The art of listening

Unlike what some may consider a quality of effective writing, the purpose of this post is not to grab your attention.

Often what our attention is offered exists on a spectrum from boring to grabbing, and the more it veers to the latter, the better it is considered. This applies to the gripping film, the grabbing social media post, the ‘unputdownable’ book, and to much else.

What is implicit here is a sense of self that is divided. It wants to be free, but the film grips it. It wants to scroll down, but the Facebook post grabs it. It wants to put down that book and sleep for the night, but it’s arm doesn’t work. This is seen as normative.

Let us shift from the implicit imagination of the self as divided, and of its attention as being like a mosquito, perpetually moving from one place to another, taking something for itself, and in need of being grabbed, if not eliminated.

We can, alternatively, imagine attention more as a tree that is simply present to all there is around it, including the mosquitoes around, and the self as the earth from which the tree grows – vast, deep, layered, part of an infinite cosmos.

Therefore, perhaps, as you read, you could be aware of the non-attention grabbing aspects of what you read. And you could be aware of all that is in your vast self, pleasant or unpleasant.


In Hindustani classical music, the relationship between the musician – let’s say the sarod player – and the piece of music to be played – the raaga – is that the musician is simply present, in all her joy and sorrow, to the raaga as it exists in her consciousness. Without trying to suppress her emotions, or grasp at them, she allows this sense of the raaga to manifest in the way her fingers move on the strings of her instrument, so that the raaga is audible outwardly.

In doing so, two things may happen.

One, the musician’s own emotions start to flow, rather than be frozen. They may reach stronger intensities, or lesser ones, and deeper emotions, so far hidden beneath, may emerge. Anger may give way to sorrow, sorrow may give way to longing, longing to quietness.

Two, the particular effect of the raaga itself may make the musician feel new emotions. While she may have been feeling a heavy sorrow when she started, the raaga may introduce a tenderness into the inner atmosphere.

Eventually, every raaga, in lesser or greater degree, carries a sense of peace, or as some classical musicians would say, shanta rasa – the ’emotion’ for the lack of a better word, of peace – which is the last of the emotions, and the goal of all other emotions that play out in a work of art.

In essence, as in every art form, the musician’s work here is to listen deeply to the subliminal form of the piece of art in her own consciousness and translate it to an outward reality, in this case the sounds on the strings of her instrument.

In therapy, the therapist does the same. In place of the raaga, here, it is the consciousness of the person in front of him that he listens to, and in place of playing strings, he is translating what he is listening to into the words, facial expressions and gestures he uses to express what he hears.

To the extent that this happens, both therapist and client experience what the classical musician is meant to experience. There is a flow of emotions, certain emotions become amplified, others emerge from beneath the emotions that were initially prominent, and by the time listening has been practised in a sustained enough way, there is a sense of peace.

How long it takes to reach this peace – in every session and over the longer duration of the musical and therapeutic journeys – depends on how out of tune the persons on the journeys have been to the ground of consciousness, from which both sound and emotions emerge.

Being out of tune with the ground of one’s consciousness is to be a self at war with itself, and the life of war is a life of anxiety alternating with attempts at the control of anxiety – also known in clinical language as symptoms, particularly when they reach particularly intense and socially unconventional forms.

There may be many conventional forms of control which never get recognised as symptoms by the medicalised word of psychotherapy, just as shared illusions don’t, until the times change.


There are other forms of music, such as those that distract you enough to not have to feel the agitation and suffocation of driving on a crowded road in a city.

And there are other forms of therapy – that attach you in a sustained enough way to emotions and behaviours that take you away from your original anguish.

These forms of music are different from classical music, just as therapies using affirmations, rewards, punishments, rational talk, encouragement, deliberated re-channeling of energies are different from depth psychotherapy.


Having said this, let us practice some listening now.

Bring your attention to the room you are in. What is the light like there, in its colour, texture, temperature. Your eyes absorb the light and help you know the answer. Your skin senses the temperature of the air in this space. Within your body, the breath makes your chest rise and fall.

In addition to these sensations, there are emotions. You may feel a sense of calm. Or you may be feeling bored, restless. You may feel sorrow, or a quiet joy.

You may feel anxious and note an impulse to control that anxiety by thinking about something else, or by forming an intellectual opinion about what you are reading, rather than staying with the emotionally felt reality of it.

If you are simply listening, you will note this impulse but not get blown away by it.

In addressing these queries and responding to these statements above, you are bringing your attention to both what is outside the self and within it.

The more this attention is simple, unhurried, uninterested in grabbing a particular aspect of the field of your consciousness, the more it is effecting a listening process.

As this is practised over a few minutes, emotions and sensations will get into a flow, you will become more intimately aware of them, their intensities will rise and fall, new emotions and sensations will emerge.

When you have stayed here for, perhaps 15 or 20 minutes, you will be in touch with a deeper sense of peace, having listened to yourself intimately.

Listening is the verb for that, for which, the noun is intimate presence.


Listening, therefore, is very simple.

Simple, however, may not mean easy if we are habituated to complexities. If we are habituated to using our attention in a way that suppresses certain emotions and grabs others, and does the same with physical sensations, then this complexity will make the simplest thing in the world – listening – feel like the most arduous task.

If we find ourselves in such a position – and many of us, perhaps the majority, are born into a world where the dominant culture in family, society, media is such – we may need another person to listen to us, week after week, month after month, until we can undo some of our complicated habits of attention and be able to simply listen.

On this journey, we may also pick up our own practices of listening, depending on our skills and interests – such as playing music, painting, writing, going for a walk, yoga, sitting with our baby in our lap, stroking our cat, caressing our lover’s body and dozens of other things that, when practised as listening, invite us to be an alive, awake human being, as we were all meant to be.


If you have read this post so far and therefore, listened to its message, thank you for that, and I hope it has been valuable to you in some way.

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