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The Art of Listening

By Dharmbir Rai Sharma

The art of listening is a simple, innocuous sounding phrase but it has a profound significance in life. Most of us just hear and do not listen. Hearing is, of course, not listening. For example, one goes to a lecture given by someone who may be an expert on a subject that one is interested in. As soon as the speaker starts talking the mind imposes a filter between the speaker and the listener based on one s conditioning and prior knowledge. In this process the mind starts analyzing and dissecting what is being said instead of really paying attention to it. In effect the person is hearing his or her own noise and not the words being spoken.

The significance of listening is even more compelling in personal relationships. Many problems in relationships of any kind arise from the fact that we do not really listen to what the other person is saying. We impose our own filters and interpret the meaning accordingly.

Listening involves giving undivided attention to what is being said (or heard). The mind can pay attention to only one thing at a time. When one is listening to something, there cannot be any other thought there. Otherwise it is not possible to truly comprehend what is being heard. This is true for listening to anything. If we are listening to an enchanting music, we cannot enjoy it if we start thinking about its composition. The effect of the music comes from its totality and not from the component parts. The parts by themselves do not have the property of the whole. The whole has an emergent property that makes it enchanting.

This aspect of listening is not necessarily related to hearing in the physical sense. We can listen to silence as well because sometimes silence can be more eloquent than words. For example if we are sitting on a sea shore or a riverbank watching the waves and ripples during sunrise or sunset, we are listening to nature. Just as in the case of listening to the enchanting music there is a feeling of becoming one with the object of our attention. In an abstract sense this is a phenomenon of merging or inter-penetration. It is sometime referred to as being lost in the music or the nature. This state of perception transcends the mind and involves the heart and soul.

This leads to the distinction between hearing and listening. Hearing is essentially passive involving the physical sense organ; listening involves the entire being. Sound is simply a set of configurations of vibrations in the air to which the ear responds. The human ear can respond only to a small range of these vibration frequencies, but the vibrations exist beyond this range at both ends. Listening includes responding to all existing vibrations through the non-physical aspects of the human existence.

There is yet another aspect of listening that does not involve anything external. It is listening to our own inner voice. There are times when we get what is called inner inspiration or intuition. At times the intuition can be a better guide than the rational thinking of the mind. Most of the great ideas in both science and philosophy have resulted from listening to this inner voice.

Listening requires that we clear our minds of all prejudices and preconceived ideas and give whole attention to the object of hearing perception at least for the time being. This is not an easy task but with persistent effort the habit can be cultivated.

Dharmbir Rai Sharma is a retired professor with an electrical engineering and physics background.
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