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Being receptive through listening

Being receptive through listening

One of the benefits of a regular meditation practice is the way it grounds us into the present moment, without dismissing it, without embellishing it. Blending in this way with the instantaneous reality of our existence can be tremendously healing, as we tend to be pulled into the frantic planning of the future, or the ceaseless reevaluation of the past.

I was writing recently about two fundamental qualities in taichi push hands (taijiquan tuishou): support and rest-in. What this system teaches us is that, if we truly want to be with the flowing dynamics of the present moment, we must be in harmony with these 2 qualities. That means that we are either supporting the partner or resting-in on the partner. A defect in this method will invariably result in a disconnection and an inadequacy of our response. The great thing about push hands is that there is no place to hide. What you see is what you get and defects tend to be obvious, as long as we understand their nature.

In meditation it is not so easy to realize when we introduce defects. In principle, the exercise is very simple, if we consider a classical Zen approach: just sit and be. To prevent having our minds caught in thoughts or disconnected and drowsy, we observe the breath, the mind and the body attentively, without judgements, without wanting to change anything. That's all, really. However, it is not so easy to follow these simple instructions and we inevitable introduce defects during the practice. Sometimes, we only realize we have been “away” after several minutes of distraction or drowsiness. We just need to go back to the exercise as soon as we realize the defect, with diligence and a good disposition.

In the mind, just as in push hands, there are two fundamental and complimentary states: “talking” and “listening”. When we are forming, organizing or evaluating and idea, then we are “talking”; when we are receptive to what's going on, then we are “listening”.

Let's consider the obvious example of a conversation. In a fluid conversation, there is talking and there is listening. When we talk, we articulate ideas without hesitation or hastiness. When we listen, we comprehend instantaneously what the other person is saying without jumping ahead to what will be said, nor lingering over what was just said. We all have had the experience of such conversations. Our ideas flow effortlessly and once said, we are liberated from them. In turn, we fully receive the words of the other person, which then give way to something new. In the end, we feel refreshed and comforted, understood and appreciated.

However, just as in the meditation or the push hands situation, we may be prey to defects in the conversation: we stumble over words, trying to let it all out at once, or we interrupt the other person before giving a chance to let the phrases be fully formed, we escape from there (“what did you just say?”), we ruminate over parts of the dialogue (“what does he mean by that?”), or we project into the future (“here he's coming with that again”). We've all had these conversations as well and we know how tired and misunderstood they make us feel.

Often, such a dialogue goes on in our heads as well. We take an idea and we form it, discuss it, modify it, dismiss it, reconsider it, sometimes obsessively, or we jump from one to the next in a frantic spiral of chaotic mental activity.

If we learn to listen earnestly, in the present moment, without anticipating and without judging, the first thing that we find is a tremendous space we didn't even know was there. In this space we are free and from it, all ideas are born. This is the receptivity principle.

The tradition that knows more about this space is philosophical daoism. There are many quotes in the Daodejing, the main daoist classic, that describe it, such as [1]:

“The Dao is empty, but its efficiency never extinguishes”

Chapter IV

“The space between Heaven and Earth, how much it resembles a bellows! Empty and it never extinguishes; the more it moves, the more comes out of it.”

Chapter V

“Thirty spokes converge into the center of a wheel and, owing to its emptiness, the chariot fulfills its purpose.”

Chapter XI

“Attaining emptiness is the supreme principle, conserving quietness is the primary rule.”

Chapter XVI

“Practicing the Dao is to diminish day by day; diminishing and diminishing until arriving at non-acting, there is no acting, but there is nothing that is left undone.”

Chapter XLVIII

Here the emptiness, as receptive principle, is being described. The key concept here is maybe that of “it never extinguishes”. As long as we can keep the emptiness, the “listening” quality, there is potentiality to engender. This is of tremendous relevance to all kinds of creative endeavors. A full mind cannot create. Inspiration finds no place in it. Inevitably, when creativity appears, we have the impression that it “simply appears”, to the extent that we feel as the “muse” has magically saved us. This is a very satisfactory experience, which simultaneously fills us with humility and gratitude. Just by abandoning ourselves we can find what we need. Like magic. Just by listening.

In the Zen Buddhist tradition such a state is called “beginner's mind” and it is compared to the empty mug, which can receive the instructions of the master, as opposed to the full mug, in which nothing else can fit.

When you have difficulty in finding this space of quietness and creativity, sit down and meditate. You will find that once you stop feeding and entertaining your thoughts, these cannot continue for a long time and they end up losing intensity and eventually disappearing.

To conclude, observe your mind during the day. How much time are you “listening”? How much are you “talking” to yourself? How much time are you simply nowhere? The receptivity is always there, at hand, ready to fill us with peace and to show us what actions we need to undertake.

1. Translation from Chinese into Spanish by Iñaki Preciado Idoeta, then into English by the author.