Learning to Listen

By Andy Wade

What does it mean to listen, to really listen so that you hear and understand? And what are the many ways we can learn to listen? This month’s Author-of-the-Month, Keith Anderson, explores this idea in his newest book, A Spirituality of Listening: Living What We Hear.

Our home in Kowloon City, Hong Kong – 1997

Our home in Kowloon City, Hong Kong circa 1997

Several years ago while living in Hong Kong I began exploring our modern idea of spiritual retreat, taking time to reflect and to listen deeply to God. It dawned on me that we almost always take these retreats out of our regular surroundings, often in times a remote setting, a kind of going into the wilderness. I understand why this is so inviting. It seems I listen best when I’m away from routine.

I really enjoy “wilderness” retreats, yet several things about this bothered me:

  • It’s a luxury many don’t have.
  • While it takes us out of our normal element so we can better focus, it doesn’t teach us how to become spiritually balanced and to listen more deeply within our everyday context.
  • Going into the wilderness in the Bible, and as seen by the early monks and nuns, was not a retreat but going out to do battle with the devil, often on behalf of the church.
  • It can become a form of escapism where we leave behind our issues in order to be “spiritual” for a time, reinforcing a kind of sacred/secular dualism all too common in the church today.

What would it mean, I wondered, to retreat – to learn to listen – in the city?

tst_streetAs a small-town boy Transplanted to a city of seven million, I was often overwhelmed by all the noise, both auditory and visual. This constant assault on my senses dulled my ability to listen. Walking into one of Hong Kong’s many five-story malls, my eyes would kind of glaze over and my ears would go into hibernation. I’d simply go about my business on auto-pilot. I struggled to find a space where I could listen, really hear, in the city where all the stimuli overwhelmed my senses.

What I began to discover, and am still learning, is that there are many ways to listen deeply. I wish I’d had Anderson’s book back in the late 90’s when I began this exploration of retreat and listening. For much of my journey I have limited listening to a very narrow definition. Sure, I had different tools for listening, like journaling, Lectio Divina, and the practice of Examine, but I really hadn’t thought of listening with such broad parameters as outlined in this book.

Since this really isn’t a review of Anderson’s book I won’t outline the various forms of listening he explores. But I do want to mention a key aspect of listening that I’ve learned is essential to making room for listening in the city, and which Anderson also explores. Silence.

I think one of the real attractions of retreat away from home is the possibility of real, physical silence. But like listening, silence actually has many forms. There is physical silence, an ambient quietness of sound and activity. This kind of silence often requires us to leave our normal environment. Another critical form of silence is an inner silence, which we can cultivate. We can learn to find this silence even when chaos swirls around us, assaulting our senses. For some, their individual spiritual and emotional temperaments may naturally cultivate this ability, while for others it may seem a near impossibility.

I had a roommate in college with a heightened sense of inner silence. For him it took the form of being able to shut out everything around him and focus only on the task in front of him. It didn’t seem to matter what I did when he was in this zone; he had no idea what was going on around him. I had to physically put my hands on him and shake him to get his attention. This kind of inner silence can be hugely beneficial when we’re unable to escape our surroundings but want to focus on God as we listen for God’s still, small voice speaking deeply within.

There is another kind of inner silence which comes to many of us only with struggle; Shutting off our inner voices, those boundless inner conversations, arguments, self-justifications and random thoughts. This is where a short, repeated prayer like, “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” can help to clear our minds. I keep a notebook nearby so I can jot down these random thoughts and set them aside. If I jot them down so I know I will remember them later, I’m able to let them go for a while.

There is an inescapable connection between silence and listening well. Silence allows us to focus. Whether that focus is on a conversation (including prayer), God’s creation, or reflecting on scripture, silence enhances our ability to truly hear. I would go so far as to say that, until we learn to cultivate inner silence, our ability to listen well will be severely limited.

Reflecting on these aspects of listening:

  • What is your experience of listening?
  • How do you listen best to God?
  • Where do you find it most challenging to listen?

This last question might be the source of a personal challenge for you for this week or month.
How might you be more intentional about listening in those situations where listening is most difficult for you?

Keep a journal and write down:

  • What are be some specific reasons listening in this context is difficult for me?
    • Some possibilities might be noise, distractions, a broken relationship, contrasting views, painful memories…
  • What are two to three steps you can take today to practice listening more intentionally in these contexts?
    • Maybe it means working on reconciliation with someone. Or perhaps seeking therapy for a deep brokeness that gets in the way of hearing from certain (types of) people. Or maybe, like me, you need to work harder at focusing on the person(s) in front of you while ignoring all the interesting things happening around you.

In the video below, Julian Treasure outlines five concrete steps to help us listen better. Reflecting on this video I realized that our imaginations and creativity are also often ravaged by the constant onslaught of noise in our lives. Implementing the five steps outlined by Treasure can begin to address both the spiritual and creative numbing that happens when we’re constantly surrounded by noise.


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