Exquisite Attention: Listening with Your Whole Being

“Hearing is objective. Listening is subjective.”

Already we are off to an auspicious start. Hearing and listening are not the same. Jane Enrietto Horn should know. She’s an audiologist. Jane told me:

“I listen to people hearing. As an audiologist, I can measure a lot of things. Is there a part of the transmission that is being interrupted? How do we remedy that? What tones do people hear, and at what threshold? At what level? How do they recognize words? I can tell if you have a hearing loss even when you are asleep. We can record a spouse’s voice and measure it at the point of the eardrum. She really wants you to hear her! And we can measure that. We can test infants and newborns. I can tell what kind of hearing loss you have based on my initial interviews.”

We are talking about ears. The hammer, the anvil, and the stirrup — the three smallest bones in the body. There is the cochlea, which is the part of the inner ear that changes sound wave vibrations into electrical impulses.

Jane Enrietto Horn knows that “listening” is about so much more than ears.

“When I talk with people about hearing aids, I want to know more. What are your DESIRES? How does “hearing” impact your life? Cognitive ability plays into this. There’s a whole field called psychoacoustics which is about how we perceive sounds. It’s a science of the psychological and physiological responses connected to sound. How do you pay attention? What do you pay attention to? How do you filter what you hear — and make sense of it? It’s hard to get people to get hearing aids. There’s a stigma because it’s about so much more than hearing.”

It’s all about people, she said. It’s about people. She doesn’t measure only what people hear.

She’s curious about the system of hearing around a person which provides some insight into how they listen. To make the point, she told me a story that was both poignant and instructive.

“I had a patient who was mad at me for referring him for a hearing aid. He felt shameful about it, and he resented me for telling him that he needed an aid. Months later, maybe years later, I received a letter from him. He wrote that he was in a variety of groups in his community and hadn’t realized how much he was interrupting people. He was missing a lot of the conversation. With the hearing aid, he felt a part of things. He felt connected in a way that he hadn’t been before.”

Jane’s comment gave me pause. I don’t have hearing loss, currently. Still, how much have I missed because I’ve interrupted? How many conversations have passed me by because I was unable to be fully connected? Jane’s patient was living in his own self-imposed monologue because he had a hearing disorder. Are there those of us who are living in a self-imposed monologue because of a listening disorder?

For sure, our listening is enhanced or compromised by our ability to hear. Still, Jane’s work reminds me that “listening” and “hearing” are two very different things. If we don’t have a hearing disorder but still have a listening disorder, what is getting in the way? What instrument do we need to “repair” in order to listen more fully?

For Kim Vetter, a dancer, strategy consultant, movement consultant, and poet, the whole body is the instrument that needs to be tended to in order to listen more fully and effectively.

“When I was 20, I was injured and I was told that I would never dance again. My massage therapist told me to go see this woman. She later became a friend and a mentor. She helped me to repattern my body. She had worked with dancers in New York from all different companies. She used all of her senses. She would listen to the sound of the joint. She could tell with her back turned whether someone was doing something wrong, based on how their bodies sounded. Learning from her, I could tell where people were in their bodies. I listened on an energetic level.”

Listening to bodies. Listening to energy. It’s not always about the hearing with the ears.

Kim continued.

“Part of my challenge is that my way of listening isn’t something I can always say out loud. How do I offer an insight when I want to talk about something that isn’t based on what someone said? This intuitive, embodied listening is a space where there are often no words. And yet, it is clear. It’s deep. It’s emotional.”

For someone like me, who often lives in his head, this is new information. Embodied listening? Emotional listening? I’m not completely unable to listen to my emotions, my desires, my pains, and the yearnings and protests from my body. Still, I’m prone to discounting them as annoyances and distractions, not the grist of real listening. If I conceive of listening as only through my ears and only to words, what other kinds of listening am I ignoring? How do I listen to others’ bodies, and all of the stories they hold? How do I transform my body into a listening instrument?

With Kim’s strategy and organizational development clients, the encouragement to listen with and to whole bodies is sometimes met with skepticism.

