I WAS DRAWN TO write this book about listening without knowing that my hearing was breaking down. This holds a great lesson about a deeper kind of listening. For something deep was calling, drawing me to explore different ways of being. Life was offering me a chance to re-align myself with the world. When I say something deep was calling, I’m referring to that element that lives in our center, which overlaps with the essence of life itself. Like an inner sun, this common center has a spiritual gravity that pulls us to it. This unending pull to center may be our greatest teacher. It shows us a way forward by warming our hearts open, despite our fears.
The question under all of this is: how do we listen to and stay in conversation with all that is beyond our awareness? Many aspects of living continually bring us into this conversation: curiosity, pain, wonder, loss, beauty, truth, confusion, and fresh experience—to name a few. The way we think and feel and sense our way into all we don’t know is the art of intuition. It is an art of discovery. To intuit means to look upon, to instruct from within, to understand or learn by instinct. And instinct refers to a learning we are born with. So intuition is the very personal way we listen to the Universe in order to discover and rediscover the learnings we are born with. As such, intuition is a deep form of listening that when trusted can return us to the common, irrepressible element at the center of all life and to the Oneness of things that surrounds us, both of which are at the heart of resilience.
I offer my own experience with hearing loss as an example of how we intuit ways of being before becoming fully aware of them. We are constantly drawn into our next phase of life, which is always beyond our current awareness. You might ask, how can we know what we don’t know? Yet we don’t know what we’re about to say when our feelings and thoughts prompt us to speak. In this way, our heart and mind prompt us daily. Quietly, there’s an art to reading and trusting the heart and mind. Together, they form an interior compass. Our mind maps out the directions, while our heart is the needle that intuits true north.
Though what is unknown is beyond us, what is familiar is in danger of being taken for granted. And we live in between, on the edge of what we know. This is the edge between today and tomorrow, between our foundation and our tenuous growth. How we relate to this edge is crucial, another life skill not addressed in school.
The Center Point of Listening
Like everyone who begins to lose their hearing, I lost the edges first. Voices on the phone sounded a bit underwater. When Susan would speak to me from our living room, I knew she said something but her sweet voice broke up like a bad radio. I quickly grew tired of asking her to repeat herself. Soon I realized that, as I was struggling to keep up outwardly, I was also being asked to spend more time inwardly. This untimely shutdown of outer noise was forcing me to listen to a newfound depth.
Likewise, every disturbance, whether resolved or not, is making space for an inner engagement. As a shovel digs up and displaces earth, in a way that must seem violent to the earth, an interior space is revealed for the digging. In just this way, when experience opens us, it often feels violent and the urge, quite naturally, is to refill that opening, to make it the way it was. But every experience excavates a depth, which reveals its wisdom once opened to air.
I struggled with not hearing and resisted getting tested for months. I’m not sure why. This is a good example of not listening. I think I wasn’t ready to accept this next phase of aging. Of course, whether I accepted it or not, the change of life had already taken place. This understandable dissonance of not listening affects us all. We add to our suffering when life changes and we still behave as if it hasn’t. Whether facing limitations of aging or shifts in relationship or the wilting of a dream, we are often given hints of the changes before they arrive. It’s how the angels of time try to care for us, drawing us to the new resources that wait out of view.
We are always given signs and new forms of strength. It’s up to us to learn how to use them. Mysteriously, those of us losing our sight are somehow compelled to a deeper seeing, as those of us losing our hearing are somehow compelled to a deeper listening, and those of us losing heart are somehow compelled to a deeper sense of feeling—if we can only keep the rest of us open. That’s the challenge as we meet life’s changes: not to let the injury or limitation of one thing injure or limit all things. Not to let the opening of a new depth be filled before it reveals its secrets and its gifts.
