listening

“Taoist Monk Meditating” by Ren Adams

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In order to cultivate the sense of inner quiet, serenity, and relaxation that I wrote about in my first two posts, Taoists regularly spend time in meditation or in the moving meditation called Tai Chi Chuan. Does this sort of meditation cause a disconnection from the world, and from other people?  The old joke about people who meditate is that they are “contemplating their own navels,” becoming self absorbed, unaware of what is around them, and disconnecting.  In fact, many Taoist monks and hermits have isolated themselves from mainstream society by living in the mountains, and spending prolonged periods in meditation in a setting where they can immerse themselves in the rhythms of nature, i.e. the Tao, and can find inner quiet and serenity, away from the dog-eat-dog “world of red dust.”

“As for me, I delight in the everyday way.

Among mist-wrapped vines and rocky caves,

here in the wilderness I am completely free,

with my friends, the white clouds, idling forever.

There are roads, but they do not reach the world.

Since I am mindless, who can rouse my thoughts?

On a bed of stone I sit, alone in the night,

while the round moon climbs up Cold Mountain.”

–From Watson, translator, Cold Mountain:  100 Poems by the T’ang Poet Han-shan, New York, Columbia University Press, 1970

Despite the purity and beauty of being completely immersed in nature, most of us—myself included–don’t want to give up the world, and the people we care about.  Does embracing Taoist values and seeking inner quiet and serenity, even while remaining in society, necessarily lead to isolation and disconnection from others, or, as my wife, GEM, would put it, being “sucked up” in your own head?  On the contrary, I’m starting to realize that living according to Taoist principles and practicing Tai Chi Chuan should, in fact, lead to a much greater awareness and connection both with your internal thoughts and feelings, but also with other people and things going on around yourself.

One of the major skills that is developed by studying and practicing Tai Chi Chuan is that of being fully aware of what is happening in the present moment and “listening” to your opponent.  Those skilled in Tai Chi develop an exquisite sensitivity to the movements, even the intentions, of their opponent, to the extent that the Tai Chi expert can sense what their opponent intends to do almost instantaneously.  This skill is called “listening jin” and “understanding jin”  (see Yang, Jwing-Ming Tai Chi Theory and Martial Power:  Advanced Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan, 1996, pp. 108-109).

By developing this heightened sensitivity and awareness to what is happening around yourself, you can react rapidly and skillfully to what is actually happening in the moment.

Through T’ai Chi traning, “The body becomes so light and agile that, according to the classic T’ai Chi Ch’uan Ching, awareness will be so heightened that the additional weight of a feather will be felt as a brick placed on the chest.  ‘The body will be so supple and sensitive that a fly will not be able to land on it without causing an instant reaction.’”

–David Chow and Richard Spangler, Kung Fu:  History, Philosophy, and Technique, 1982, p. 27

By listening, following, attaching, and adhering to your opponent, you can gain control of the situation.

Perhaps it is only by letting go of our continual sense of rush and time pressure, by quieting our inner turmoil, our preoccupations, ruminations, and anxieties, our snap judgements and defensiveness, all the things that go through our heads in a rapid, steady stream.. perhaps it is only by achieving some degree of inner stillness and quiet, that we can become aware of what is really around us in this moment, to really hear another person, and thus really connect with another person.  I’m increasingly aware of my own inadequacies as a listener….as someone is saying something, even just starting to say something, I am already imagining what they might say, feel anxious about it or about something else I need to be doing, judge what they are saying…instead of just being with what they actually are saying, relaxing myself and opening myself to what they are saying.  But I’m working on being better at the latter…

Among the many other seeming paradoxes that Taoism and Tai Chi teach us is the idea that listening is more powerful than talking.  This concept is at first difficult to get one’s head around, coming from a 20th or 21st century American culture.  Our culture values assertiveness, and we–especially American males–are trained from an early age to talk a lot, to assert our point of view and opinions.  Talking, debating, asserting, putting in your two cents, fighting for your point of view…this is what is valued in our culture.  How can something that many Americans would see as so passive—listening– be so powerful?  This again gets at that Taoist concept of wu wei—“doing not doing”—that is not really passivity, but has a paradoxical power and effectiveness.

Maybe one way to understand this issue of the power of listening is to think back to your own experiences of being talked at vs. being listened to.  When someone didn’t listen to you, but just talked at you and imposed their thoughts and opinions on you, do you recall having rapidly lost interest in what they were saying, and just shutting down, maybe even walking away while they continued to blab on?  This is likely to be a common experience in your life. On the other hand, how many times have you had the experience of someone really listening to you?  I’m not talking about someone seeming to listen to you for a few seconds, or maybe a minute, and only partially understanding what you are trying to say, before having to interrupt you with what is on their mind, or before getting distracted by someone else, by an email, a phone call, or text message…I’m talking about someone listening to you for 5 minutes, 10 minutes, even 30 minutes, while letting you do most of the talking and focusing on you and what you are saying in an open, non-judgmental, receptive way, and really trying to understand your experience, and your point of view.  By my estimation, this type of experience is precious and extremely rare, sadly.  Maybe it is so rare because so few people can achieve the inner quiet necessary to listen in that way.  If you have had this experience of someone really, listening to you, in an undistracted, non-judgemental, un-cluttered way, and really understanding what you are saying and understanding your point of view, you probably recall how incredibly powerful that experience was.  You probably recall that, once that person has listened to you in that way, has seen you for who you are, even for only a few minutes, that you, in turn, value their reactions tremendously, and listen to what they have to say, and take their responses and reactions much more seriously than you would the reactions of most people.

©2009-2011 Aspiring Taoist.  All Rights Reserved

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5 Responses to “listening”

  1. Good Enough Mama Says:

    I love this post.

  2. plasticpumpkin Says:

    Fascinating article.

    I have actually found that in the midst of practicing deep Qi Gong meditation, an astounding sense of oneness with everyone. It’s a paradox. “Contemplating your own navel” somehow leading into an awareness of all beings.

    During one temple visit in particular, there were 20 people meditating, each alone, yet sitting silently in the same close-quarters room together. I simultaneously forgot all of them, lost in myself, then suddenly became extremely aware of the power and magnitude of 20 individuals meditating simultaneously, silently, and in unity.

  3. Aspiring Taoist Says:

    For more on this idea of listening, see the following interview of Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, especially the second half of the interview, starting at about the 10th minute…

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