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Listening as Love

May 23, 2017

‘listen’ by gwenchiu via

“I don’t know how the quote goes, but I once heard someone say that ‘listening is so close to love that most people don’t know the difference,'” my classmate paraphrased and my professor affirmed.

This struck me. We were learning to be chaplains, so we were learning to listen. I could see listening as an act of generosity, goodwill, complete concentration on the other person, as an act of meditation, and as egolessness. But what does it say about us and our society that we listen to each other so little that it can be conflated with love? I felt sad.

I’ve since found the origin of the quote in a Christian author named David Augsburger, who said “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.”

I was trained to listen as a chaplain starting seven years ago, but I didn’t quite understand it then. (I’m not entirely sure I do now.) Like most people, I grew up thinking of listening as a utility skill, a means to an end. You listen and then speak or act. As a child, you listen to the directions of grownups to stay out of trouble. As an adult, you listen to someone’s arguments so you can refute them. All listening has a purpose beyond the mere act of listening.

I carried that belief with me into chaplaincy. One of the first things they beat out of you in chaplaincy training is the notion that you, the chaplain, can ‘fix’ anyone’s problems. Chaplains often deal with cosmic scale existential crises. You’re not going to ‘fix’ death, dying, illness, injury, trauma, or grief. I knew I wasn’t listening so I could learn how to fix things, but what did that leave?

Was I listening so I could learn? To see clearly the patterns of human suffering? Was I the ultimate participant observer in life’s sufferings? Some chaplains call this ‘witnessing’ and describe it as a sacred duty. I can understand, but it seemed like there was more to it than that.

Moreover, how was I to listen with no purpose to focus my attention? Nothing to listen for, just … to listen? My wayward meditation practice rescued me. I made people the objects of my meditation and I gave them more attention than I’d ever managed to give my own breath. People are ever so much more interesting.

Still, my assumptions about listening pushed at me, so I listened to them, too. I listened silently to my need to ‘fix’ things, to my own intolerance and judgments. I listened to my sadness and grief, my projections and cynicism, and my impatience. I listened to my attachment, aversion, and delusions while people spilled out their own and we got down in the muck together.

And there were those who listened to me. My chaplaincy supervisor listened to me gripe and complain. She listened to my uncertainty and fear, even to my intolerance and judgments. My cohort listened to my attempts to provide care, my failures and successes and frequent complete bewilderment.

Slowly, it became clear to me that listening isn’t close to love. Real listening is an act of love itself. To be heard or seen by another for who one is, rather than who that person wishes one to be, that is an act of selfless love. And it is so, so very rare that any of us can be that selfless.

When people find themselves in the presence of that kind of love, heard, seen, and accepted for who they are with every flaw, every vulnerable wound, something profound takes place. I can’t explain it. It’s the kind of thing we need poets for. But it is a healing. It can overturn worlds, even if only for a moment, that kind of acceptance.

They say Avalokiteshvara has a thousand eyes and a thousand ears to see and hear the suffering of the world. It is natural to assume this is so that she can then act on that suffering with her thousand hands and thousand feet, to feed the hungry and nurse the sick, worthy selfless deeds. I now believe her first selfless deed begins with seeing and hearing the cries of the world, knowing there are some things that not even a celestial bodhisattva can fix.

Willa Miller, a professor of spiritual care at Harvard, shares the teaching of Patrul Rinpoche on the subject of listening through admonishments on how not to listen.First, do not listen like an upside-down pot into which nothing new can be placed. We often turn our pots upside down to protect ourselves from suffering, our own and others. When we turn our pots upright, we can listen attentively without being distracted by judgments, feelings obsessions, other sounds, or physical sensations. We learn to value the speaker’s words, cultivate curiosity, and let go of our own need to be heard. This is very hard, but right listening is the first stage of Right Speech. Ultimately, letting go of our need to be heard is also liberating and reduces our own suffering.

Second, do not listen like a pot with holes that only catches some things, but not others. Likewise, we often do this to protect ourselves. We hear what we like and forget the rest. Instead, we can listen to remember, understand, imagine what that situation must have been like, and empathize with the speaker. Miller describes this as “an energy of receptivity paired with willingness to feel with” the other and “come alongside” them. When we walk beside someone, we also learn to recognize what it is like when someone walks beside us.

Finally, do not listen like a pot containing poison that contaminates anything put into it. This is the most pernicious form of listening and we do it almost every second of every day. We hear someone’s words and judge their intentions, intelligence, education, or character, imbuing them with meaning beyond what is spoken. We can demonize or lionize the other on a simple turn of phrase depending on whether it disagrees or agrees with our own preconceived opinions.

Miller asserts that good listening comes from having the right motivation to listen, which, according to Patrul Rinpoche means not wanting to “glorify oneself and vilify others.” Instead, we can purify our own poisons and become a selfless and non-dual listener, totally absorbed in listening beyond self-consciousness of subject and object. This does not mean we forget ourselves, but that we do so with equanimity. We listen to both the other person and to how we are receiving their words to monitor for our own poisons. This is the egolessness of listening and it is immensely freeing for both us and them.

Sometimes I forget these instructions. Sometimes, I don’t want to listen. I don’t think I can bear to listen right now. I doubt that listening actually does any good at all. I wonder if it just lets people reinforce their own wrong beliefs.

Then I put all that away and I make them the object of my meditation. I listen. And the less ego I bring to the listening, the more healing and liberation we both experience. Listening from a selfless place costs nothing. It does not deplete; it only replenishes. I listen and I accept what I hear without struggle.

This doesn’t mean I forgo wisdom or discernment. I’m listening to what is, what has been. The future is still unwritten. When I listen well, I can reflect well what I’ve heard and the other person can then hear and see their situation more clearly.

In being heard and not being rejected, a profound sense of space can unfold. Patterns of harmful habitual behaviors loosen a bit when the listener makes space for what is, without trying to push it this way or that, without trying to ‘fix’ it. Suddenly the speaker finds they’re not being pushed into their standard coping mechanisms. There’s nothing to defend against or react to. More becomes possible. Wisdom helps us see potential paths and listen for what becomes possible, even if it was not possible a moment ago.

Wisdom and listening share a common trait – egolessness. Without myself to worry about or protect, love manifests as a true desire to reduce suffering, any suffering, in the most healing way possible.

Listening isn’t close to love. When done selflessly, it is love. We don’t know the difference because there isn’t one. Dualism collapses into interbeing. And isn’t that the point?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jon permalink
    November 12, 2017 5:34 am


    Thank you. As so many times in the past, the teacher arises when the student is ready to hear. I’ve been struggling with learning how to listen better recently. I’ve noted the suffering I cause myself and others when I, “listen for” rather than “just listen.”

    For some reason I haven’t yet fathomed, I feel some deep seated need to speak. To offer my unsolicited advice. I’ve been trying to “just sit” and listen but find my mind wandering away in delusions and daydreams. I tried to say less with some success but, as Master Yoda (almost) said, the desire to speak is very strong within this one!

    Making my partner in conversation the object of my meditation had not occurred to me – I was too busy beating myself up for letting my mind wander off. Grrr!

    Anyway, just wanted to say thank you for pointing out the obvious! :-) Like so much of Dharma, it’s right there in front of you, you just gotta notice! A good teacher can point out the obvious in a kind and gentle way. You, good teacher, just did that for me. Many thanks!

    Warm regards,


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