My hearing had been eroding for years like loose shale falling from a cliff, a little more with each passing season, though I didn’t realize it until enough had fallen away. It was the chemo I had over twenty years ago that damaged my ears. Designed to kill fast-growing cells, the chemo attacked the cilia that transmit frequencies in the inner ear. No one thought of this back in 1989, but those of us who have survived can no longer hear birdsong. So the cursed-blessed chemo that helped save my life has taken something else. How do I damn it and thank it at the same time?
It was a sweet day in summer when I finally sat in the tiny audio booth with a black headset while the kind audiologist whispered words like “booth,” “father,” and “river” in my ear. But my damaged cilia only caught the rougher consonants. A few times I didn’t even hear her speak.
In a month I went to pick up my open-ear hearing aid, made for my left ear, beige to blend with my skin. When she tucked it in my ear, as if putting a wet pebble there for safekeeping, it felt incredibly light. I wasn’t sure it was in. Back at her desk, she turned it on and asked, “How is that?” And hearing her voice sweetly and fully made me cry. I had no idea how much I wasn’t hearing.
Not listening is like this. We don’t realize what we give up until we’re asked by life to bring things back into accord. Then it’s disarming and renewing to cry before strangers who simply ask, “How is that?”
Now I go to a café near our house where the young ones know my name and make my hot chocolate ahead of time if they see me in the parking lot. What’s beautiful is that they know everyone’s name and everyone’s drink. This is the sweetest kind of listening. And you’d think, having lost a good deal of hearing, that noise wouldn’t bother me. But in fact it bothers me more. I find it overwhelms me. Even when I turn my hearing aid off. So I ask the kind young ones to turn the music down and they do this now, without my asking, as they make my hot chocolate. This too is instructive.
I realize that my balance point between inner and outer has shifted more toward the inner. That is, the center point from which I can listen in both directions has changed and my habits must catch up. This shift speaks to a positioning of our listening in the world that each of us needs to assess and reassess over time. As discouraging as it is that we can drift from this center point at any time, it’s uplifting that we can return to that center point as well—through the practice of stilling our minds and being patient enough to listen to what is there.
To honor what those around us need in order to hear is an ordinary majesty. The young ones in the café are my teachers in this. Not only do they do this for me, but it’s their ethic regarding everyone. It’s the relational environment they create—a place to gather where everyone can hear. Their simple caring has made me ask, do I honor what those around me need in order to hear? Do I help them find their center point of listening? I ask you the same.
To Instruct from Within
What does it mean to follow our intuition? What kind of listening are we asked to engage in order to sense what is calling and whether we should follow? Even now, as I try to speak of this, I am stalled if I try “to think of what to say next.” What is out of view only opens into something knowable if I wait and try “to listen to what is there.” If it takes a while, it’s because some aspects of truth are shy like owls who don’t like to be seen during the day. It seems that intuitive listening requires us to still our minds until the beauty of things older than our minds can find us.
Let me share a poem as a way to enter this more deeply:
What if, on the first sunny day,
on your way to work, a colorful bird
sweeps in front of you down a
street you’ve never heard of.
You might pause and smile,
a sweet beginning to your day.
Or you might step into that street
and realize there are many ways to work.
You might sense the bird knows something
you don’t and wander after.
You might hesitate when the bird
turns down an alley. For now
there is a tension: Is what the
bird knows worth being late?
You might go another block or two,
thinking you can have it both ways.
But soon you arrive at the edge
of all your plans.
The bird circles back for you
and you must decide which
appointment you were
born to keep.
At every turn in every day we are presented with angels in a thousand guises, each calling us to follow their song. There is no right or wrong way to go, and only your heart can find the appointments you are born to keep. It’s hard to take this risk, but meeting each uncertainty with an open heart will lead us to an authentic tomorrow. In the poem, however far you go to follow the bird is beautifully enough. If you simply pause and continue with your day, you will be given something. If you wander after its song a block or two, you will be given something else. If you discover that following this bird leads you to another life, you will be given something else indeed. Each point in the journey is an end in itself. One is not better than the other. Only your heart knows what to follow and where to stop.
