Mindful Hearing

Originally written May, 2011

     I don't know when I specifically learned this practice. It may have been part of my theatre training under Robert Moyer with United Stage in the early 80's or the broadcasting classes at Grand Valley State University. It may have been part of the piano lessons from Mrs. Griese whom I enjoyed for the mental association with Miami Dolphins Quarterback Bob Griese. There were further lessons, though brief in guitar, trumpet, french horn and percussion; none of which I pursued well enough to master in any reasonable sense. Certainly the exposure to music and theatre from a very early age contributed to an ability all of us can tap into.

     Wherever you may be, in a somewhat comfortable position, you must first close your eyes (which won't work if driving). As you breath, begin to listen to everything you hear. Now send your hearing off to your left. For me, the birds in the trees across the street from my yard continually talk this morning. Twenty degrees to the right of that point, the neighbor's small and mostly outside dog is barking at a bike rider, which causes a dog ten degrees behind the birds and two blocks over to respond. There is a crow in the trees ten degrees off my right shoulder behind me. He's now taken flight moving northwest but still cawing. A singular chirp comes from directly in front of me in a higher, happier tone. All the while, the traffic on Niles Avenue moves past in intermittent passing of tires along the road, and the occasional much less frequent vehicle on Lane to my left saunters by.

      The ears sometimes trick the mind into believing we hear something in front of us when it is actually directly behind and I wonder at the DNA and psychology of this. By listening attentively in this manner we become more fully involved in all that surrounds us, in the moment, and over practice learn to differentiate sounds by location as well as to control the sounds we choose to hear. Certainly in human history such a skill was required for survival, when this relative peace we now enjoy was much less visible and threats to life were much more a daily occurrence. (I know that this is not the case for much of the developing world, and certainly in Pakistan, Somolia, etc., but life threatening circumstances are not daily for most of the developed world.)

      When listening to music the practice becomes one of seeing how the various instruments and pieces fit together. As you take in the music as a whole, concentrate on which instrument either interests you more or your heart finds first. Is is the bass guitar? Strings? Piano? Percussion will most often have several individual elements in cooperation. As you find and isolate an individual, sense both its personal contribution and how it fits into the whole of the piece. As moved, seek yet another and another until you have the sense of everything that is within the music because life is about music.

     Whether we are aware of it or not (and we should be) we constantly make music that is either harmonious or discordant. We often wake in the morning with a song in our heads and hearts. Have you ever wondered "why that song? or "where did that come from?" Have you ever felt a smile begin from deep within as you begin to hum or sing? As the Psalmist said, "O Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth!" The earth and all that is within it is constantly singing, as we are meant to do. Yet how often do we know where the song we hear comes from? How often do we sing old songs, which have their value, but miss the opportunity to share in a new (as the Psalmist said) song that is waiting to be heard, shared and felt? How often do we, as a single instrument, not fit into the melody that exists around us because we are not hearing but fighting to hard to be heard?

     Both of these exercises (nature's music and human music) help us to develop mental and spiritual hearing that has even greater value. It is the ability to discern in others around us. Hearing is not listening. When we practice hearing, we become able to listen, which requires acceptance and understanding. I hear the school bus drive by just now, and wish peace and safety upon the driver and the students she will soon carry, but I don't listen to it. In our interactions with people, how often do our minds race ahead of what is being said; looking for the next place we may interject the "wisdom" we somehow feel a need to share or to show how smart we are? How often do we withdraw into other thoughts of work, family, spouse, events, schedules or whatever else may be necessary but not urgent in our lives and simply nod our heads in agreement? Hearing, but not listening. No one can make us listen, nor can they train us to listen. It is a practice we must seek on our own though it may be done in isolation or in a group.

     When we are hearing but not listening, we have missed the moment. We have missed an opportunity to discover some level of truth, whether about those around us or within ourselves. Our communication with each other carries with it great power to heal or hurt, which is a topic for another writing. In learning to listen, not just hear, but listen we become more fully in tune with all that is around us and the needs of others that even by simply acknowledging we are completely aware of them as they are at this moment can make a powerful impact. Not as we wish them to be in the future. Not as they may have been in our past, but as they are right now. That is the moment we, and they are at our highest purpose because we understand. When we understand each other, we are at peace in body, mind and spirit. There is no conflict, no anger, no guilt though there may be joy and happiness, which everyone needs much, much more of.

      So hear what is around you. Seek to hear the sounds of life; the breezes, the birds; everything that has breath and especially the other people. Learn to sense and understand the music and to accept the part you play whether it be lead or chorus, foreground or background. It is still a very important part regardless of the accolades that may or may not come. If we're seeking the accolades, we're really not listening.

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