I am 75 days and 9 countries into my journey around the world. As I move from place to place I have encountered a wide variety of different languages and dialects. Communicating with the locals is an essential part of immersing myself into the culture, understanding the people and learning about their way of life. At times it can be difficult to understand one another given the language barriers we face. Cultivating the skill of mindful listening has been an important tool in overcoming difficult moments of communication. Practice and persistence has made each encounter easier and when we finally reached mutual understanding, there was an obvious moment of pure joy felt by all. One of the most wonderful discoveries I have made is that at the very core of our beings, we all just want to be listened to, respected and understood. We all just want to matter.
Mindful listening is one of the most important skills a person can learn. When we practice mindful listening, many things are occurring. First, we are exercising our muscle of attention. We learn to focus our attention on the speaker, on the tone of their voice, on the movement of their mouths, on their body language and on the content of what is being said. The more we practice, the longer we are able to sustain attention and focus because we are actually changing the structure of our brain. The latest neuroscience research is proving that our brain has plasticity, meaning, we have the ability to change and strengthen its structure and connections with simple focus exercises. Concisely, whenever you practice mindful listening, you are training and changing your brain.
Second, we further cultivate and increase our level of awareness by noticing what is happening within us as we practice listening. We may notice that our mind wanders often, and rather quickly, to thoughts about our own experience of the subject or to how we are going to respond when we get the chance to speak. This tends to happen automatically especially when we strongly connect with what is being said or when we find ourselves in a challenging conversation. When this happens and our attention goes directly to our own thoughts, we are no longer listening. Many times we assume we already know what the other person means or what they are going to say. In some cases, we may be so driven by our own opinions, judgments or need to be heard, that we interrupt the speaker. Most of the time, we are wrong. As a result, we often have to ask the speaker to repeat or further clarify what they’ve said. Furthermore, these assumptions often lead to misunderstanding and unnecessary conflict. There is a dangerous arrogance in thinking that we know everything, and in assuming that there is nothing it be gained by giving our full attention to our present moment experience, whatever it may be. More importantly, there is a deep wisdom in admitting that we don’t know much at all and by allowing ourselves to be fully open to the experience itself, there is a lot for us to gain.
By mindfully listening to what is being said as well as our own thoughts, feelings and emotions, we can make important discoveries about ourselves. One of the most humbling discoveries may be that our attention for the most part, goes to our thoughts and that we rarely ever fully listen to what is being said. Some of these discoveries may not be so easy to look at or accept, but as we continue to practice, they will reveal important insights into who we truly are and how we operate, moment to moment. Practicing mindful listening cultivates compassion and builds understanding, both for the speaker and ourselves. It makes for deeper and more authentic relationships. Give it a try.
Mindful Listening Exercise.
Come to each conversation with a beginners mind. This means imagining that the person is speaking to you for the first time. This will help you to dispel assumptions and expectation about where the conversation may go or should end up. Next, listen using both sight and sound. Bring your attention to the sound, tone, inflection and conviction of the speaker and watch the movement of their mouth and their body language. This will help you understand the content of what is being said and will help to develop your intuition. With practice you may be able to pick up on what is not being said as well. This will allow you to ask questions at the right moment and accurately understand what is being said, which can be extremely helpful in avoiding misunderstandings because many people do not communicate clearly.
Finally, pay attention to how you are listening. This will allow you to catch yourself as your mind wanders off. Each time you become aware that your attention is no longer on the speaker, take notice of where your mind went, then very gently bring yourself back. You may need to do this dozens or hundreds of times. Be patient with yourself and be persistent. Recognize this as a practice; the more you do it, the easier it will get. I invite you to come back and share your observations and discoveries with this practice.
It doesn’t seem to matter where we are in the world or what we are doing; most often it is the endless attention we give to our own inner dialogue that constantly takes us away from the present moment reality of our lives. As we get into the practice of becoming mindful, it is important to become aware of the mental chatter that often steals our focus and diverts our attention away from what we are doing. Mental chatter is the voice inside our head that runs on and on nearly every waking moment of our lives. Sometimes it is a dialogue we are having with ourselves, but usually it is a voice of judgment that evaluates and critiques our every experience.
In order to become aware of our own mental chatter, we need to understand exactly what it is. By comparing our mental chatter with how we answer direct questions, we can learn to identify when we are attached to this chatter and avoid being sidetracked away from our present moment experience. What we are thinking about and our mental chatter are often confused. Someone may ask you what you are thinking about and you may reply, “I’m thinking about what I’m going to have for lunch.” but your mental chatter is going more like this…
“Gosh, I’m hungry? … Is it lunchtime yet? I wonder what kind of soup they have today? ... I shouldn’t have skipped breakfast … now I’m starving… geez, why don’t I just get up earlier? … Tomorrow I’ll get better prepared…maybe I should start bringing my lunch…I could make something healthy…. I’ve been eating too much lately… I should have worked out yesterday… I ate too many carbs… I could to the gym after work…yep, I’ll plan to go later… maybe I can get someone to go with me…then I’ll be motivated…gosh my stomach’s growling…. what time is it?...
By becoming aware of our mental chatter we can learn to control it by observing when our active attention to it is taking us away from what is actually happening in our lives. Being constantly engaged with this mental chatter can lead to stress and anxiety, especially when we are caught up in it in an effort to understand or analyze the circumstances of our lives. Practicing mindfulness of your mental chatter is the foundation to managing it. Learning to control and manage our mental chatter is one of the most fundamental elements to improving your life.
Through the practice of mindfulness you can begin to become aware of and investigate the attention you pay to your own inner dialogue. This takes practice and patience as well as a great deal of self-compassion, as in the beginning it can be quite alarming to discover how much of our lives we spend living in our heads.
Commit to cultivating this awareness by checking in with yourself frequently throughout the day. Sometimes it's helpful to ask the question “Where am I right now?” To answer, recognize whether you mind is focused on what you are doing or if it is off somewhere else, lost in thought and attached to your inner dialogue and mental chatter. Each time you realize that your mind has wandered, work with some effort to bring your awareness back to what you are actually doing. Use your senses to ground yourself into the present moment by bringing your attention to what you may be seeing, hearing, tasting, touching or smelling; your present moment experience. Another strategy is to recognize and acknowledge that regardless of where your mind wanders to, your body always remains in the present moment. Use your body as an anchor into the present moment. As soon as you become aware that your mind has drifted away from where you are, gently and compassionately bring your attention back to your physical body, particularly your breath moving in and out. As long as you are alive, you're breathing, so the breath is dependable and available all the time. Smile and enjoy the moment you have given to yourself. Practice again and again and again...
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