Dag Hammarskjöld was the legendary secretary-general of the United Nations praised by President Kennedy as “the greatest statesman of our century.” In his book of diary reflections, Markings, he wrote:
I don’t know Who—or what—put the question. I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone—or Something—and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.
This gentle man had discovered the appointment he was born to keep. This brief and powerful reflection confirms that he had to listen to something he couldn’t see and trust the certainty of his inner knowing to find his way. It’s implied that some period of intuitive listening took place before he discovered the strength of saying yes.
No one can teach us how to intuitively listen or trust, but the quiet courage to say yes rather than no is close to each of us. It involves holding our opinions and identity lightly so we can be touched by the future. It means loosening our fist-like hold on how we see the world, so that other views can reach us, expand us, deepen us, and rearrange us. Saying yes is the bravest way to keep leaning into life.
Silencing the Tiger
Because the mind is a hungry tiger that can never be satisfied, that which is timeless swims in and out of our hands, bringing us forward into places we wouldn’t go. So listening to what we’re not yet aware of involves silencing the tiger and keeping our hands open so we can feel when something timeless moves through us. This can be difficult, for sitting quietly with our hands open in the middle of the day is suspect in our age. We can be misperceived as lazy or incompetent or not quite tethered to reality. But silencing the tiger in our mind and staying open is what keeps us connected to a deeper reality. By this, I mean the depth beneath all circumstance in which we experience a sense of meaning that doesn’t change, the way gravity doesn’t change though what it impacts changes constantly. Like inhaling and exhaling, the ways we silence our noise and open our heart are forms of deep listening that must be engaged if we are to survive.
What this means to each of us is different. For the furniture maker, it might be listening to the urge to carve curves in the legs of that very special table, though the design doesn’t call for it. Curves might be what will heal him, though he doesn’t yet know it. For my wife, who struggled with our move to the Midwest, it was listening, in the midst of her unhappiness, to a whisper that coaxed her to try the potter’s wheel. Once her hands were guiding wet clay around the spinning center, she discovered her creative gift.
For me, it was listening to a fundamental uneasiness at being misunderstood that led me to pull a book from publication. I’ve worked with countless editors through the years and the tiger in my mind was roaring, “What are you doing?! Make it work!!” But something timeless had moved through my hands and it left me with an uneasiness that some part of me had drifted from its truth. I couldn’t know that listening to that uneasiness and following it would awaken my next phase of authenticity, in which I would shed my lifelong need to explain myself. Finally, I could simply be myself.
In truth, my hearing loss has only pointed up the physics of listening we all face. For no matter if you are blunt in hearing like me or can hear a fox step on a fallen branch a hundred yards away, no matter our starting point or the acuity or diligence we bring, there is always something we can’t hear. This leaves us with a need to approach the beauty that is beyond us with hospitality, a need to accept that there is more to life than we can know. This acceptance is imperative in order to live in the wonder and appreciation that Abraham Heschel speaks of in the opening epigraph of this book:
[We] will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation . . . What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder . . . Reverence is one of [our] answers to the presence of mystery . . .
To limit existence to only what we know blinds us to the mystery of how we’re all connected. This shrinking of the world has been the cause of violence after violence through the ages, as tribe after tribe and nation after nation has sought to preserve their limited view over all else. This is how important listening is. It is the beginning of peace.
I believe the humble approach to a greater life of listening begins with the acceptance that we hear more together. Accepting this, we are awakened to a committed interest in what each of us knows and wonders about. This committed interest in each other and the life around us is the basis of reverence.
Over time, I’ve found that the ability to listen for what we’re not yet aware of has nothing to do with right or wrong, or good or bad, or neat or sloppy. In fact, judgments seem to make what is calling pull back, the way loud noises cause deer to retreat into the woods. This is why sitting in the midst of our own life with our swollen hands open will deepen our listening. Because a thousand possibilities to live wait for us to stop, so we can meet them in the center point of silence. Once there, we are touched by life directly, without the overlay of the lengthy instructions we’ve been given since birth.
