Here I will draw out a few of the subtleties which underlie the simple-seeming art of close listening.
As you are listening, you may be aware of many different streams, flowing side by side and mingling. Together they form the person’s consciousness. You need to be fluid and responsive, paying attention to them all – though few listeners do so.
This model of listening sensitivities is clear and simple. You can easily check it for yourself, in your own experiencing. By sensitivities, I mean awareness of these fourteen streams:
1 Words – narrative
We think in stories, we daydream in stories, we tell stories. The first stream of mental activity, of which we need to be aware, is the stream of words and thoughts.
At a simple level, this is a matter of following the stream of words, of getting the hang of the story-line.
2 Words – analytical
At a more complex level, we relate to the word-stream analytically.
We ask about reasons and evidence. We try to think clearly and accurately, coherently and powerfully.
We try to see what assumptions are being made, what opportunities are implied by our words, and how we are limiting our lives through the stories we tell to ourselves and other people.
Very often, we can’t yet see the wood for the trees. Yet we do need to see where our thinking has got stuck, where it is primitive, or enclosed in old patterns. We need to look for the inner connections between our thoughts. We are trying to be more objective, and less blinkered.
We are trying to achieve reflective transcendence: not just to think, but also to think about how to think. We are trying to think freshly.
We have to accept that we are fallible, that we can always be mistaken:
Here I am, still travelling, trying to broaden my mind,
for I’ve seen too much of the damage
narrow-mindedness can make of things,
and when I return home,
I will devote what energies I have to repairing the damage.
—Malcolm X, at the end of his life
This scheme of listening sensitivities derives its strength from its subjective character. I am inviting you to be clearly aware of your own experiencing, of your conscious field – to give definite priority to your own view of the world – the view from here.
I am not however suggesting for a moment that you should ignore the view from nowhere.
A person lives forward from an immediate local here and now. The reasoning which makes possible a non-local view takes place from where you are here and now. It contributes to the forming of your decisions and actions, your further living.
One function of analytical sensitivity (that is, of philosophical clarification) is to enable us to reach beyond the local view. We need to make an attempt to clear up the muddles in our thinking, for practical reasons.
But more than that: in my view it is impossible to think at all (that is, to reason), without giving reason the last word.
3 Actions – gestural
There is not only the story which words are telling. Underlying the words spoken, we are also aware of the non-verbal, faithfully conveying mood and meaning, in the subtle field of our interaction with one another.
Our gestures and body language, our verbal rhythm and tone, our emphases and omissions tell a story of their own. We engage in a kind of unconscious choreography, which always reveals more about us than we intend or can control.
4 Actions – intentional
Our lives are saturated with impulses towards action, both serious and trivial. We want to do this or that.
Much of the work of growing and developing as a person, of bringing balance into your life, and of achieving success, is about focusing and directing the process of action.
You need to clarify your intentions at every level, to eliminate evasions and acts which bring mere pseudo-comfort; and to centre your life around those activities which make life worth living – of which some bring real comfort, to ourselves or others.
5 Images – evocative
Our minds are not only full of words but of images – sights, sounds, smells or tastes, and sensations of touch, meaning and movement. Some of these recall the past. Some are our immediate contact with the world and other people. Some are evocative of future states, for which we long, or of which we are afraid.
These images have enormous power over us, for good or ill.
6 Images – mythical
We also have images of another kind – naturally arising metaphors, dreams and spontaneous symbols, which are charged with meaning. Often these images show us what we would otherwise not be aware of.
In our dreams, certain universal human images rise up and confront us – always in an idiosyncratic form, and with deeply personal significance. Amongst these are the archetypes: the Shadow, the Inner Child, the female image within a man, the male image within a woman
These natural images may exaggerate the way you are living, so that you can’t help seeing how you are carrying on. They may disclose a substrate of primitive passions.
Or they may have a compensating function, showing you a possible self, more realised than the self you know, or even wildly unlike it.
Once we get to know the language of dreams, metaphor and mythical imagery, we find that images throw both habits and biases into sharp relief. They point in unexpected directions, along paths which we might choose to follow.
We can ask, “Where does the dreamer disagree with the dream?” (The question is Gene Gendlin’s.) But we don’t have to side with either the image or the person. The point is that, usually, when we dwell just there, at that puzzling point in the imagery, some creative step comes.
