How to Listen to People

How often do you meet someone who hears you?  Who listens and focuses on you long enough to grasp what it is that you are going through or trying to say?  And isn’t it a shock when you actually meet someone who stops and listens to what you have to say.  Who makes an effort to understand you, even if it is hard to do, and who tells you, silently, “you matter”?

If you find a person who listens to you, who really takes the time to pause and pay attention to what you are saying, who makes you feel as though you matter in the world, treasure that person as a gift from the heavens.  He or she is not a gift from the heavens, of course, but rather simply another human being in one place at one time.  Mortal.  Fragile.  Fallible.  But infinitely valuable and good.

And if you know someone who is mortal, fragile, and fallible, but infinitely valuable and good, then by all means tell them how much you appreciate them by listening to them.  Don’t interrupt, don’t judge, don’t advise.  Don’t tell stories about yourself that their experience brings to mind.  Don’t blurt out the first thing that comes to your mouth, but hold it, and pause, and say to yourself, “O, I am thinking x and wanting to say it.”  And then go back to listening to the person you are listening to.

You must go at it with your whole heart, with a genuine yearning to understand, to hear, to learn about the other person.  You must be patient with your impatience, and resist the urge to speak.  You must let go of your needs for the time being, and become present, awake, and attentive, to the person you love.  Because you love them you want to hear them.

You want to hear them.  But you haven’t yet had the patience to hear them, not really.   They have even complained, “you don’t listen to me!  You never listen to me!”  Stinging words.  But it is okay.  You are allowed to be imperfect. Forgive yourself, maybe by putting a hand on your heart and murmuring silently, “forgiven, forgiven.”  Recognize what you are feeling, accept what is and treat yourself with kindness.  Only by accepting and loving ourselves can we accept and love others.

Sometimes we are unable to listen, to hear others because we ourselves are so nervous, so relentlessly anxious that we can’t stop the chattering egotism of our own minds.   We can become so guarded, so continually on the watch for attack that we lose the ability to pause and listen curiously and patiently and compassionately to someone who needs us to hear them, and to whom we want to listen.  To listen is to love, to love ourselves and the person to whom we are listening.

Nervousness is just a habit.  If we can never completely unlearn it we can at least try to become aware of it as an habitual, emotional response to a thought, or an habitual, cognitive response to an emotion.   Emotions are okay.  They are real.  Sometimes they are responses to thoughts that may seem to be true but are not really quite right.  We don’t even need to figure out where the train of thoughts and emotions took off from or seems to be going.  We can simply acknowledge that we are “thinking” and, again and again, return to our breath and our hearts and the loving activity of listening.

Before Leaving for Pokhara

7 July 2011

I’ve been pretty sick for the past few days with a cold, an affliction that has beset many people in Pepsi-Cola.  The Nepalis blame the rain.  I blame the pollution, but who cares?  I haven’t had much energy and my spirits have flagged.  Lying around in bed, trying in vain to sleep while serenaded by carpenters cutting wood on electric saws, blacksmiths pounding metal rods, construction workers banging hammers, and, today, a brass band that struck up a cacophonous beat every 20 minutes or so, depressed me.  I’ve had too much time to think about the breakup with Tim and have dwelled unhealthily on my weaknesses, failures, shortcomings, and losses.   I started to get hold of myself when I realized that I was pre-menstrual and exhausted.  What I needed was a a good, solid rest.

I took a nap and then meditated for about 30 minutes.  What a relief it was to drop into stillness, into the what-is-ness of my life right now, right here and to stop fighting, stop resisting, stop expecting, and, best of all, stop finding fault with myself.  It struck me that I was wasting time.  There is no running away from the grief that I feel for what I have lost.  I am riding that wave.  But I can’t let it overwhelm me.   I am so incredibly lucky, after all.  Not only have I the opportunity to get to know truly unusual and generous human beings such as Kat and her best friend, Maria,  I am also here with my son, my only child.  I came here to Nepal in order to do something extraordinary with him.  I have spent much of the past ten years mourning my distance from him, and here he is now, a young, intelligent, and engaging adult.  We are bonding with one another but also with some of the same people during our travels.  We will only be here for another four weeks.  Every moment with this man, this man whom I love more than any man in the world, is a gift.

I took a harrowing cab-ride with Kat and a driver who seemed to delight in roaring directly toward pedestrians and stopping half an inch from their legs.  He veered into oncoming traffic two-thirds of the way into town.  Kat and I have both adopted the same strategy for managing our fear during these journeys.  We talk briskly to one another and keep our eyes off the road ahead.   We were meeting the group at a restaurant in Thamel, but Brendan and the crew had not yet arrived.  My heart ached for him and swelled when he came swinging into view.   I often worry about how I’ll do when he goes back to the States.

We all go to Pokhara tomorrow morning.  The gang—Brendan, Joost, Peter, Angela, Maria, and maybe also Sophia–will meet at 6 am downstairs before heading together into Kathmandu for the “tourist bus,” a lot more expensive and allegedly more comfortable vehicle than the notoriously overcrowded and filthy regular busses.  No farmer is likely to hop on board and deposit ten to fifteen half-dead chickens on my feet.  Still the road itself is terrifyingly narrow, busy, and likely to be rained out in places.  I am not looking forward to it.  But I am happy to be going with good friends, my friends who are also Brendan’s friends.  It will be heaven to escape Pepsi-Cola and the Kathmandu Valley for a few days.   We all need the break.

This is it: this is my life

So, tonight I woke up at a cocktail party and thought, ‘this is it; you have grown up and this is your life.’   So different from the way I grew up.  But which is worse? to grow up again and again in new worlds with their own particular customs and rules, or to grow up in the same place, again and again, with the tiny group of people you have always known.

So many people choose the latter, it seems, for safety.  I guess.  But I could never make that choice.  There is so little time left to me, I fear, and so much more to do, to see, to share.  In this brief existence, surely we are meant to learn as much as possible from as many different people and cultures as we can.  Surely we are supposed to try to understand and love one another.  So we should travel, and converse with, and learn to love, as many different people as we possibly can.  We should seek them out, and listen to their stories, and recognize our common divinity.  We should learn to experience one another with our hearts open and not closed.  I love to be on a bus or boat or train or plane in some place that is not home, and to encounter a person I would never have meant in my tiny little home world.  Sometimes  I resonate, admire, and even come to  adore, as in love, that person, or the person whom that person led me to.

What more matters, after all, than to have a good friend in life, someone you can truly count on.  A genuine friend who counts very few people amongst their real friends.

We don’t often meet people who, a) see us and b) respect us and c) call this and nothing other than this “love.”   Not that it has to be a sexual love.

But how could you love someone who can’t or won’t really see you, and whom you don’t respect?   That person might be in the category of just-met-and-really-fabulous, but you can never really love a person you don’t respect.   And you can’t really become available to be loved until you respect yourself.

So you have to do some diving.  You have to go down deep into what you call yourself and find out what it is that you really want, and how you really want to go about getting it.  You almost always really want peace.  But not death.   So there is this problem, this paradox, from the very beginning, and you have to sort it through.