The Art of Listening
With the modern distraction of digital media, we must be more mindful than ever of person-to-person communications
BY SATGURU BODHINATHA VEYLANSWAMI
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SOUND IS REGARDED AS DIVINE IN HINDUISM, so it is fitting that listening has always held a central role in the faith. Our core scriptures, the Vedas and Agamas, are referred to as shruti, which means “that which is heard,” as they were originally heard by rishis as an aural transmission directly from God. In the early days of human civilization, prior even to writing, shruti was faithfully preserved without alteration (important because this is the word of God) by means of aural instruction from guru to shishya. This went on generation after generation for thousands of years. Considering the vast body of texts, it is remarkable that this was achieved, and more remarkable still when you know it was accomplished by requiring students to learn each verse in eleven different ways, including backwards.
Fortunately, this traditional way of learning the Vedas and Agamas by listening is still practiced in today’s priest training schools. In a typical learning session, the teacher chants a verse once, then the students as a group recite it twice, striving to be faithful to the subtleties of pronunciation and rhythm they hear in the teacher’s chanting. This is not a now and again thing. The recitations go on for long hours every day, and every day for years and years. Students begin young, as early as five, when memory is strong.
Anyone who has seen a great documentary knows how powerful the human voice is as an instrument for communication and sharing of knowledge, so much more effective than reading. Consider pravachan, the popular lectures given by teachers who have personally experienced the truths they are explaining. In these dynamic discourses, the teacher presents the essentials of the Vedas, Upanishads and other scriptures, and those who listen absorb those deep teachings with all of their senses from one who knows. In this sharing, this speaking and hearing, subtle knowledge is transmitted from knower to seeker in a way that cannot be matched by reading. Multiple levels of information are conveyed through such speech—inflection, emotion, emphasis, conviction and subtle intimations.
My Gurudeva, Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, wrote on this idea: “Because sound is the first creation, knowledge is transferred through sound of all kinds. It is important that one listen to the highest truths of a sampradaya from one who has realized them. The words, of course, will be familiar. They have been read by the devotee literally hundreds of times, but to hear them from the mouth of the enlightened rishi is to absorb his unspoken realization, as he re-realizes his realization while he reads them and speaks them out.”
I like to think of listening as an art. The idea is that to fully grasp the subject being presented requires attentiveness to the speaker and concentration on the meaning of what is being said. For a mystically profound subject, intuition is also needed to deeply understand what the speaker means, a meaning that lies beyond his words. When attentiveness, concentration and intuition are all present, listening becomes an art.
This is as true today as it was 2,200 years ago when a village weaver wrote the ethical masterpiece Tirukural. He devotes a full chapter, ten couplets, to “Learning by Listening.” Here are three of Tiruvalluvar’s verses:
In Heaven, Deities feed from sacrificial fires. On Earth, men who feast on listening are their equal.
The most precious wealth is the wealth acquired by the ear. Indeed, of all wealth, that wealth is paramount.
If not pierced by acute listening, ears may hear and yet remain deaf.
As we all know, the art of listening faces a new challenge in our modern age: digital distraction. Computers and mobile phones, and the constant stream of stimuli they offer, profoundly challenge everyone’s ability to focus, listen and learn. A New York Times article entitled “Growing up Digital, Wired for Distraction” addressed the issue:
“Researchers say the lure of these technologies, while it affects adults too, is particularly powerful for young people. The risk, they say, is that developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks—becoming less able to sustain attention. ‘Their brains are rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing,’ said Michael Rich, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston. And the effects could linger: ‘The worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently.’”
That was written in 2010. Since then the number of smartphone users in the US alone has tripled. In any public place, it seems everyone is carrying a phone and accessing it often. It could be called device addiction.
The Times article goes on to say that researchers have found that students’ use of technology is not uniform. Their choices tend to reflect their personalities. Social butterflies tend to be heavy texters and Facebook, Twitter or Instagram users. Students who are less social may escape into games, while drifters or those prone to procrastination might surf the Web or watch videos.
Time together: A family gathers around the challenges of the game of Jenga. It is such simple human interactions that create strong bonds and open channels of communication.
The Hindu home is crucially impacted by digital distraction. Important Hindu teachings, its principles, stories and ethics, are traditionally conveyed to young children by their grandparents. Parents communicate what is needed for their teenage children to understand the new duties they are maturing into. Parents also regularly share information about current happenings in the family and future plans. All this person-to-person communication is impeded when family members turn constantly to their digital world and stop having meaningful conversations with one another. A common sight these days is a family sitting together with each member fixated on his or her phone or tablet, with no talking or listening taking place. Though they share the same room, their minds are elsewhere.
It would be unwise to allow digital information to overwhelm us even more than life’s modern conveniences already have. The Amish, a small religious community in the US, have taken an extreme stand against modernism, living as people did two centuries ago in an effort to preserve their culture and perpetuate their religion. One documentary tells the story of an Amish family that eliminated all possibilities for modern distractions, including digital, by having no electricity in the home. For most of us that would be too radical. A more balanced solution for Hindu families is to establish set times for digital study and enjoyment and other times for healthy in-person communication with family members and friends (with digital devices turned off).
Recently a young Hindu couple proudly told me that digital devices are banned from the dinner table in their home, a simple rule that is enriching their interactions and strengthening their relationships. A number of families have reined in digital distractions by requiring that their children’s computers remain in the living room, where family members can provide oversight. Others have found tools to restrain where their children can go online.
For his devotees, Gurudeva designated Monday as Family Home Evening, a time for sharing among family members. “On Monday evening, Siva’s day, the family members get together, prepare a wonderful meal, play games together and verbally appreciate one another’s good qualities. They don’t solve any problems on that day. They just love each other, and everybody has a voice, from the littlest child to the oldest senior.” The television and all digital devices are turned off. It’s a time for listening, real listening. Being a good listener can lead to being a good conversationalist—another fine art jeopardized by digital distraction.
I developed a simple sadhana called Supportive Conversation to strengthen bonds with a family member or friend. Here it is.
1. Stop what you are doing when approached; smile, face the person, extend a kind greeting and give him or her your full attention. Put down or turn off your mobile device.
2. Listen carefully. Do not interrupt. Concentrate on what is being said. If it is troublesome to you, remember the adage “seek to understand before seeking to be understood.” Get engaged and show support by responding sincerely and constructively.
3. Especially if the person is sharing an emotional experience, ask him or her to recount the event. Be patient, listen with all of your senses. If you feel it is taking too long, affirm mentally that you have all the time in the world.
4. Practice empathy; put yourself in the other person’s place. If you were speaking, you would want others to fully listen. Remember, you don’t have to provide solutions, just a caring ear. Your hearing the story is enough.
Perhaps the art of listening will enjoy a comeback with the help of digital media, as the word spreads virally on what we miss without it. Listening is how we most naturally learn. It is a skill that needs to be perpetuated, even honed, from generation to generation. Parents need to carefully guide their children’s development, to avoid digital distraction, develop the listening art and hopefully, if all goes well, awaken intuition and compassion for others. Adults need to make sure they themselves are not indulging excessively in a digital world. This will insure that the knowledge and practices of Hinduism continue to thrive in this digital era.