Right Listening: Companion To Right Speech

By: David Xi-Ken Shi 曦 肯

I want to speak to you today about one of the most important dimensions to the Eightfold Path’s element of Encompassing & Corrective Speech. I am thinking about the learned skill of listening. I say learned skill, because it is truly a skill that requires special development. It seems, we are not born with this particular tool for communication. Listening requires taming the ego-driven addiction to being center stage, and always trying to overcome another’s “air time”. To speak is to articulate words that convey meaning, and to listen is to be aware of the words being spoken. Human speech is a process then that requires both speaking and listening simultaneously in order to express ideas, emotions, instructions, desires, and other quite human expectations to others. It is of great importance in human relations. So, when Siddhartha Gotama spoke about Right Speech, he was including both sides of the communication equation; listening as well as skillful means of intentional speech.

When we think of all the ways we can cause trouble between individuals, it can be due to refusing to talk with someone, not making ourselves clear when we speak to them, or not listening to them undistracted so we can respond back in an intelligent fashion. If we speak to others and listen when they talk, we develop the possibility of mutual connection, understanding and acceptance. Speech and listening are like all other phenomena in the Universe, they are subject to the rules of causality. In the ordinary way of experiencing things, when something good appears, we have a positive reaction, and when something bad appears, we have a negative reaction. When we listen to others we experience a body-mind moment, that over time, will effect our actions, either knowingly or unknowingly. Thus, the Buddha’s concept of Right Speech pertains mainly to the ethical dimensions of speech, to the importance of the subject matter of what we have to say. But the Buddha was also concerned with how we speak, with those qualities that can make our words a positive and productive means of human communication. The Buddha always talked in a way that was ‘serious and beneficial for opening the mind’ as we hear expressed so often throughout the Pali Nikayas. He instructed his monks to speak without rambling and in a gentle tone, and to use language that is polished, clear, free-flowing, meaningful, comprehensive and unbiased. As we speak it is important to connect with whom we are speaking in order to gauge their reaction that gives us clues to how we are being understood. In other words, how are they listening. Speaking in such a manner makes ordinary social interactions more pleasant and harmonious, and teaching the dharma in such a way makes it more attractive and convincing too, I might add.

However, not all eloquence in speech is positive. Some individuals combine their speaking skills with clever arguments and a loud voice to dominate every conversation that stifles every point of view, except their own of course. Maybe you know people like that. They don’t know how to use an indoor-voice. Intelligent and knowledgeable ideas can be conveyed just as effectively in a measure and clear manner than with a sophisticated delivery style. Perhaps one of the greatest obstacles to effective communication is speaking to much. Some people can be so long winded that everyone around them stops listening altogether. That is an example of narcissism and a total lack of awareness of our effect on others. One important element of good speaking skills is to punctuating our conversation with pauses that allow others to express their ideas, to consider what is being said or to ask questions. An exception to that is when what is being said is valued enough to require us to remain in a state of aware intentional listening mode in order to absorb the content. This avoids the natural human need to break off listening in order to think about putting a question into words. When we do this, we might just miss what is being said. It is no wonder that the Buddha considered that being easy to talk to is an expression of love and compassion.

But for communication to take place it is not just enough to let others talk, we have to genuinely listen to them when they do. To genuinely listen, we have to close our mouths and open our minds so that the other person’s words are not just heard but comprehended. Being a good listener helps us understand people and it also helps us understand ideas. The Buddha knew that listening is an important factor in education. He said: “There are five advantages of listening to the dharma, What five? One hears things not heard before, clarifies things heard before, dispels doubts, straightens one’s ideas, and one’s mind is delighted.” (Anguttara Nikaya III 248) Before teaching the dharma, the Buddha would often say to his audience ‘listen carefully, pay attention and I will speak’. A popular Theravada saying is that we have one mouth and two ears and, therefore, we should listen twice as much as we talk.

What lessons can be learned when we consider what the doctrine of the Four Ennobling Truths teaches us relative to this idea of engaged listening? We know that a great deal of life’s problems and stress comes when we are caught up in the moment with its many distractions, that our desires feed on our self-centered preferences that in turn creates more cravings. In other words, it is easy for us to not be focused on what is immediately required in order to react in useful and productive ways. There is no learning without listening. To understand something new requires deep listening, if that does not happen, there is a disconnect between ourselves and those that are conveying an idea. That includes how we read as well. For you see, when we read our mind is really listening to what the author wants us to hear. That means we listen in more ways then one. We are often too busy to stop and listen to the world around us, including the people we come in contact with on a regular basis, either personally or by all the technological methods available to us. In fact, we may just be too preoccupied to listen to ourselves even. If we take a deep breath, become calm for a few minutes, we might disconnect from the passions of the moment and become aware of situations as they really are and not as we perceive they are. We can learn to listen.

