What is Deep Listening?


In Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), we cultivate awareness by approaching the ordinary activities of our day with curious friendliness, perhaps for the first time. From brushing our teeth to eating to walking, to getting up from our seat, to seeing, we bathe our days in awareness. Or at least we bathe small moments in awareness.


Once you've got the hang of developing a formal sitting practice (i.e., you sit for a period of time with the intention of practicing awareness), you find that you "suddenly" see and feel your life differently.

It's Not Magic; It's Science

As neuroscientist David Eagleman writes in Livewired: The inside story of the ever-changing brain . . .

What you do over and over becomes reflected in the structure of your brain.

Yes, we literally, or I guess that would be neurologically, become what we practice. The brain takes the path of least resistance, and once you've practiced awareness over and over and over and over again, it becomes . . . what you do. Sometimes.


Listening to Your Life

Let's try this right now, if you're in a place where you won't be interrupted for a few minutes, and read this through first:

  1. Set a timer for two minutes.

  2. Sitting, standing, lying down, find some stillness. Settle physically, to whatever degree you're able to. This isn't about rigidity or not moving a muscle. You're inviting stillness.

  3. Next, maybe close your eyes. If closing your eyes brings anxiety or antsiness, keep them open. It's not that we want to pivot from discomfort, as it's a part of life. It's that this particular practice is about listening and closing the eyes makes it easier for many to focus their awareness on sound.

  4. Listen. Don't go out looking for sounds. Instead, simple receive them. Be open and receptive. There's no need to label them or think about them or judge them as pleasant or as "noise." Just notice them. Notice if you're moving your eyes in the direction of the sound even when your eyes are closed.

  5. What are you noticing? Tone. Duration. Pitch. But not thinking or storying. No need to picture the bird you hear where you think she is. No need to wonder whose car just drove by or picture their speed. Notice doing this, though. Humans are fascinating. Our mental activity doesn't stop!

  6. This isn't about enjoying the sounds of your life or not. It's simply about witnessing them.

Listening to Your Body and Mind

If you're feeling curious and adventurous, next, listen to what's arising your body. I'm not just talking about the sound of your heart or your indigestion. I'm talking about what your body is telling you. Is it tired? Achy? Energized? Fidgety? There's no need to change anything; just notice. As for your mind, is it racing? Dull? Clear? Foggy? Again, just notice. Listen.


If you'd like to practice listening with a group, for no cost, there are three more drop-ins remaining in December. We practice for about 20 minutes, and then capture and reflect on our experience, out loud or silently. No need to talk. You must register for the link, and you can attend one, two, or all three!


Listening to Others: Deep Witnessing


In mindfulness, we sometimes use the metaphor of gears when it comes to listening. There are different gears, each most skillful for particular situations. And, like when you're driving a 5-speed, you can feel when you need to shift gears—when you need to slide into what's best.


When you're listening deeply to someone else, your intention is to be a witness to their experience. You don't have answers, reactions, wisdom, or even questions. You're prioritizing their articulation of their moment-to-moment experience. You're there to give them the space and time to express themselves, in all their messy humanity. Just as when you listened to your own life, you're listening to what they're showing you of theirs, without judgment.


The Gift of Resisting the Urge to Fix

We aren't here to fix each other. One of the most powerful "rules" in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), when we're introducing Deep Listening/Deep Witnessing is that if you're the listener at the moment, you must resist the temptation to say anything. No fixing, no paraphrasing back, no reaching out to comfort or spontaneous words of comforting. When it feels like it's your turn to speak, most important is to thank the other person. Genuine sharing is an act of vulnerability and of courage, and it's an honor to be a witness to those qualities.


Finally, when you listen deeply you're cultivating the ability to notice what arises in you when someone else is sharing, and how you feel about resisting the urge to do or say what you usually would do or say. You're learning how to be a witness to your own life, while being a witness to someone else's.


As many MBSR grads have said, Deep Listening alone is worth the price of admission to the course. If you're dedicated to completing the 8-week MBSR course, including the daylong retreat (here's the schedule and sign-up), there are a few spots left in the course beginning January 5. This particular class, which is $400, is pay-what-you-can right now, and has been since the start of the pandemic. If you're a financial advisor and you'd rather a shorter course that caters to the intra- and interpersonal challenges of financial well-being, you can register for the bespoke course for financial advisors that begins January 13 here.


May ease find you.

Mary