Listening is about Paying Attention

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Do you ever think about the difference between listening and hearing? I heard a great interview on the TED Radio Hour this week with a deaf percussionist, Evelyn Glennie. She started to lose her hearing around age 12 and ultimately it left her completely. And yet, she is an award winning musician, sought after by some of the most prestigious musical groups in the world. When asked how she does this, she speaks of how she listens to sound through her entire body – her cheek bones, skull, chest, extremities, etc.  “I see the body as a big ear…” is how she describes it. She has courageously figured out how to trust her body to provide her with the information she needs in order to play well with others. She has become an expert at paying attention to a wide range of sensations that vibrate within her and translating those into purposeful action.

When we listen using just our ears, what we hear then is a function of the intricate dance of sound waves, vibrations and the little bones in our inner ear. Because she does not have access to this, Evelyn Glennie relies on the rest of her body to help her listen. She is paying attention to her entire self and my guess is that she picks up on a broader range of information than those of us who can ‘hear‘. I wonder if the silence she experiences because of her hearing loss allows her to have a more settled mind, opening up the possibility for richer listening?

Have you ever had an experience where you met someone new at a party and within 10 seconds couldn’t recall her name? This happens to me almost 100% of the time. It happens because of the stream of words and thoughts cluttering my mind that prevent me from actively attending to this person’s name. I am continually paying attention to the wrong conversation! Instead of attending to the external conversation (and listening for her name), I am focusing on my internal narrative, which may include things like, “Oh, I like her shoes.” or “I wonder if I am wearing the right outfit.” or “I would really like that snack over there.”

So we return again to the value of a quiet mind, poised to attend to the information your entire body is trying to share with you. The quick, and hopefully easy practice I’m going to try the next time I meet someone new, is to take a simple deep breath. And maybe, just maybe, I can use that more regularly with the rest of the conversations I have in my life!


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