Sometimes what comes is far sharper. It is clear that this road you must take. Too bad, that it may occasion you fear, embarrassment, insecurity and inconvenience.
You have had an encounter with destiny (but be sure it is not merely a brush with madness!).
7 Images – projective
For there is another side to awareness of the mythical imagination.
You realise – the world’s a madhouse,
and most people are operating in fantasy anyway.
All human beings (I guess) tend to treat the real world as if it were a myth or story. We have images in our minds of “all fathers”, “all girls”, “all Arabs” or “all Americans”. We fail to see freshly who is before us in the world. What we see is what our minds are projecting onto the screen of the world.
We see not the situation itself, but what our myths and concepts are putting there. This is why close listening is so central to this work.
Myth belongs in art and imagination. It is a precious resource, a natural function of the mind – but may have twisted, cruel, absurd and embittering effects, when it is written across the landscape of other people’s lives.
Once we begin to be aware of the bizarre ways in which we project myth onto the world, we can begin to withdraw our projections: to live in the world as it is, rather than as a stage set for our dramatic fantasies – and we laugh a great deal more.
More than anything else, it is laughter which shakes the nonsense out of us, and makes us human.
8 Feelings – pure sensation
We tend to be so caught up in our thoughts – in the stream of words or images and in the flow of activity, that we fail to notice the fine texture of our bodily sensations. Aware only of the grossest sensations, we are the living dead – until the body becomes clumsy or ill, until we are exhausted or broken, lose focus or screw up.
When that time comes, we will be forced to pay attention.
It is vital to develop a much more delicate and subtle awareness of the living body, if we hope for our lives to be happy or meaningful.
9 Feelings – browsing
Feelings and longings. Moods and emotions. Joy and hope. Anger, fear and sadness.
Let’s explore our feelings, touching and sensing them. A little here, a little there. The pattern is irregular, non-logical. This is not a straight path, but turns and winds – as a browsing animal will drift from one plant to another – yet always with a certain forward trend.
Nothing is passive about this browsing: it is a search – at least active, and often urgent or intense.
A listener must not intrude upon the essential loneliness of this search. The listener’s presence is a catalyst. Even so, the vision quest is a solitary journey. In one sense you must go with a companion; in another you are utterly alone.
True search can never be cosy. It takes you into the desert – into a place which is open, severe, vacant, neutral and spare – which is plain, colourless and transparent. For in the void there is no place to hide, and so you come face to face with the nonsense and evasion of your life.
There are four attitudes we can take to our feeling life: we can be controlled by surface feelings; we can be closed to our feelings; we can live as passionate beings; or we can live in wise awareness of our feelings, but without giving way to them.
- To be enslaved by repetitive feelings is to be all at sea.
- To be closed to feeling, to be frozen, is to miss out on life itself. It is to lose the great richness of our responsiveness to life and living, most of which never finds its way into words and thoughts.
These first two paths we surely do not want. Now we face a hard choice.
- Will you choose the life of passionate being? Are you going to be open to feeling, fully alive in your felt responses? Are you going to leave yourself open to ecstasy, risk and self-abandonment? – hoping even so to avoid losing yourself? You would be living whole-heartedly, but meaning not to drown: opting for colour, emotion and vivid self-expression.
But beware! – for often when we seem most free, we wake to find it has been a mere surface appearance, whilst all the time we have been caged and dependent.
Moreover, is somebody paying the price of our spontaneity, and screening us from the censure of the world? And if so, does it matter?
- So what about this exchange between Paulo Ferrucci and Roberto Assagioli:
“I –was just following my feelings.”
“But that is exactly what you must not do.
Your feelings must follow you.”
So will you choose a calmer path? Whilst being aware of the movements of your feeling-life, will you value peace over ecstasy, reflectiveness over abandonment? Are you going to opt (as many have) for a life of quiet courage, dignity and tranquillity of mind?
And could you do so, even if you wanted to?
10 Feelings – flooding
Sometimes people will be overcome by waves of strong feeling, whilst you are listening to them – or may even go in search of their strongest emotions.
There is no need to fear emotion. It has its own cycle. But it is wise to discriminate between repetitive feeling, which is the destructive re-living of the same pain, over and over; and constructive feeling, which is a living forward.
