I’ll never forget when at the age of 34 I ventured into the streets of Warsaw after four days of meditation in complete silence. It was probably the first time in my entire life that I was able to distinguish sounds, which until then had blended into the everyday din of a bustling city. I heard the tapping of the heels of a person walking in front of me, the creaking of an opening window, someone calling out, the humming of an approaching car, the rattling of a stone accidently kicked along the pavement by a passerby, the chirping of a sparrow hopping across the lawn, the barking of a dog coming from an apartment nearby, the merry call of a child, the rustling of leaves on a birch tree swaying in a gentle breeze, a tram bell sounding from afar…
Now I know I was able to hear all these sounds because I was filled with gentle, soothing silence. Thanks to meditation, the clatter in my mind had subsided. I was able to detach myself from my thoughts and my own world sufficiently to notice and hear the richness of sounds of the city in which I lived. Like the mind of a child, free of torments of the past and worries of the future, my mind quieted down, and I was able to pick up individual subtle sounds of nature or intense tones of cars in urban traffic from the surrounding symphony of sounds.
Many years of meditation have allowed me to appreciate the unperturbed calm to be found in silence. From this perspective, the limitless wealth of sound types and their intensity inspires admiration and gratitude alike.
The art of mindful listening is even more complex in contact with another human being. Then, we are focused on the conversation, on both listening and speaking – including commenting, expressing our opinions, responding to our interlocutor’s message. In such a situation we seldom truly listen to the other person. To listen means to be able to hear the timbre of their voice, subtle changes in intonation, and moments of hesitation. This means to be able to notice that some words are pronounced with more emphasis and confidence than others. To listen also means to notice changes in facial expression and gesticulation. To listen, rather than only hear the words, means to empathize with the feelings of the person uttering the words and understand the intentions behind them. To listen mindfully means to resign from passing judgments and become one with the speaker. To listen mindfully means to listen with your heart open and your mind quiet.
… for the Great Silence is always present, this awareness that makes no sound yet is all music.
– John Astin
Exercises in mindful listening with the child
- When returning with your child from school, or going to the park, suggest walking in silence for 2-3 minutes, trying to notice and remember as many sounds as possible. Finally, compare what sounds you both remembered.
- Ask your child to close his or her eyes and listen carefully to the sounds you will be making, then ask to guess what they are (e.g. tapping a fingernail on a window pane, rubbing your hands, tapping stone against stone, rustling of a newspaper).