We learn to talk when we are babies, expressing ourselves in sounds and eventually words that make sense to those around us. Speech and verbal communication are encouraged and celebrated. What an achievement that first word is—a rite of passage in the human journey! Listening, however, is not given quite the same emphasis or encouragement. In school, we take classes in speech but not in listening. Within the context of polite behavior, we are told to listen and not interrupt, but learning to be silently present with focused attention in a variety of situations is not part of the curriculum. Neither is quiet time spent in meditation or contemplation. Western society is noisy and wordy and very distracting, and we learn to live with it in whatever way we can, often to the detriment of our inner spirit.
As an only child, I played quietly by myself as much as with friends, but I didn’t begin to learn the true value of silence and of listening until I was well into adulthood. Although from a rural background, I acclimated easily to the novelty of living in cities and thought little of urban noise for years. At some point, however, I began to notice, and then couldn’t stop noticing, the lack of quiet everywhere. I sought out silence—in meditation classes, in parks, on vacations to natural settings away from the city. I took up bird watching as a way of immersing myself in nature, and it was then that I really began to learn how to listen.
In order to observe birds closely, you have to be willing to stand or walk in absolute silence, your senses of sight and hearing keenly attuned. When you are silent and motionless, the natural world gradually resumes its normal activity, which it had ceased at the appearance of a noisy human. What a miracle this was to me when I first experienced it. The more I listened, the more I heard: birdsong, bees buzzing, squirrels chattering, chipmunks scampering through the bushes, the wind rustling tree leaves and creaking branches. My soul was in silent communion with everything around me. Over the years, my listening deepened to the point where I felt I could actually hear flowers growing in my garden in the early morning stillness. Sounds fantastic, I know, but when you quiet yourself enough and truly listen, the world opens up its secrets to you.
Birds and flowers weren’t the only ones to teach me about listening. The elder parents in my life also taught me this sacred life lesson. Both my father and my partner’s mother experienced memory loss and related dementia in their later years. What you learn first in that situation is not to rush or finish the other person’s sentences, but to allow them time/space/silence to find the words they want to say. And if they don’t find the words, so what? Really the words themselves are unimportant. You learn to listen to the spaces between the words to hear what is really being communicated. I listened with my heart, with my soul. The last time I saw him, my father and I shared a lifetime of love just by looking in each other’s eyes. When he spoke, I heard his heart’s voice beneath the words. And during the afternoons when my partner and I sat quietly with her mother listening to 1940s tunes, we experienced together the beauty of the songs as well as the silence between the songs. Our spirits were connected in that peaceful space.
Perhaps what I am describing can’t really be taught in school, but only in life. We learn to listen as we learn that there is more to this world than the physical dimension. The longer we live, the wider our perception and awareness grows (if we are fortunate), and the closer we come to the essential stillness that is at the core of being and at the center of the cosmos. Out of silence, sound is born, life is born. When we listen deeply enough, we hear the sound of silence itself. And that is the place where our souls speak to one another, without words.
“For being still enough, long enough, next to anything living, we find a way to sing the one voiceless song.”—Mark Nepo