pass on gossip. JK-just making sure you were listening! Over and out!

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