There are so many ways to listen. We can listen to the world of nature around us, listen to the people we are with, listen to what our body-mind is telling us, and listen to the sound of silence, even. Let’s consider these for a moment.

When considering the natural world we predominantly use our visual sense to inform us of what is happening around us. We come to rely on our sight to identify and negotiate in our environment, and in doing so we build up our perception of what we see that may not match reality. We see, we want; or we see we dislike. Vision is so caught up in our desires and misconceptions of this life that it can take another sense all together to challenge those misconceptions. If we close our eyes right now and simply listen to the world outside our window we can open the door to wisdom. What can you hear in this moment? I can hear the tropical sounds of wetlands just outside my window right now. These sounds outside are not full of desire or delusion in themselves. They are simply what they are: sounds. It is what I think and feel about them that make them appear pleasant or unpleasant, desirable or undesirable.

What may be the most important aspect to listening involves others. It is the way we connect and stay connected to others that counts. Humans, you see, are social animals. We need others to make life most enjoyable and worthwhile. But often in life we do not really listen to each other, however. Show me a dysfunctional individual, and I will show you someone that has poor listening skills. Listening is learning, remember? How often we wait for the other person to stop talking so that we can immediately jump in and air our views and opinions on the subject at hand. We often do not make the effort to actually listen to the other person’s tone of voice, choice of words, and what they are talking about even. We hear them, but we do not truly absorb what they are saying. We miss how upset they might be if we are not taking note of how they are saying what they are saying; they may be angry with us, frustrated with life, or making subtle suggestions, but if we are not attentively listening to them, we will miss all these signs. We may miss what they are talking about, but they will not miss our body language and lack of interest. A bad listener is a boring individual to be around. Encompassing and corrective speech can only be achieved when we practice the skill of listening. How words are received and processed are sometimes more important then how they are expressed. So much unsatisfactoriness is caused by miscommunication as a result of not understanding what is being said, and that is caused by not listening with intent. For you see, speech, both spoken and received, is also controlled by the laws of causality.

As much as listening to others is so important to an engaged Buddhist practice, so too is listing to ourselves. Our bodies produce all kinds of subtle signs, including the creaking of bones, the chewing of food, the swallowing reflex, and the sound of our breathing. Listening to the breath, for instance, we can determine if we are more stressed than we are aware of, or discover that we are not as fit as we previously thought. The mind can be listened to too, in the sense that we can hear the silence of our thoughts, feelings, and memories as we become conscious of them, or lack of them. Becoming aware of our mind’s silence is the first objective to mindful meditation, or zazen.

I can not stress enough how important it is for us to know that this silence is with us always. But usually we are unaware of it because we never listen for it. We don’t know where to look for this transcending silence; we never imagine that it could be found inside ourselves. Once we have become awakened we can focus on this silence and notice that all sounds arise in and around it, whether the sounds of nature or of humanity, whether outside of us or within us. This is why a meditation session out side in the open air is so rewarding. This silence is ever present when we develop the skill to listen to it. It is the peace of mind that we take with us everywhere we go, but are normally completely oblivious to it. When we practice being aware of this inner silence, the power of our thoughts to distract us are dissolved into a sea of tranquility. You only need to be in the presents of a genuine Buddhist Master to experience and observe this state of mind first hand.

I weave into many of my dharma talks the lessons found in Chinese Hua-yen Buddhism, especially The Jewel Net of Indra. Indra’s Net symbolizes a philosophical vision of the Universe in which there is an infinitely repeated interrelationship among all the members on this planet. This relationship is one of simultaneous mutual identity and mutual inter-causality. As we envision this intricate web of connections, and consider the glue that binds the various threads of this vast human garment of relationships, the skill for effective communication stands out as one of the pillars supporting human effectiveness as a species. We connect by listening. We develop relationships by listening. We practice compassion by listening. We engage others by first listening to their needs. People who do not listen well, who interrupt, show restlessness inside, want to avoid difficulties or conflicts, take the conversation back to themselves, are usually uneasy with their feelings, or their ego-centered existence has its own need to be noticed and validated. The ability to listen attentively is truly a measure of our inner state of calm.

With deep listening we give dana to others. To listen is to let go of the self and be fully present for others, even when they are expressing strong feelings. When our intent is to resonate in full awareness with what the speaker is experiencing, we become bonded in the “inter-connected” space known as caring. When we have resources for feeling heard, seen, and cared for, we gain the courage and curiosity to break through our barriers and expand the wonder of our lives.

If you can change one thing in the way you now communicate, today make a pledge to yourself to stop giving unsolicited advice, and stop interrupting. If you can start to do this today, you can dramatically change your relationships as well as the structure of your personality.

The Eightfold Path’s encompassing and corrective speech is the key to making and maintaining successful relationships, supports life-long learning, and is the tool most often used by socially-engaged Buddhists.

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