The Martial Art of Listening

Listening can be thought of as a martial art.

That may not make sense to some people, but I maintain that it can be thought of in this kind of image. Why? It seems that listening would be something that we are born with and can do inherently, no? It has been my personal observation that the opposite occurs more often than not.

There was an image circling around online not too long ago that stated something along the lines of, "we no longer listen to understand; we simply wait to speak." Although this statement summarizes what is happening, it does little to address how we can render it false. It's one of those popular adages that people double-tap, like, and move on with their day...and proceed to bring truth to that statement in their interactions with people. It's not just about listening to the other side or remaining quiet to 'hear'. It is much more tactile than that.

Now, operating with a preconceived narrative or end in mind isn't inherently a bad idea. When going to war, a strategy or plan is necessary to bring order to chaos. Going into battle without one would be a foolish endeavor. Not every conversation is war either. Sometimes you just want to enjoy a nice chat with someone about what they've been up to.

But to truly communicate with another being, even if we are well acquainted, can be extremely difficult. I may use words or verbiage that may have to you a different kind of significance; likewise, you may use words that carry a different meaning for me. Clarity, or understanding in this case, comes when the parties involved (you and I) meet on the same level at the same time. It is instantaneous and requires no thought. There is harmony. 

To be able to really listen, one has to abandon, at least temporarily, all prejudices and preconceptions. As experience and history would illustrate, this non-action is extremely difficult to do.

Unfortunately, most of us listen through a screen of resistance. And just as we do unto others, others do unto us...we are also seen, heard, and observed through a screen. These filters come from all sorts of things, whether historical, psychological, sexual, racial, or whatever they may be...

...they are acts of imposition, meaning that these filters are imposed onto the individual instead of interacting with the individual as they are. You can note many examples here and the many 'isms' that have been created as a result.

Therefore, what we really hear is our own noise - we hear our own sound, and not what is actually being said. It is extremely difficult to put aside our lifetime of training and predisposition to fully understand someone. Not to mention that we care for ourselves and relate everything back to our own lived experience. You and I want to be heard, and there is no sound quite like the one that we breathe into existence. Recall how many times you've had the following conversation...

You: "Yeah, so there was this one time when I..."

Them: "Oh my god, I had a similar experience! Let me tell you all about it..."

You're aware when it happens, but you do little to stop it because you're afraid of being rude. No one stops you for the same or similar reasons. It is a simplified example, but nevertheless the cycle continues ad infinitum...

The strange thing about this entire situation is that we are aware of it all. To maintain social relations necessitates that you pass through these agendas, screens, and filters with flying colors. Very rarely do we ever feel 'allowed' or the 'permission' to express ourselves the way we wish we would. We are inherently suspicious of what others will think and feel should we not pass their examination of us. Some are killed if they don't, after all. 

And so we compromise and meet halfway - we refuse to go all the way to create that harmonious understanding because to do so means to leave our reality and enter another...and that is just not comfortable. We do not seek to test our assumptions - we seek to prove them. We're safe and protected in our own little world, but self-protection means that there is conflict, as there is something to protect yourself from. It is a projection of one's own insufficiency. What exactly is there? It'd pay well to listen.

When you observe this nature, perhaps it may become a bit clearer why it is so imperative to actively listen with a keen awareness of 'what is'. This is Mental Jiujitsu in action.

To follow this process requires a very free mind and heart. When the mind is static, fixated in a certain pattern or condition, it is very difficult to follow. Like an animal tethered to a pole, you can only go so far with this attitude. If you become fixated on the words, you miss the content. If you become fixated on the meaning, you miss what is actually being said. Although this distinction may help to clarify this expression, there is unity when one realizes that both are one and the same.

I often use the metaphor of the container and the content; to this day, it is the best way I have to describe the nature of our communication:

Words are our container. Much like the finger pointing towards the moon, they serve as a reference point for what we wish to understand - namely, the meaning that each of those words carry. When we listen, we often confuse one for the other. 

Likewise, the meaning, or content, would be nothing without these containers. Try to drink water from a flat surface. It's certainly possible, but for our convenience, cups have been made.

When these two things are aligned in unison, and the parties involved meet on the same level, true understanding is created in an instant. It is not about whether one's intent or impact is more important - it is the alignment of the two that creates harmony. Note how you feel understood when someone repeats what you said back to yourself. 

You: "I just feel tired and overwhelmed..."

Them: "Tired and overwhelmed?"

You: "Yeah, like I can't handle what's going on..."

Why is this so? It is, first and foremost, an acknowledgement of someone else's reality. It is the recognition of your world and how you perceive things. To express yourself means to bring with that expression, the entirety, or at the very least, a piece of your world. At the most basic level, empathy feels good knowing that someone else can imagine what that is like. It is your story, after all...and we are all connected through stories. Perhaps you may be resistant, but it may be a much more fitting proposition to be resilient.

However, this is only to say why listening is useful, not important. And it is important. Tough and uncomfortable conversations are important. They require a willingness to open oneself to possibility, and far too often do we have a certain possibility in mind that we want to maintain. But this, again, is self-protection. Listening requires self-preparation. 

Listening requires a self-removal of the screens of resistance. 

When one does this, it disarms the other party or individual - it is the martial art of listening, the subduing of the bullshit we put up with on a daily basis. It allows them, and you, to be free instantaneously. And how liberating can it be to express oneself, truly?