LIstening can be as subjective as it is objective–just ask my kids… I can’t tell you how many times I have felt present in their comments and conversations only to find out that I had missed small details, or even their entire point. I’ve even been accused of ‘selective hearing’ - (just one of the things they’ve turned around on me from their childhoods!). It has made me laugh, but I know it has also made me feel defensive, and it’s definitely made me question the function of my ears (though not enough to seek a clinical hearing test). Ultimately, it has forced me to take a deliberate look at the act of listening in general terms. Especially in our current environment, this has been a very interesting undertaking…. My findings? We are ALL naturally selective in both our desire and ability to hear the things going on around us.
Background noises are the organic soundtrack of our lives and we exist in a perpetual state of monitoring their intrusion, even when we are trying to sleep. Some of us are more sensitive to the sounds we encounter. I have one friend who gets physically agitated when she hears someone eating an apple or a carrot….and don’t even think about chewing gum in front of her unless you are practiced at hiding it - you might get hurt. This same friend, however, can have a television on AND be reading a book at the same time. For me, crunchy chewing barely registers, but there’s no way I could read and watch television at the same time without wondering what I was missing from each pursuit. We each have a set of sounds that are pleasing to our ears and another set that comprises our own ‘fingernails on chalkboard’ category. The other sounds play randomly and we react accordingly.
My first home was ‘near’ a train track. I didn’t know this until the first night I slept there. I can still remember feeling the satisfaction of homeownership as I was drifting off, imagining what life might be like in this new space. My thoughts were interrupted by a train whistle and I was instantly bothered. First, where was this train that I had never noticed before? And second, how was I ever going to get any sleep? Within a week, the train whistle was undetectable to my ears at night. I had complained about it enough in the beginning that a friend asked how my sleep was going with the train sounds. It was only then that I realized I wasn’t hearing it anymore. I remember making a mental note because I knew that insight was significant in some way, but I couldn’t imagine how.
Upon reflection, I can see how I put a lot of blustery energy around the impact this train was going to have on my sleep quality forever. The train whistle forced me to question my expensive and life-altering choice, and it’s now very clear that I let the first ‘chink’ in whatever protective armour I had imagined for my home move me immediately out of comfort. It was the first night and I was listening to the voice of fear because something had shattered my idyllic picture. It was completely unwarranted, but my ignorant concern stood out in front of universal truth. Naturally, my ears became familiar with the sounds of my neighborhood and sleep came as easily as ever. My connection to train whistles, however, was gaining roots. Present day, a train whistle in the distance raises my energetic vibration as if it’s a harbinger of some kind. It hits my soul with a tone that resonates as a ‘call to action’. I consciously pay attention to whatever follows the whistle and it’s always something cool.
Once, I listened from the front row as my favorite singer, Todd Snider, began to introduce his song “Train Song”, a beautiful ode to his Superfriend Skip Litz, who lived in his neighborhood and had passed away. As he began to introduce the song and play a few notes, a train whistle blew in the distance. For a second, he couldn’t tell if he really heard it or imagined it. He was onstage with his old bandmate Will Kimbrough, and he looked over at Will, questioning the solidness of the sound… When it blew one more time, I could feel and hear Todd’s heart ‘skip’ a beat, and then they laid it bare on the stage, holding back tears for most of the song. From that moment, the song, which had reminded me of my own family, took on new meaning as an anthem for the loud, unique characters in our lives. Many of them wind up leaving us sooner than we’d like, as that bravado often protects some deep, untended wounds. In public, they are the life of the party, but privately, they wrestle with their ability to feel Whole
In meditation, the first thing we are generally asked to do is become still. In those quiet moments, we have the opportunity to hear many things. If we are inside, we can identify the sounds coming from the house or building: the settling structure, a clock, the hum of the hvac, an appliance, activity from other inhabitants, as well as the sounds coming from outside the structure. If we are outside, depending on where in the world we are situated, our ears can be attuned to a symphony, a cacophony, or a scale in between. That part is fully dependent on the ear of the listener and our senses vary greatly, depending on our previous experiences.
Becoming still is a lot harder than it seems like it should be. Most of us have played freeze tag or red light green light, where we felt like we were still, but our movements were still detected. Listening operates in the same way. As soon as we eliminate the sounds that are out in front, there are other sounds resonating from underneath, and beyond those auditory movements, our heartbeat and our breath produce a steady ‘drumbeat’ - from within. The voices coming from both our soul and our ego are the ever-present background soundtrack for our stillness, and in contemplation, our thoughts can take us very far from our immediate surroundings. It can foster the appearance that we are not listening to someone who has just asked a simple question, especially if we appear to be doing nothing.
Awareness is a really valuable tool for listening. Our attention gets pulled in several directions most of the time. The things in front of us combine with the thoughts in our heads, each producing both visual and auditory images. We ‘hear’ those images regularly as we go through our days, rarely stopping to identify which is which. Why do certain sounds and images lead to certain thoughts? How are they connected? How are the things we choose to listen to procured? What do we enjoy listening to? What do we tune out?
Just last night, after the Chiefs won a game that will reverberate for many years to come, the sounds that rang out in my living room were silenced by a boom from outside. Was it a gunshot? Probably fireworks, we all decided, though no one was sure. If it was a gunshot, it landed quietly. That isn’t always the case. A gunshot fired into the sky as a means of celebration can still resonate days later, at the funeral of the unfortunate person who was ‘in the wrong place at the wrong time’ when it finally landed. We are not always aware of what we are hearing, whether it is true, or what it means, even when we think we are… If we can accept that as fact, we might open the space to breathe more freely, and hear the direction that is specifically meant for us, coming from our heartbeat and our intentional breathing. There’s a beautiful, consistent voice tangled in those processes and it waits patiently for us to hear it.