Tag Archives: listening

The Gift of Listening


In my recent post “Shoddy Virtues,” I quoted John Steinbeck to the effect that the act of giving can often be an ego-inflating sham, while gracious receiving requires wisdom and humility. In that post I did celebrate the possibility of giving with love and lamented selfish receiving, but Steinbeck’s observation that those qualities are often reversed seems spot on.

There is one act of receiving, however, that strikes me as almost always so wise and humble that it itself becomes a gift. I am of course referring to the receptive gift of listening.
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Monkey Reaching for the Moon #3: The Pool


Let us again refresh Hakuin’s poem that has been serving as a theme for this series of essays:

The monkey is reaching
For the moon in the water.
Until death overtakes him
He’ll never give up.
If he’d let go the branch and
Disappear in the deep pool,
The whole world would shine
With dazzling pureness.

If the ideas in the previous post concerning the branch of attachment seem at all cogent, it is because I have spent so much of my life clinging to that damn branch! My experience of the pool, however, is much more tenuous and fleeting. Rather than talking about its nature (which might be impossible), perhaps I can describe some of its cooling springs.

The first spring is that of presence. Many teachers, such as Eckhart Tolle, are making a big thing of this right now, and well they should! Many of us are rarely where we are or when we are. We are often somewhere and sometime else–in the past or future. We live in daydreams or sporting the bumper sticker “I’d rather be…anywhere else.” Life in the pool, then, is not so much grasping or striving, but embracing the marvels of life as it is here and now. Some of my students think that this is totally unrealistic. How can one live without preferences or plans and desires for a brighter future? Tolle clarifies this beautifully: ” Your life’s journey has an outer and an inner purpose. The outer purpose is to arrive at your goal or destination, to accomplish what you set out to do, to achieve this or that, which, of course, implies future. But if your destination, or the steps you are going to take in the future, take up so much of your attention that they become more important to you than the step you are taking now, then you completely miss the journey’s inner purpose, which has nothing to do with where you are going or what you are doing, but everything to do with how.” (This can be found on pg. 88 in the Power of Now.)

The how also points to another fascinating conundrum that my students raise. Doesn’t lack of attachment engender a lack of caring? If I am not attached to this post–where it will go or who will read it–can I really be said to care about it? I would suggest that the more I am attached to the protective and defensive needs of my ego, the less I am able to care for the people and things in my life.  Milton Meyeroff wrote a lovely small book, On Caring, in 1971.  He says that to care for another person or thing or idea is to support and to rejoice in its growth, while maintaining respect for its own inner nature and agenda.  True caring, that is, entails relinquishing control over the timing and direction of the other’s growth–a difficult trick, indeed, for parents. This idea, however, is similar to the Taoist teaching of wu-wei, that implies a life of graceful activity without a self-inflating sense of authorship or control.

This question, I think, raises complex issues involving the object of my caring, and the motivation that fuels it.  Surely, there are healthy ways to care for oneself, and destructive ways to care for others.  Clinging attachment to oneself or another, however, engendered by a fearful dependency, does seem to diminish the ability truly to care.  Examples abound: the more I am attached to winning a game, the less I care about the wonder and the joy of the game itself, and my playing suffers.  The more I am attached to my righteous ideas of Peace, the less peacefully i work for peace.  It is so easy to lose sight of the fact that I cannot nurture a more peaceful world by injecting it with more hostility and little regard for the humanity of my ‘enemies.’  Finally, the more needy attachment I have for my significant other, the less I can love and care for her.  If we monkeys can let go of our dependent attachment to our own ideas and the needs they engender, then our egos could at least occasionally disappear into the pool of caring.  That, after all, is where we long to be.

Another refreshing spring in the pool of enlightenment is attention: looking and listening. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard has a marvelous passage on the dynamics of recognizing our own uncertainties: “We don’t know what’s going on here…We don’t know. Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise” (pg. 9l). I spoke above of taking everything and everyone for granted as a tragic misconception. My wife and I do our best to pay attention to each other. We take great care to look at each other freshly every morning. What is she thinking and feeling today? Have her dreams evolved? Who is she right now? In order to relate to the woman across the table, I need to look and listen to her, and not to rest in the complacency of my set ideas of her. This is a lot more difficult than it sounds, but more important than words can say. Continue reading