Our internal dialogueWhen we start mindfully tuning in to environmental sounds we get to see how pervasive the default mode of listening is. We can start observing ourselves going between listening to the actual sounds and ‘listening’ to our internal monologue. We can notice the tendency of the mind to label and judge what we hear, and to seek out and fixate on certain sounds. And as with any mindfulness practice, this awareness provides us with an opportunity to redirect our attention from our default-mode mental projections and reconnect with what is actually happening in each moment. We can start to learn about the ways our habits of unmindfulness impair our ability to listen and communicate. Once we have had some practice listening mindfully, we can start bringing this to our communication. We can begin noticing the ways that we get caught up in ‘listening’ to the thoughts and judgments about what is being said or the person saying it, rather than paying attention to the actual words and non-verbal communication.
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Breathe and beWe can also tune in to the sensations of the body, and come back to these over and over whenever we find ourselves momentarily caught up in reacting or fixating on a particular part of the communication experience. From here, it is about applying effort to refocus our attention on the conversation. This will require us at times to consciously release tension from our body and our mind, to take a moment to just breathe and be, without trying to achieve anything in particular. It is this stepping out of autopilot and dropping into awareness that makes real listening possible: it is actually far easier to relax into listening than it is to force our attention to fixate there. If communicating mindfully, we can seek to hear more than just the words being said. We can tune in to the tone of the other person’s voice, their posture and other non-verbal components of the conversation.
Non-verbal cuesWords convey the content, while emotion is more directly expressed through prosody (rhythm, structure and intonation of speech), pauses, intensity, rate and vocal tone, as well as posture, facial expressions and even intuition.
Make a startStart with focused listening — to meaning and emotion — and when this becomes comfortable, widen your attention to take in the whole conversation, including the overall direction and flow. Tune in to the overall pattern and as you do so, notice how this allows you to better understand whomever you’re interacting with. At first it might seem strange because it is not our habitual way but it gets easier and more natural every time we practise it. Of course, notice any reactions you have to what is being said, but simply note these in the same way that you have been noting reactions to bodily sensations, sounds and thoughts in the meditation practices. It may take some practice to accept and let go of these reactions, but if you have been practising even a little bit, you will know by now that it is possible. Also start listening out for what is not being said. Just as we can listen to environmental sounds and the silent space between them, it is possible to start tuning in to what is being communicated both via words and silence. You have no doubt experienced moments with people where both of you sat in silence and yet communicated deeply, perhaps with your gaze or even just with your presence.
Bring awarenessWhen we practise in this way, listening to others fully becomes a meditation practice itself. By bringing this awareness to listening, you can literally ‘listen’ the other person into awareness. This provided a space for a person to be truly heard, where they can authentically express themselves.
Maintaining a Mindful Life
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