To Remember How
So how do we lean in and listen to all that is not us, to all that is calling, to the particular angel waiting to guide us more thoroughly into who we are born to be? While we can share insights, only you can discover this for yourself. As you journey through this book, I encourage you to lean into your own sense of the unknown, to intuit and cultivate a personalized practice of listening to where life is nudging you and calling you. I invite you to listen to the part of you that life is trying to wake.
That threshold might be waiting just beyond your smallest curiosity. Your life could change by picking up a stone and rubbing it free of the dirt that covers its blue vein, which somehow reminds you of a dream you’ve forgotten. It helps to remember how, in a field with no one watching, the smallest wildflower reaches its tiny root into a dark it doesn’t know and at the same time opens itself to a light it feels but can’t yet see. And while the flower has no choice but to commit to this natural process, we as humans have a choice. Unless rooting and opening, unless listening to what is near but beyond us, we will forgo the soul’s birthright to blossom.
In very real ways, we’re drawn to what we need to learn. Often, it waits like a quiet blessing that we can easily ignore or just as easily open ourselves to, like that small wildflower. But for the soul to blossom, we must accept our deeper, humbler destiny. For the wildflower doesn’t become rich or famous for blossoming. It doesn’t live forever or become the greatest flower of all time. The wildflower’s reward for trusting what it senses but doesn’t yet know is to become what is was born to be—a flower whose inevitable place is realized in a small moment of Oneness, as it joins with elements that were here before it came alive and which will live on once it dies. This is the reward for every seed growing in the dark with no sense of what it will become. As a soul on Earth, this is all we can hope for, to feel the light and being of all time course through our veins while we blossom.
This is the closest we come to living forever. And after almost dying of cancer, after birthing and dying to many selves, after losing many and finding more, after feeling grateful for love wherever it might appear, I can bear witness that this deep listening at our edge is enough. I wish this for you though I can’t tell you how to find it. At times, I’m not sure I can find it myself. We can only steer each other to our own inborn gift. For it’s the gift waiting inside all our trouble that knows the way.
A Reflective Pause A MEDITATION
Close your eyes and inhale slowly, feeling the path you are about to enter.
Exhale slowly and know that many hidden angels will call to you before you make your way home.
Inhale slowly and realize that your life will unfold between the appointments you know of and the appointments you will discover along the way.
Open your eyes and exhale slowly, saying yes as you begin.
Describe a learning you were born with and how you came to discover this. Where does this learning live in you now?
Describe your center point of listening. Where is the optimal stance for you from which you can hear both: yourself and eternity, and your loved ones and the world? How has this center point changed over the years?
To be asked over dinner or coffee with friends and loved ones. Try listening to everyone’s response before discussing:
Consider how experience has excavated a depth in you. What has been opened in you? What is that depth asking of you beyond enduring the pain of having been opened? What is waiting there that might help you live?
Tell the story of a time when you were slow to listen to a change that was unfolding in your life. In retrospect, describe the signs you were given that change was happening and how not listening impacted you.
Begin to tell the story of your history with yes: your first experience of saying yes and where it led you, your first disappointment with saying yes, your greatest reward for saying yes, and your understanding now of what it means to say yes to life.
Staying Close to What Is Sacred
Seven Thousand Ways to Listen
Staying Close to What Is Sacred
Mark Nepo moved and inspired millions of people with his #1 New York Times bestseller The Book of Awakening, a spiritual day book. Now, in this new exploration of the human journey, Nepo inquires into the endless ways life asks us to listen. Having experienced hearing loss, Nepo affirms that listening is one of the most mysterious, luminous, and challenging art forms: “Whatever difficulty you face, there are time-tried ways you can listen your way through. Because listening is the doorway to everything that matters.” Weaving together memoir and meditation exercises, Nepo offers many ways to listen to life and live more fully. A moving exploration of self, our relationship to others, and the world around us, this remarkable guide unpacks the many ways we are called to redefine ourselves and to name what is meaningful as we face life’s challenges.