There are many ways to practice Yoga or union. We practice Yoga on the mat when we hold a stretch and become aware of the sensations in the body and the movement of the breath in our abdomen and chest. We also practice Yoga when we let go of tension in every muscle in the body during relaxation. But we can also practice Yoga when we walk, eat, talk or listen mindfully.
Some times we are unable to listen to the sounds around us even though we are hearing them and other times we listen but we don’t hear. Right now, can you detect the sounds around you? Is there a sound louder than another? Focus on one and see how the others fall to the background or disappear. The mind has the ability to focus on something and bring it to life but it also can shut off something by becoming immersed in something else. So, if we want to engage fully in the world we have to put our focus on listening to it otherwise we will be missing parts of it. But listening presents two main problems: 1. our attention is scattered and we cannot focus and 2. our self-talk or interests keep other voices in the background.
Training our power of concentration is fundamental to keeping the focus on a subject. This is why in Hatha Yoga we train our body and mind by focusing on what we are doing so that eventually we can meditate by keeping our attention sharp and our mind clear of distractions. And this ability to concentrate on the meditation cushion eventually generalizes to any activity in everyday life, for example the connection and relationship with others. By mindfully listening to what others have to say we come to understand them and to break the barriers of separation.
So, how well do we listen? An ineffective listener interrupts the speaker, takes control of the conversation, craves attention and thinks what he is going to say while the other speaks, etc… Some “bad” habits of listening are denial, advice giving and psychoanalysis without a license. Can we catch ourselves at those times and replace our opinions by being reassuring or simply by remaining silent? In general we see silence as a sign of ignorance, of not knowing what to say, an unproductive gap in a conversation. But let’s give it a try. Silence has power and can be healing. On the other hand, a “good” listener knows when to remain silent, does not interrupt, is receptive, open-minded and puts himself in the speaker’s position.
Other barriers to listening that prevent us from getting the full message are preconceived ideas about status, gender, race, physical appearance, etc… It is human to have preferences but the problem is when we feel compelled to defend our opinions and ignore the differences. Voltaire said: “Opinions have caused more trouble in this earth than all the plagues and earthquakes.”
From the point of view of the speaker, how does he feel when he is listened to? He feels like his opinion counts, that someone cares about him or his point of view and he feels important. So can we be generous and give of our attention freely to others? Sometimes it is not our lack of generosity but our scatteredness that does not allow us to give our full attention.
The key to mindful listening is concentration on the present moment, focusing on the process rather than the outcome. To live for the next week-end, the next event in life, the next vacation, etc… means missing what is happening right now, a big waste. The Zen master Dogen said: “If you cannot find the truth where you are, where do you expect to find it?” Mindfulness needs to be practiced all the time. Start by walking mindfully telling yourself: “I feel the solid earth under my feet. One foot after another. Just walking.” You can apply this method to any other activity and finally put mindful listening to the test by deciding to listen to someone (a co-worker, a child, etc…) for one minute in a non-judgmental way, fully present and open. Do that a few times a day. You may discover many interesting things about the speaker or the information he wants to convey. Don’t shy away from a speaker that may have uninteresting subjects to speak about, like trout fishing, soccer or the latest anti-wrinkle cream. Like the teacher Ram Das used to say, everything is grist for the mill.
Mindful listening in a non judgmental way is also beneficial for our psychological and emotional health as it dispels alienation, loneliness and isolation and increases empathy and connection. In most spiritual traditions the power of the group, the sangha, has been long time recognized and valued. This human connection is specially important at a time when many people are very comfortable replacing the one-to-one contact with virtual friendships in Facebook, Twitter, etc… At the same time this instant access to so much information has the drawback of making us very distracted, unable to focus on what or who is in front of us, missing an opportunity for becoming more understanding, equanimous and compassionate.