“With some of my clients, there’s a sense of containment. Non-textual, non-verbal ‘truth’ or ‘logic’ is viewed as ‘squishy.’ I feel like my very being in the world isn’t valued. I feel like I have to be dead inside in order to live in this world. I have to shut off part of myself.”

Kim remains undaunted, though.

“It’s important to listen in multiple ways, through multiple channels. People have problems, and yet, they keep trying to solve them from the same place. The problem often lies in a deeper place. How can I offer some insights when I know that people can’t access the problem through the ways in which they are currently listening? I might be biased about listening with the body because I’m a dancer. Still, I believe that everybody has the ability to be in touch with the body, with sensation.”

You might be saying to yourself, “That’s interesting, but she’s really talking about sensing. Or intuition. Or ‘gut.’ That’s more than just ‘listening.’”

Instead of containing the meaning and definition of listening, would we do well to expand it so that we can listen more broadly — and deeply? Is sensing and intuition another way of saying “listening with my whole body”? My whole being?

Matt Kolan calls it “paying exquisite attention.”

“It comes down to paying exquisite attention. Listening may be an insufficient word. It goes beyond hearing. I’m using many senses. The five senses are even inadequate to describe the ways it is possible to pay attention and receive information. Use of my ears is just one of so many ways to connect and make sense of the world.”

Matt is the director of the master’s program in Leadership for Sustainability at the University of Vermont. He has a background in neuroscience, botany, and environmental science/natural resources. Since his youth, Matt has moved beyond landscapes dominated by humans in order to communicate across species and forge more harmonious relationships with nature and non-human animals.

“I started down by a creek near my house. The local raccoons would cruise through. Birds would pay a visit. It was buzzing with life. Everything was in constant communication. I tried to get quiet and still enough to get into a deep state of connection, out of the chaos of the human world. Over time, as I built stronger relationships with beings that don’t speak the same language, I started to ask: What could we listen for that is much more subtle? I became interested in communication across species and also tuning into energetics. Things that my five senses can’t detect.”

Matt describes energetics as “listening with the whole body.” Similar to Kim Vetter, Matt’s practice of listening involves not only the physical body, but the mental, emotional, and spiritual bodies as well. He conceives of the world ecologically and holistically.

Two questions Matt posed in my conversation with him continue to intrigue and challenge me:

How quiet do we need to be in order to immerse ourselves in intuitive listening? How do we listen to the knowledge and wisdom that comes from inexplicable places?

To illustrate the power of intuitive listening and “paying exquisite attention” to the systems of listening that occur in nature, often without our noticing, Matt told a story about being a field biologist in his young adulthood.

“In my early 20s, I worked on a lot of projects in which I would go out into the woods for long periods of time. I was working on a nesting project. I checked on nests of fledglings every three days. Every time I headed out into the woods with anxiety, like after a fight with my girlfriend, the beings would set off alarms. I was entering the space with energetics that indicated alarm. A stranger was entering the space!

“What is this being that is so unaware and doesn’t recognize my presence? There is an energetic presence that is off!” said the beings in the woods. I began to recognize those patterns. The deer recognized the robin call — and responded to it. There was a dance between the species in the woods. I needed to start listening to it.

I became able to go to the nest, and the mother bird would allow me to approach. I was able to walk with deer. I was still a two-legged, but I brought a different energy. Quieter, calmer, in tune. My internal conditions were always reflected back to me in the response of the beings in the woods.

Every time I think about Matt’s anecdote, I am humbled. How often do I tune in to the systems of listening and the energetics when I enter a space? How do I make it a practice to “get quiet” so my body — the physical, the mental, the emotional, the spiritual — is a listening instrument? What is the use of listening with my whole body, my whole being?

“Listening matters to the wellbeing of species, including humans, and our relationship with each other. It matters for the wellbeing of the entire system. Our imperative as living beings is not just genetic transmission and survival. We are in a co-evolutionary process. We have a responsibility to create conditions for life to thrive. It’s about being in relationship to others who are dissimilar from us. One can’t be in relationship if you can’t listen.”

Both Kim and Matt spoke to the issue of trying to solve problems from the same place. If we are only listening with the mental part of our body, what are we missing when we don’t listen to our physical, emotional, and spiritual bodies? When we are dealing with complexity, are we listening in complex and multi-dimensional ways? How do we “get quiet enough” to listen to wisdom from a universe of sources?

