Written by Elizabeth Morton firstname.lastname@example.org
“To listen is to lean in, softly, with a willingness to be changed by what we hear.” – Mark Nepo
I spent a great deal of time during my formative years, ages 14 to 22, in classrooms studying the craft of acting. I was a very serious “theatre major” at a performing arts high school and then at a college with a rigorous training program. I’ve come to realize that, in those classrooms, I was also studying the Art of Listening, something that would serve me in all aspects of life, not just in my work as a professional actor.
In scene study classes, I learned about subtext and intention (what was happening underneath a line of dialogue). Teachers said things like, “let his line land on you” and “acting is reacting” and “trust your impulse” and “make yourself available.” I was told to “notice the tiniest gestures” of my scene partner. I was asked, after the 10th run-thru of scripted dialogue, if I could “hear it in another way.” I was given instruction to “earn the pause” and “find the timing.” I was encouraged to “feel the audience.”
All of that helped me to become aware of the various ways in which I listen. Perhaps the greatest gift of that time, though, is that I learned (quite viscerally) what it means to “be in the moment.”
As an actor, when I’m “in the moment,” my mind quiets and something other than myself seems to take over. It can happen when I’m writing, too. Or when I’m giving a eulogy at a memorial service. Or when I’m sitting with someone as his/her/their Spiritual Director.
How to describe what it feels like to “be in the moment?” For me, I’d say it’s a deep concentration within a forcefield of grace. An act of surrender is required on my part, so that I am free and available to listen to “the moment” and all that it encompasses. Simply put, it’s being wholly present.
Let’s be honest, it can be easier said than done. But this “in the moment” deep listening need not occur in any official or formal capacity. It can happen in a casual conversation among friends. It can happen in prayer or on a walk around the neighborhood. That’s why I prefer to think of listening as an art form, something that is continuously being explored & developed & defined.
Art, in any form, has the potential to change us. According to Mark Nepo, the Art of Listening requires a willingness to be changed. That willingness, to me, is an opening in my mind and heart for something new to come in. That willingness is choosing curiosity over judgment, compassion over indifference.
Don’t you find that the best listeners you know are ones who are genuinely curious? Who are available for the unique perspective that you are offering? Who have no agenda? Who seek to understand rather than make assumptions about your experience? Who aren’t quick to interrupt? Who are mysteriously able to ‘hold the space’ for you to speak freely? Who aren’t uncomfortable sharing silence with you?
When I’m in the presence of an exceptional listener, when sharing something from the heart with this person, I’m somehow able to listen to myself in a way that can be profound and surprising. I’ve actually had some juicy epiphanies while being deeply listened to. It’s as though that exceptional listener is giving me permission to unearth a truth that’s lingering below the surface. That listener’s willingness to be changed, in turn, changes me.
A good listener gives the gift of his/her/their undivided attention. In this busy, noisy world of ours, the gift of undivided attention becomes all the more meaningful. Because giving someone undivided attention isn’t as simple as shutting up and turning off a cell phone. The good listener quiets his/her/their busy, noisy inner world, too.
That inner world is a great place for us listening artists to go to practice, to rehearse, our precious art form. After all, how can I truly listen to another if I’m unable to listen to myself? How can I learn to quiet my mind if I don’t first identify my mind’s chatter? How can I understand someone else’s truth if I’ve never attempted to understand my own? The trifecta of silence & stillness & solitude makes for a mighty dynamic classroom.
Listening to that ‘still small voice within,’ that voice (from the soul? from Spirit?) of guidance & truth, is no small thing. Because it requires that willingness to be changed. For isn’t it the ‘still small voice within’ that says, “I’m in love,” “I’m gay,” “my church is no longer nourishing me,” “I am too hard on myself,” “I don’t feel safe here,” “it’s time to divorce him,” “it’s time to start that new career,” “my anger is destructive,” “my drinking is a problem.” Each of those examples, when really heard, demand change in the listener.
We can also practice the Art of Listening by paying attention to the world around us. The act of noticing brings us deeper into the present moment. Stand still in a busy, noisy place… take it in… what all do you notice? In this moment, as you are reading this, what do you hear, see, feel, taste, smell? What sensations are you aware of in your emotional and energetic bodies?
Cultivating greater and greater awareness (both inner and outer, both spiritual and worldly) is the devotion of the listening artist. It’s what builds our stamina to be wholly present. It’s what broadens our capacity for compassion. It’s what helps us consciously participate. Let’s face it, deeply listening to the world right now, during such a polarizing time, when distractions are aplenty, is a radical act.
Mother Earth herself is shouting her rage at us with climate-caused catastrophes. The poor are suffering in a myriad of ways while the billionaire class rules over everything. Protesters are demanding that we dismantle our inherently racist systems. Young people are visioning a future that is kinder, more egalitarian, that structures life around human interconnectedness. (Oh, that we all will listen to them!)
Honestly, what I find most difficult to listen to right now are the voices of those I consider to be bigots, authoritarian followers, haters who spew ignorance from their mouths. In my more compassionate moments, I try to listen for what’s underneath their words and actions. I try my best to be genuinely
curious. Is that angry person deeply afraid of something? Is he lost in a world he doesn’t understand? Has he been repeatedly lied to? Is he terrified of the God of his understanding? Does he feel powerless? Was he profoundly wounded as a child? Has he ever been offered a different perspective?
Being curious about a racist (or homophobic or violent) person’s POV doesn’t mean I wish to support their actions or that I could ever agree with their sentiments. I am simply seeking to understand a fellow human being with as much compassion as I can muster.
(Another gem from acting classes all those years ago… teacher after teacher saying “don’t ever judge your character.” Why? Because it would get in the way of understanding her.)
In a world that is in the throes of change, that is held by a Mysterious Silence underneath all the noise, that is home to billions of humans who long to be understood… what a magnificent time it is to practice the Art of Listening. The question is… are you willing?
If you made it to the end of this stream-of-consciousness essay, if you read this with a curious mind and an open heart, I’d bet that you are indeed willing. I’d bet that you are a masterful artist. So…
Thanks for listening.
Elizabeth Morton is an actor, writer, and spiritual director who lives in Los Angeles. She’s a recipient of 2020 Connection Grant from Beads On One String.