Pine Gate:
Vol 6 Issue 3: Fall 2007: Deep Listening River Freeze

Several winters ago I went on a solo retreat at a place called Stillpoint on the Madawaska River, 100 miles west of Ottawa.  During the five days of silence I watched the river freeze over as I listened deeply to the winter voice of Mother Earth.  On returning to my university afterwards, a colleague who takes an interest in my endeavours asked me what I did for five days.  My reply was that I watched and listened deeply to the Madawaska River freeze over.  He then asked me what did I mean by “listening deeply.”  So I talked to him about the Fourth Mindfulness Training in Buddhism about mindful speech, and how deep listening was the key to understanding and putting it into practice.  If one could not listen deeply then it is unlikely that speech would be compassionate and loving.

Fourth Mindfulness Training

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and to relieve others of their suffering.  Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am determined to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy and hope.  I will not spread news that I do not know to be certain and will not criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure.  I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break.  I am determined to make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.

I identified three levels of deep listening for my colleague.  The first (and least significant) level of deep listening was intellectual, whereby I analyzed and scrutinized Buddhist literature on deep listening, gaining a conceptual grasp of what it meant within the corpus of Buddhist teaching.  Although this was the least significant level of understanding, it was a starting place.  Rather than just see it as an intellectual practice, I began to realize that deep listening was a fruit or consequence of mindfulness practice – this was the second level of deep listening.

Deep listening could not be there alone.  I experienced a distinct improvement in my capacity for deep listening, as I realized that walking meditation, mindful breathing, mindful meals and other practices were the necessary ground out of which deep listening could arise – as a flower growing from fertile soil.  When such a ground was not there, listening was largely to my own agendas and assumptions, and I would not be listening carefully to what was being said to me.  So the simple insight that deep listening could not be there alone was an important one for me.  This deepened as I investigated how it worked for me and directly affected my life – the times I was not heard and how I suffered from that.  Also the suffering I had caused when I was not in a place to deeply listen to the concerns of those speaking to me, especially to my children.  I think back to times with my children when they had really important things to say to me, but I was too busy.  I did not stop to give them my full presence and did not really listen.  Many years later, now that they are all grown up, I have said to them individually; “I remember the time you said such and such to me and I did not really listen to you.  I am very sorry.”  They were astonished and deeply touched – as was I.  The rifts and suffering between us could then heal.

That was it for deep listening, or so I thought, until I was plunged into a crisis with one of my sons caught in the drug underworld of Glasgow, Scotland.  My eighteen-year-old son was studying at the Glasgow School of Art in Scotland, and my transatlantic phone calls had told me he was deeply in trouble with drugs.  I arranged to spend time with him in Glasgow.  We had not seen one another for a few years, so a visit was overdue, particularly since he had suffered deeply from a divorce that had spanned two continents.  At the Glasgow airport I scarcely recognized him, as he now sported a multi-colored punk hairstyle with all the required black accouterments.  Yet he greeted me with a warm hug and a big smile.
On arriving at the place he was living I knew something was dreadfully amiss.  There were no books or art materials in his room.  His large rambling apartment was occupied, as I later discovered, by "The Tribe" - a shifting population of punks, drug users, and dealers.  As I sat in Alexander's squalid room wondering about him, he left for a while. There was such an atmosphere of decay and hopelessness that for a moment I felt utter despair - I did not know what to do.  I went into my own deep silence and meditated so that I could be clear and calm.  I knew I needed support from all the tools of mindfulness I had - particularly deep listening - to remain steady and not be drawn into judgment and discrimination.  It was a time to take deep refuge in mindfulness.    

Several of the punks asked me one night if I would teach them walking meditation - they had obviously been talking with my son.  I said I would be happy to, as long as they remained drug free for two days.  They agreed and complied - quite an undertaking for them.  Two evenings later at midnight my punk friends chose one of Glasgow’s finest private parks to do their walking mediation.  They found a tree just outside the park fence, boosted me up and instructed me to crawl along a branch that overhung the park. For their part, they simply bounded over the fifteen-foot-high railings and then caught me as I dropped from the branch in a less than elegant manner.  Once we had picked ourselves up and stopped laughing, I introduced them to the basics of walking meditation, slowing them right down with breath, guiding them to release their distress into the earth. I still smile when I remember this scene: my punk friends and I walking barefoot in the grass of one of Glasgow's finest private parks, breathing slowly and walking mindfully for more than two hours.  We sat on a park bench, fresh with morning dew, and they began to talk to me.  As I listened to them sharing heartfelt stories of how they came to be where they were, I encountered a level of deep listening never before experienced.    I felt an all-encompassing energy embrace me, my young friends, the park, the lights, and night sounds of the city of Glasgow.  

This experience totally changed my understanding of deep listening.  I said very little and left intellectual understanding and personal suffering behind and entered a totally new territory.  On that evening the carefully constructed sense of self just dissolved and the “I” of me disappeared in the moment I was deeply present with my young friends.  “I” became like particles of energy, touching and engaging with the particles of energy in everything there – my young friends, the grass, trees, park bench, city lights and sounds, and beyond to a vastness that I cannot find the words to express.  Space beyond space, time beyond time.  In that stillness, the vastness of energy touched deep seeds of consciousness in my young friends as they trusted me with their confidences and secrets.  We stayed there for hours in this zone of transformation, frequently silent, and walked back to their home just before dawn.  From the smiles and embraces we exchanged I knew that something had changed in all of us: I had discovered a deep listening I had never thought possible; my young friends and son had nurtured long forgotten seeds of hope within themselves.  

I finished speaking and looked over to my colleague and saw that he was smiling.  He had understood.