Susan Langston is a psychotherapist in Minneapolis. I have known Susan for almost 30 years. She is one of the best listeners I know. While she is an eminently skilled therapist, her psychotherapeutic listening was not the only inspiration for my wanting to interview her. Susan is also a shamanic practitioner. She listens deeply in both the physical and spirit realms.

“For me, listening is not just with my ears. I listen with my whole being. Part of that has come from my spiritual practices, including shamanic practices. I listen on all different sorts of levels. In my role as a therapist, someone is sitting across from me. I’m listening with my whole being. What isn’t being said. Patterns and themes. Wounds. Connections. I’m listening for all of it. I don’t think about it when it’s happening. I just try to be present and open up all the channels.

In shamanic work, someone will come and talk for a while and identify what they hope for. I go into my trance state and listen to the spirits. It’s not situated in physical reality. It’s in the spiritual realm. I’ve learned to trust the spirits and the process. It’s a very active process, different from mindful meditation or “mind emptying” meditation. What happens is that one’s spirit being is brought into spirit worlds and shown different things. You connect with your spirits to call on them to help you solve something. I go specifically to spirit helpers and ask. My job is TO LISTEN.”

Although many of us will never be shamanic practitioners nor will we seek out the help of a shamanic practitioner, my point in describing Susan’s practice and process is to bring awareness to listening and tuning in differently. What are the ways in which we might get into a trance-like state so that we can listen differently? Through prayer? Through dancing? Through chanting? Through drumming? What do we find when we get there? How do we engage our whole being in the listening?

Ultimately, the point of the listening, according to Susan, is to help people feel heard, seen, and understood. Opening our hearts, as well as our channels for listening, gives us more access points to connect with people and be fully present in a way that feels meaningful for them. The listening is medicine. Susan explains:

“In therapy or shamanic practice, it’s important that the person feels seen and heard and that I get something about them. Almost nothing is more important than that. Loneliness is an epidemic in our culture. People don’t feel connected. Some people I see have only one or two friends. How do they feel like they matter?

In social work school, what was most helpful was listening to other people’s experiences in life, like African American women who had to teach their sons how to avoid being killed by police. It was helpful because I let it in. I let it in so that it touched my heart and opened me up. Listening with your heart and opening your heart is what we are talking about here. This is why listening is important. When people feel seen, heard, and understood, they can heal. It might be the first time they’ve experienced that.”

Recently, I read an article in the New York Times about how to be a good listener. The article was helpful and included dos and don’ts for listening well. Still, the listening was framed primarily as a one-to-one interaction in which our ears are the primary instrument for listening, words and sentences are the currency of the listening, and nodding, eye contact, and leaning in are the ways in which we “embody” listening. None of this is wrong. In fact, for the brand of active listening first described by Carl Rogers and Richard Farson in 1957, all of these elements of listening are spot on.

It’s also just one way of listening. The purpose of my listening project has always been to develop an expanded vocabulary to describe listening, identify a multitude of ways of listening, and feature listeners of all kinds who are doing awesome and meaningful listening in the world. Jane, Kim, Matt, and Susan all offered something to me that helped me to understand listening as an intention that goes well beyond the auditory or the visual. It even goes beyond multi-sensory listening. The listening they describe involves “paying exquisite attention”, “getting quiet”, and going to “inexplicable places.”

I’m definitely not the expert here, only the reporter and the messenger. I feel challenged and even mystified. I’m trying to catch up. I struggle to know what to do next to listen with my whole body, my whole being. I am also feeling enlightened. While writing this, I have taken breaks to listen to my body. When I concentrate on my feet, my abdomen, the top of my head — really concentrate — I experience my body differently. I pay attention differently. Exquisitely? The next time I’m walking in the woods, what will I notice there? How will I enter that space? Is there a spirit voice to which I will respond? What is it like? How do I listen to it? I want to find out. I imagine the wonder and wisdom that reside in those inexplicable places, where I’ve never been before.

Conscientia. By Anthony Weeks. Copyright 2018.