Are you a good listener? I used to think I was, but as part of my spiritual journey have come to realize I’ve got a way to go yet. That’s because my definition of listening has expanded from a very rudimentary one—trying to hear and processing what I hear—to one much more complex. I know now that listening has many layers, that we listen from many places that block the connection to our most authentic selves and the authenticity of others, and that we listen but do not really listen deeply, from a still place inside. I know that even when we think we are listening from our heart and spirit, we may still be listening from our ego. And most importantly, I know that we must listen particularly closely to the universe, whose messages we often blithely ignore (at our own peril).
I was, of course, attracted by the title of Mark Nepo’s latest book, Seven Thousand Ways to Listen: Staying Close to What is Sacred. The book is itself an exercise in deep listening. Nepo shares early on that he lives in a world of metaphor, and since I happily inhabit that paradise, too (is there anything more delicious than a really good metaphor?) I think the book is at its best when he brings the reader into that world. For long stretches I read and wait impatiently and then suddenly am hit with a nugget of wisdom, a sentence, a poem, a turn of phrase of such spiritual and linguistic elegance that it takes my breath away.
Central to the book is the author’s belief that listening opens us up to our oneness.
[T]he physics of deep listening is that we stumble beautifully into the spaces between our sufferings. This is why we dare to listen, so we might drop together into the truth that holds us all.
Nepo reminds us that listening from the deepest place within us is a risk but ultimately a reward:
This lifelong conversation with love, wonder, and truth in counterpoint with pain, loss, and obstacles is how we dilate and constrict our way into the essence of our aliveness.
I like how he uses the phrase “lifelong conversation,” for listening is not just a one-way act. It is also a conversation that takes time, and patience. And like one of its deepest forms, meditation, it requires not only having to tune out the outside noise, but the inside clamor.
Besides the transformative beauty of Nepo’s language and the divine essence he shares with us through it, we are gifted in this volume with tools in the form of “Reflective Pauses” he builds into the chapters with meditations, journaling prompts, and topics for conversation.
At the core of deep listening is a sort of letting go. Nepo, a cancer survivor, talks about how he got to his letting go, his acceptance.
It had been a difficult time in my fifty-ninth year--loss, pain, demanding transitions--when a good friend asked, ‘Are you feeling as much impermanence and fluidity as it sounds like you are?’ I loved her for asking such a question, for not only seeing me, but the larger landscape…And I thought, yes, that and more. I had grown weary from trying to sort my lot of catastrophes, from trying to make sense of events and turns, from imagining plans and backup plans. Out of exhaustion, I finally just opened myself up to everything…This seems a better way to meet experience. Not with ignorance or denial but with a felt acceptance that this too will shape me.
This shaping comes, in part, with the listening and absorbing. If we let go of expectations, there is room for magic in what is, rather what was supposed to be. If we don’t listen but insist on predictability (or the desire for it) life will surely give us the lessons we need to learn over and over again til we wake up.
Nepo talks about how we need to listen below our identity, from a core of universal humanness:
This bareness of being is opened to each of us when we are forced or willing to remove our filters and feel what we hear and meet.
He adds later:
Often, when opened to our own experience, we find at the bottom the rich moist earth of everyone’s experience.
Having stripped to this core, sifting through the both messy and nutritive soil of our common existence, we can truly connect with the sacred.