Listening with a discerning spirit.

My wife has a saying, “opinions are like assholes, we all have them, and they stink.”  So perhaps that was not the most spiritual way to start with what is in my heart today, but in many respects, it is true.  It seems to me that way too often in my life, I have listened to and internalized the opinions of others without question.  It took me a while to come to the place in my life when I changed the way I listen to the world.  There were a few things that catapulted me into being a more critical and skeptical listener.  One was a book by Henri Nouwen, Living a Sacred Life in a Secular World.  He wrote about how when people criticize us or say something negative about us, we tend to internalize it as if it were fact.  Conversely, when someone pays a compliment or gives us an affirmation, we question there motives behind that.  What do they want?  Why are they saying these things?  He challenged me to begin changing the way I listened to things.  I began critically thinking about and listening to everything that was said the positive and the negative.  I worked on no longer believing someone because they said it; especially if it were someone, I considered an authority figure.

It was the writings of Don Miguel Ruiz, which took my listening to a new level.  In The Four Agreements, I learned to not believe anyone even myself.  I began learning how to listen to what was said by others and myself with a skeptical ear.  I not only listened to what someone was saying, but also listened to my spiritual response to what was said.  I have learned that much of what people say is about them, not about me.  I have come to learn a lot about the people I interact with by what they say or do not say.  However, I have also come to learn a lot about myself by what I say, both in the silence of my head and out loud.

The third thing that has changed the way I listen to myself in particular was a Sufi teaching that suggests you ask yourself three things before speaking.  Is it truthful?  Is it necessary?  Is it kind?  If you cannot answer yes to all three questions, then it does not need to be said.  Zoë says I have become quieter since I have practiced being mindful of what I say.  Perhaps that is a good thing.  For me, it means I am listening more skeptically to myself before I speak to ensure that what is say is of love; that is truthful, necessary, and kind.  I use those same questions before I internalize something others say to me.  Do I feel that what they said to me was truthful?  Was it necessary for me to hear that?  Was it kind?  If it was then I choose to listen to it.  If it was not, then I don’t.  I have come to realize that what I take in is like food for my spirit.  So now I only take in that which is nutritious for my life journey and that which is poison for my soul, I leave with the one who brought it.

Perhaps the final thing that has influenced my listening was the teachings of Gandhi about Satyagraha, “the force which is born of truth and love or non-violence.”  He wrote about how none of us has complete understanding of the truth.  Even someone I do not like may have an insight into truth that I do not have.  So I cannot dismiss what is said just because of who said it. 

Listening with a discerning spirit is an ongoing practice.  I had mastered the old way of listening, which contributed to my spending time in an emotional state of hell.  Now I am being intentional about limiting the time I spend there to a brief and infrequent visit.