The listener, of course, can never be sure which is which. But the person swept by emotion may soon get to have a shrewd idea whether it is repetitive or constructive.
11 Feelings – dowsing
In the sections on sensing the situation as a whole and situational focusing, I show how we can relate to a more subtle layer of feelings – our low-level feelings about whole situations.
It is when, consciously or semi-consciously, we allow such feelings to guide us, that creative steps come, which carry our lives forward, so that we find a way out of our predicaments, and see our dreams coming true.
Typically, it is when the forward drift of experiential search is stopped in some way, that a person will naturally make the turn to situational focusing. It is a turn to something more like dowsing than like browsing.
People seeking water dowse. Looking for water, one might hold a forked green hazel-twig, and move slowly around and about, never knowing where water may be. Only the twitching of the stick, suddenly, surprisingly, will reveal the presence of life-giving water.
So in this kind of process, we invite the feel of a whole situation to gell – and we wait. Should something come (just as when we find water in the desert) the whole situation is changed.
12 Feelings – peak experiences
Sometimes people are overtaken by experiences of awe, bliss, peace, love or transcendence. Such peak experiences may be vital to your wellbeing, opening up new ranges of human possibility.
During or after peak experiences, we tend to be open to hunches, intuitions, and thin slicings – flashes of insight or receptivity, or even sustained flows of creative inspiration.
Trust the flow. You will know later what to keep, what to throw out.
Most of the twelve listening sensitivities that I have sketched so far have two sides to them, for the actions of the person to whom you are listening are in some ways involuntary, in others voluntary. I will say a little more about this here:
13 Processes – dynamic
Whether or not you allow yourself to be aware of this, your life is moved by tides. You suffer from confusions, conflicts, ambivalences, uncertainties and self-doubt. You get caught in crossed internal forces, which pull this way and that.
At the same time, in paying attention to these currents, you may become aware of a deep directional tendency, an inner dynamic process, a reliable natural flow within you, astonishingly fertile and trustworthy, which carries you forward in your life.
None of this is voluntary. The felt life-process is a given. But it is not the whole of who you are. It is something with which you have to work.
14 Processes – agential
Finally, there is the activity of the will, your agency, your capacity to be a free person. You are acting freely in the midst of all the inner and outer turmoil.
Every person is an agent – an “I” – with an independent point of view, individual needs and desires.
I am responsible for my actions – for what I do with my attention, for how I deal with my feelings and impulses, for how I run my life, for how I treat other people.
I am not only the life-forward process, but an active agent in the world. I am a free person, with both the curse and the blessings of individual responsibility.
Still, our responsibility is not for outcomes, but only to do the best we can, in the circumstances as a whole.
Listening sensitivities in everyday life
When you are listening to a person, you need to be sensitive to all fourteen of the streams of awareness which I have just described. Each stream has a job to do, which none of the others can get done.
Unfortunately, almost everybody favours certain streams of awareness, paying far more attention to them than to the others. Almost every method of human development, consequently, is to some degree off-balance.
In almost every relationship, the two people are tuned in to different experiential streams. Opposites attract. This should be a resource, but may cause havoc.
Two people may be drawn together, when each is at home in those streams of awareness where the other is not facile. In a crisis, they will be at daggers drawn – unless they draw wisely on these complementary powers.
When you learn the art of close listening, your situation will ease. When you also learn to be quietly assertive, you begin to be able to shape your own life. You can step out of the raging flood. Everybody’s life eases.
When two people each want to listen to the other, the case is more hopeful still.
The skills of close listening and quiet assertiveness are not only for intimate situations. They are essential in the workplace too, and when dealing with officialdom.
You need these skills, in fact, in all situations where misunderstanding is likely, or where human relationships are getting tangled, or where you are being threatened, or where you are getting pushed around.
Gradually, as you develop a wider range of listening sensitivities, you come to feel more and more alive. Your judgment seldom fails, since you are picking up on so much more of what is going on within and around you.
Your thinking is more fully informed, and so more powerful. You feel at home with yourself, confident in your work, and welcoming to your friends.
You shed trying to be who you think you ought to be, and get on with being who you are. You cease urging other people to be who you think they ought to be, and let them be who they are.
These are immense gains, in any life.