Hearing into Speech

sound_wave_by_ex_astris1701-d41s0beYesterday, I sat out on Sophia Street and listened.

I heard:

A woman talking loudly on her cell phone.

A flicker, drumming on a metal pole.

Lots of little birds chattering in the trees.

Whooshes of cars on Main Street.

A second flicker calling.

A crow shouting.

A child laughing at play.

The first flicker answering.

Dogs panting, accompanying humans stepping rhythmically in padded shoes.

More agitated crows joining the chorus.

A dog barking.

And a long airplane rumble.

All this I identified without seeing the source of a single sound.

Years ago, Carlos Castaneda wrote that listening to sound can be a powerful meditation. If you listen for a while, you will hear patterns in the sound, and begin to recognize aspects of the natural world you hadn’t noticed before.

Illustrating this, psychologist Gerald May wrote about a solo camping trip he took. Late one night, he sat awake in his tent listening to the cicadas singing outside. After a while, he could make out two separate groups of cicadas. Each group sang at a unique pitch and rhythm. As May listened, he heard a single cicada from each group leave the chorus and continue to sing as it approached his tent. Then, right outside the door of his tent, he heard those two little insects meet, sing in cacophony for a few moments, and then retreat back to its group.

A wonder of nature, a regular occurrence, a peace delegation, an interracial friendship? May did not know what to think of it. All he knew was: had he been distracted by the visuals, he would not have listened intently. And had he not listened intently, he would not have recognized the cicada drama. And had he not recognized the drama, he would not have been awestruck.

During Moshe’s healing after the incident of the Golden Calf, something similarly awesome happens with the sense of hearing. Moshe tells God he wants to know God’s ways. Then Moshe pleads with God, hareini na et kevodecha. Please, show me, your Glory – specifically using the verb that means, please let me see. And God responds, lo tuchal lir’ot et panai. You are not able to see my face.

What happens next bypasses the sense of sight entirely and showcases the sense of hearing. God comes down shrouded in a cloud. And in that cloud of reduced visibility, Moshe and God stand together. Then someone calls out. The Torah does not say clearly whether it is Moshe or God. Someone calls out, HaShem, HaShem, El Rachum V’Chanun! God merciful and gracious.

I’ve heard it said, as a kind of truism, that for human beings who are able to use all five senses, sight is a primary sense. In other words, “seeing is believing”; we verify information from other senses by using sight. Perhaps seeing is primary in the sense that we rely on it least reflectively. But, sometimes, from the Torah’s perspective, hearing is much more subtle, and much more likely to convey spiritual truth.

Our great medieval philosopher Rambam agrees. Rambam systematically collected and analyzed all examples of prophecy in the Tanakh. He organized them into categories, and arranged them into a hierarchy. A moderately gifted prophet has dreams with powerful visual images. But the prophet has to interpret the dream metaphors using his own knowledge. A more gifted prophet hears words during a waking vision. But the highest level of prophecy is the one attained only by Moshe: directly hearing the voice of God without any vision.

Seeing, it seems, is too ordinary, too familiar. We are likely to place our own habitual interpretations on what we see. Hearing is more direct, less cluttered. Prophetic hearing brings into focus Divine messages of comfort, conscience, and counsel on future directions.

But you do not have to be a prophet to practice prophetic hearing. As spiritual directors, my colleagues and I learned to “accompany people on their spiritual journeys.” Specifically, we learned to listen in a way that lets people know they are heard. We learned to turn off our natural tendency to judge or to create an image of a person as they speak. Because if people truly are heard, they articulate more deeply the existential questions at their core. As theologian Nelle Morton says, we learned to “hear people into speech.”

All these examples showcase the positive side of hearing without seeing: opportunities to know nature differently, hear God more purely, support a person in their spiritual seeking. Of course hearing without seeing is not positive in every context. When it comes to gossip, for example, taking seriously something we hear about an event we have not seen can be quite damaging. Perhaps the biblical Job has that in mind when he says, just before his reconciliation with God and family, “Before I heard of you only through hearsay; but now I have seen you.”

But here, Moshe lets go of his belief that God is best known through vision. He waits to see what will manifest. When words are called out, he listens fully, and not distracted by the baggage of any familiar visual images. He hears that God is compassionate, gracious, patient, full of love and truth. It seems God is also teaching by example, requiring Moshe to experience these qualities in himself as he listens. Because these are some of the qualities of pure, deep listening.

sound waves heartDuring the seven weeks of Sefirat Ha’Omer, we observe the sefirot (divine attributes) in ourselves. This week, week one, is the week of love. It’s a perfect week to read about Moshe experiencing Divine attributes of love in himself as he listens. And it is also a good week to examine our own practices of listening.

When we are at odds with a family member, can we listen without mentally objecting to their every point? Because sometimes this can help us recognize what the conflict is really about, and thus move through it.

When we listen to a political speech by someone identified as a member of a group we reject, can we listen to what they are saying for a moment without worrying about who they are? Because sometimes this can help us move beyond the polarized thinking that often stymies political problem-solving.

When we reflect on our own problems, can we listen not just for the voice of frustration, but for the yearning behind it? Can we put aside old images of who we ought to be, and listen to our deeper self make new proposals? Because sometimes this can bring inner peace, and allow us to be happier with the choices we can make.

Here is a challenge for the coming week:

How can you listen with love?

Dvar Torah from Shabbat Chol Hamoed Pesach, where we read from Parshat Ki Tisa. Images: putyourjammieson.wordpress.com, cyma-therapyclinic.co.uk. Thanks to Isaac Kool for the insight about political listening

0 Comments
  1. Listening is a full-body experience, something I know very well from teaching voice. I often close my eyes when listening to a student, because I have discovered that visual impressions can overpower the myriad subtle and multilayered impressions we receive through hearing. Now I understand why watching singers has always distracted me – even without the obvious deflection of concentration bestowed on us by stage directors. Our “mind’s eye” is a powerful resource: we really can SEE the sound of the shofar, with every fiber of our being!

  2. Listening is a full-body experience, something I know very well from teaching voice. I often close my eyes when listening to a student, because I have discovered that visual impressions can overpower the myriad subtle and multilayered impressions we receive through hearing. Now I understand why watching singers has always distracted me – even without the obvious deflection of concentration bestowed on us by stage directors. Our “mind’s eye” is a powerful resource: we really can SEE the sound of the shofar, with every fiber of our being!

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