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Does it take more effort to listen, just for the sake of listening? I make a vow to myself to listen today, to try listening without interpretation.
BY MAGAZINE COLUMNIST RUTH FARMER
Slipping out of the dream landscape, the fan’s sound is a white balloon enveloping three-quarters of the bedroom. The rest of the spaces hold silence and then a whimper. I look through the gray of morning toward the direction of the sound. Denver is facing the window. Does she feel me looking at her? I look at Phoebe burrowed against my thigh. The thump of her brindle tail fills some of the silent spaces. I look at Denver again and know she has called.
“You need to go out?”
No answer. Thump, thump, thump from Phoebe’s tail. The white balloon of the fan’s sound recedes to the far corner. We three scramble out of bed, tumble down the stairs. The dogs scamper out when I open the door, and disappear into the morning gloom.
The sound of the rainfall is green, blanketing the porch. I close the door and stand listening to remnants of sleep. Charcoal flaked with black. I open the door. No dogs. The rain has shielded them from my ears. I feel a twinge. It’s as though they have left the planet. Door closed now, I listen to furnace and sump pump harmonize. I feel the dogs’ presence on the porch and open the door. They stand wheaten and brindle tails flipping back and forth, waiting to be dried.
Subtle sounds of life
Sleep lingers loudly, mixing red with charcoal. The dogs scramble up the stairs, and I follow. We tumble back into bed. The dogs curl into sleep. I contemplate listening, the difference between listening and hearing, between passive hearing and focused listening. The fan’s sound is beach ball size as I realize other sounds: My hair a gentle crackle in my ear as I shift my head, silky sweeping sound when I move left to right, and the plop of a lock against the pillow.
This contemplation yields to wondering and realization: How many sounds do I miss each minute? How wonderful the brain is at sifting. Consider how overwhelming it would be to listen to everything that you hear?
As is often the case, I think about my jobs – both in college settings. I now teach online two courses that I’ve taught for years face-to-face, and I direct a low-residency program. Interactions with colleagues and students are often by email or phone, sometimes video, occasionally face-to-face. I contemplate listening in a world that is increasingly visual (and I include email).
How do we listen to words on a page?
Hearing what’s written, listening to a cable knit sweater
This is not a rhetorical question, and I don’t have an answer. I know that we interpret words on a page, but how do we hear them? More to the point, how do we listen to them? We can imagine a person’s voice in the words – sound not just tone. Is hers a nasal, belligerent voice? I might ask this if a student’s question uses words that seem aggressive. Sometimes I imagine a particularly even-tempered, articulate student’s voice as soothingly modulated. Cannot people with nasal voices be even-tempered? Yes, but I have to work to imagine it.
During meetings, I catch myself not listening to a speaker’s words, but her intent. Am I listening? Or have I become seduced by subtext, hampered by my assumptions at the underlying meaning?
What does it mean to listen? For me, listening is best done face-to-face because I am not just listening, but interpreting facial expressions, body language. Yet, even then I might be distracted by the very things that I seek – physical presence to supplement what I am hearing.
That blue cable-knit sweater might sway me to believe that I am listening to sensible comments, when the speaker is talking nonsense. The frown might be indigestion, when I think it is annoyance. Oral cues can be misleading as well. The aggressive tone over the phone might come from someone on the verge of tears, related to the conversation or not. The unfortunate choice of words in a discussion forum might represent fear of judgment.
An ecology of presence
I lie in bed listening to the world: a car zips past and I see the gray gust of speed in my mind’s eye. The fan’s sound is a tiny bubble as I hear the chit-chit of a bird far away, a truck humming from the north, passing to the south, Phoebe and my partner’s harmonious snoring – bass and alto.
I make a vow to myself to listen today, to try listening without interpretation. Is that even possible? Should I listen with eyes closed since visual cues can be so ambiguous?
I wonder, how has listening changed over the years? Being bombarded with sound and especially noise, have our filtering mechanisms become more sophisticated? Do these mechanisms make us impervious to our world? Does it take more effort to listen, just for the sake of listening?
And I still wonder about the words on the page.
Are you listening to what I have written?
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.