Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas: “Listening: Self, others” (first draft)

NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Listening” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas.
Responses and comments welcome, no matter how brief.


Listening: Self, others

Copyright 2013 David J. Bookbinder

Central to the near-death experience I had in Albany, NY, 20 years ago was multiple failures to listen – those of others to my fears, and my own to the inner voice of my intuition.

Early in my recovery, I traveled to see my family for Passover. The story of the exodus of the Jews from enslavement in Egypt has always been the most meaningful Jewish holiday to me and it is the only one for which all of us converged as a family. That year, the song “Dayenu,” traditionally sung at the Passover seder, had special significance.

The song recounts all that God did for the Jewish people when they were leaving Egypt to head for the Promised Land. It describes how He set plagues on the Egyptians, parted the seas for the fleeing Jews, provided manna in the wilderness, and so on. It is a song of gratitude. After the recitation of each of these gifts to the Jewish people, we sing the chorus, Dayenu, “it would have been enough.”

So. Had I listened more closely to my intuition, which for months had been whispering to me to leave Albany and return to Boston, I might never have taken the excessive dose of Motrin, prescribed for a shoulder injury, that started internal bleeding. Dayenu.

Had I listened to my fear, which told me I should not let myself be admitted to St. Peter’s Hospital, the bleeding would have stopped on its own and, most likely, never have recurred. Dayenu.

Failing that, had I listened to what was going on in my body instead of to the hospital gastroenterologist, I would have refused to take the medication that incited massive hemorrhaging. Dayenu.

Had the hospital nurses listened to my concern that something was seriously wrong instead of dismissing me as an anxious patient, they might have monitored me more closely and prevented a near-fatal bleed. Dayenu.

Had the surgeon listened to the radiologist, whose report, though inaccurate in other ways, identified a single bleeding site, he would have removed only an extraneous pouch and left the rest of my gastrointestinal system intact, avoiding the many complications caused by the radical surgery he instead performed. Dayenu.

And so on. Dayenu.

* * *

Failures to listen are endemic.

Passover itself commemorates the consequences of one person failing to listen to another. Had the Egyptian Pharaoh listened to Moses and released the Jews from bondage, the 10 plagues that afflicted his people (blood, frogs, lice, flies, pestilence, boils, hail fire, darkness, and finally, the death of Egyptian first-born children and animals) would never have occurred. Dayenu. So it goes, even today, with our greatest global conflicts. If only one people had listened to the needs of another. . .  Dayenu.

I encounter failures to listen frequently in my therapy practice. The most common complaint I hear from parents who bring their children to me for counseling is that “they don’t listen,” by which the parent usually means that the child does not obey. When I see children in a session without their parents, they often say their parents “don’t listen,” but they mean this literally. The kids I see seldom object to their parents’ right to tell them what to do, but instead complain that mom and dad do not hear their thoughts, feelings, needs, and desires.

I discovered the value of listening carefully to what children are saying, in their words and their behaviors, long ago. One evening, while visiting one of my brothers, I joined the family for a dinner of fried chicken. My niece, then three years old, several times asked for “an angel.” Both of her parents told her to stop complaining and eat her dinner. As her requests for “an angel” became more strident, so did her parents’ reprimands. I was outside the family system and could see the family dynamic from a distance. I found myself wondering what she might have meant by “an angel” and offered her a chicken wing. She nodded, took the wing, and happily finished her meal.

As a therapist, I am also outside the family system and can sometimes discern more easily than its members where it has broken down. When I clearly understand something a child is saying and see that the parent does not, I may advocate strongly for the child. Often there is a breakthrough, but occasionally the parent decides, instead, to discontinue therapy. The problem is seldom only with the child. It is more often with the family system, and sometimes it is the system itself that does not want to listen.

Failure to listen to children has subtle but enduring consequences. Kids who grow up unheard become silent, or defiant, or “independent” in a disempowered way. They fail to develop their own listening skills and grow into parents who frequently pass on what they, themselves, experienced as children.

The complaints I hear from couples are similar to those I hear from parents and their children. “He doesn’t listen.” “She doesn’t listen.” “He/she did it for no reason.” But there is always a reason; usually, we need only to ask, and to listen, to determine what it is.

In other contexts, too, many of us are sometimes so concerned with what we want to say, or are so convinced that our beliefs are inarguably true, that we don’t really listen to each other. We talk over one another, interrupt each other, discard as nonsense the other person’s point of view. We thereby leave unheard the deeper parts of who we are.

In the Buddhist sangha I attend, each week someone reads from the writings of a Buddhist teacher. One by one, as we are so moved, we speak either to the topic of the reading or to something important that has occurred in our lives. A sangha rule is that after someone speaks, we wait three breaths before anyone else does. Thus, we are reminded to fully take in what each of us has shared. We don’t need to mentally rehearse anything, we don’t have to look for the right time to chime in, and we are not afraid that we won’t have a chance to talk. There is, somehow, always enough time.

Many of us even fail to listen fully to ourselves. When we are uncertain about a decision, we bounce back and forth between internal proponents of one choice or another. We say, “Part of me wants to do this, part of me wants to do that. I just don’t know what to do!” I encourage ambivalent clients to “be” one side of a potential choice, as if that were all he or she believed, and then to switch to a competing side and fully make that side’s argument. Clients iterate through this process until each side has had its say and has responded to the others. Allowing ourselves to “be” each side before switching to the point of view of another lets us plumb the depths of our thoughts, feelings, ideas, and desires in all their complexity, and only then to make a decision.

* * *

Exercises in listening have been part of my training as a therapist. They are simple practices and demonstrate both how difficult listening is for some of us, and how effective it can be when it is permitted to occur. The following exercises are some I have found helpful. They are all performed by two people. First, one is the speaker and the other the listener, then they switch roles.

Silent listening. In silent listening, we sit quietly for about five minutes while we listen to someone talk about something important. We signal our interest using only our facial expressions and our eyes.

Listening with tonal responses. In this exercise, we add non-verbal utterances such as Ah! Mmm, Uh-huh, and so on.

Listening with body language. Here, we add to the above by intentionally responding to the body language of the speaker with our own body language.

Listening with observing tone and body language. This exercise adds, to the above, making comments on the speaker’s tone and body language, but not on his or her words. “I noticed your voice dropped.” “I see that you’re shaking your head from side to side.” This helps to further train us to listen to the non-linguistic ways we communicate.

Listening with mirroring. Finally, there is listening with direct mirroring of what is being said. We add to the other exercises by reflecting back the gist of what we have heard. We listen to a comfortable chunk of monologue and then say something like, “So, it sounds to me as if you are saying…. Is that right?” The speaker confirms whether or not we have understood things properly. If we have, the speaker continues with the next part. If not, the speaker restates what was said, and the listener again mirrors and requests verification. Only when the statement and its mirror agree does the conversation move forward.

It might seem that by nature we are not good listeners, and maybe we are not. But, by nature we are not good at many things, and yet we eventually learn to do them quite skillfully. The skills of listening well are not always easy to implement, but they are not complex and they are easily taught. Even young children I have worked with learn how to use them, sometimes quite well, with surprisingly little instruction.

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Text and images © 2013, David J. Bookbinder. All rights reserved.
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