Saturday, February 16, 2013

Mindful Listening

Psychotherapy is often called the talking cure. I don't think it's the talking that's curative since most of us actually can't stop talking no matter what. All our talk talk talk isn't, in and of itself, measurably healing. Sometimes it is just the opposite.

It's the listening that makes psychotherapy effective. Therapists listen carefully. They listen for cues to help them keep their clients headed in the direction of awakening and healing. Psychotherapy is mindful listening with an agenda.

Of course therapists aren't the only careful listeners in the healing professions. My acupuncturist, for example, listens not only to what I'm saying, but also pays attention to my tone of voice, how loudly I'm talking, how fast, that sort of thing. Mindful listening is a part of diagnosis in Chinese medicine. I listen for the same things before a session of massage. Clients who naturally shout need a lot more relaxing than the whisperers who need, in my opinion, a more lively kind of massage. I also listen for hoarseness and the nasally tone that accompanies congestion. It really helps.

Mindful listening is hard because it's the function of human consciousness to assess incoming data, analyze and decide what's happening as fast as possible so our response will be appropriate. We're built to respond to the world as opposed to taking it in slowly and thoughtfully.

Some of that is the survival instinct. If we're lucky, before we have time to think, we jump out of the way of the speeding car or fast ball, for instance. In a debate, we form responses before the adversary has completed his argument. In many conversations, our brains are busy figuring out what the other person wants to hear or trying to decide what kind of advice to offer. In many conversations, people space out, paying no attention at all. We are not listening mindfully most of the time.

Game shows are excellent examples of how we analyze, decide what to do, then jump on it before another contender presses the button. We humans are naturally impulsive. This is not always for the best.

How marvelous and rare in friendship is she or he who can mindfully listen without interrupting or imagining that the person speaking needs advice. How truly precious is a friend without an agenda or the desire to fix or cure. The individual who can simply listen, with an open mind and focused attention, is someone you want to be friends with. Those people are rare.

Vipassana meditation could be seen as a practice of mindful listening to oneself. It has nothing to do with clearing the mind. We notice what kinds and categories of thoughts are moving through our minds, after which we return our focus to the sensation of breathing: a coolness in the nostrils or throat, or the rising and falling of the chest. It's a challenging practice, very rewarding, though. It builds stamina with which we can listen more carefully to our own hearts as well as to other people.

Mindful listening is a rare but much needed skill. It goes against the grain, but in almost every case, mindful listening brings insight and healing. The next time a friend in crisis calls, try just listening. Don't get distracted, pay attention. Refrain from offering advice.

The next time you are having some kind of crisis, sit quietly and listen to yourself, to your actual thoughts. You will not regret it.


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