The Art of Listening: Part 1 Pravrajika Virajaprana

By Pravrajika Virajaprana

Pravrajika Virajaprana is a nun in the San Francisco Convent. Her paper will be posted in two parts.

In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, there is a conversation between the great sage Yajnavalkya and his wife Maitreyi in which he said to her:  “The Self, my dear Maitreyi, should verily be realized. How? “It should be heard of, reflected on and meditated upon. By the realization of the Self alone, my dear, through hearing, reflection, and meditation, all this is known.”

Let us consider the art and science of listening, shravana (“to be heard of”), that the sages have given such so much importance to in our spiritual journey. In fact, it is considered so central to spiritual unfoldment that it is prescribed as the first part of the threefold means to Self-realization: hearing, reflection, and meditation referred to by Yajnavalkya.

We have all mastered the art of talking. We are good at it for the most part. It’s easy to talk. But it’s difficult to listen. How many of us can say that we have mastered the true art of listening? Yet without listening properly, our comprehension and understanding are compromised. Listening is a profound skill that requires training like any other art form, though, by far, this art is fundamentally more important because all knowledge depends upon listening. We learn mostly through the use of words. Through words, we continuously acquire new ideas, information, skills, and intellectual depth.  We simply cannot dismiss or ignore words, verbal statements, either what is said or what is written, because this is the principal source of all our education and resulting knowledge.

First of all, to cultivate the art of listening it is helpful to have an idea of the science of sound and the components of hearing: how listening is connected with thinking; how hearing is different from listening; and how listening and thinking, a very subtle form of sound, can take us beyond thought.

Sound and how we hear it
Briefly, according to one of the schools of Indian philosophy, the Tantras, the whole universe is created out of and composed of vibrations. What we ordinarily understand as sound is a form of energy generated through external physical vibrations of the cosmic ether. Sound is produced when air molecules vibrate and move in a pattern of pressure waves.  These vibrations or waves travel through the air. Unlike light, which can travel through a vacuum, sound cannot; it requires a medium.

But there are subtler levels of sound than merely audible sound, such as electromagnetic waves like radio waves, etc.  Still more subtle are thought waves. Vedanta accepts this vibration theory; furthermore, the ancient Vedic sages have perceived that thought itself is a manifestation of the “eternal supersensuous cosmic pulsations” of the unmanifested Shabda, or Sound Brahman, in the cosmic mind of which individual minds are a part.  Actually, Shabda means both sound and word because these two are inextricably connected. This pulsating energy ultimately evolves into matter, which constitutes the universe of names and forms as we know and experience it.

So audible sound, what we hear, is only the grossest form of sound called vaikhari. When we talk, this sound is produced by the movement of our vocal cords, tongue, etc. Behind audible sound is the word produced by our thinking; this is called madhyama sound. But thought itself is the result of a still subtler impulse called the pasyanti sound, which in turn originates in the unmanifested Shabda Brahman, and this unmanifested stage is called para. So the first rung of the ladder of this discussion, audible sound, has its roots in Sound Brahman. It is actually non-different from Brahman. Swami Vivekananda discusses this idea at length not only in Raja Yoga and Bhakti Yoga, but also in some of his lectures. Now that we’ve touched on what sound is. How do we hear the ordinary grossest form of sound?

Swamiji explains the process in his lecture on the Microcosm by stating that three things are necessary for the perception of any sound: the external instrument, the ear, the corresponding nerve center in the brain, and the mind. If any one of these three is absent or deficient, we will not hear anything, or even if we hear something, no meaning is conveyed. This is what happens if a person is deaf or hard of hearing. The auditory nerves that carry the vibrations are damaged. The ear itself may be fine; the mind may be attentive, but the nerve center in the brain cannot receive the signal, hence very little, perhaps distorted, or no sound at all reaches the person.

So a sound wave passes through the vibrating medium, air, to the receiver of the sound, the ear; the ear drums serve as receptors transmitting the pulsations, or vibrations, in the air to the middle ear where the oscillating pressures are converted into electrical signals that are carried through auditory nerves to the brain. Then the mind connects with the nervous system. But according to Swamiji, this is not enough for perception to take place.

He says the mind has to carry the sensation to the intellect, buddhi, the determining faculty, which decides what to do with the sound; i.e., how to pigeon-hole it.  Then the intellect conveys the message to the Self within, the Atman, and thus the order as Swamiji says, “goes down in the same sequence to the intellect, to the mind, to the organs, and the organs convey it to the instruments, and the perception is complete.” So simply stated, this is how hearing takes place.

We all hear many sounds simultaneously throughout the day and night. Our brains are wired in such a way that some order is superimposed upon the cacophony of sound that bombards us continuously. Otherwise, the resulting internal chaos would be overwhelming. Even though we hear many sounds simultaneously each one is registered separately in our brains.  These sounds cover a vast area including speech, animal, natural, artificial, and so on. For the most part, our hearing has become very mechanical. We tend to block out many sounds; they become just background static. Unless our mind connects to the sound and attaches some meaning to that sound, we tend to ignore it, consciously or unconsciously.

How many times has someone said while talking with us, “Did you hear me?”  And we have to admit though we were standing, or sitting nearby, we did not hear what the person said. And according to our analysis, in this case it is because we were absentminded. We were not paying attention to what the other person said. So our ears received the vibration, the auditory nerves conducted the current to our brain center, but our mind being elsewhere, we did not hear what was said, though we may have noticed the person was talking.

Our external sense of hearing is what connects us to the outside world of sound, just as our other senses, such as sight, touch, taste, and smell connect us to the outside world of objects. This is the basis of our knowledge acquired through sense perception. And although this is certainly one valid form of knowledge, we know that sense knowledge is limited; it is confined only to what our five senses reveal to us at the present moment.  For knowledge beyond this immediate perception, we depend upon other sources such as inference from our past experiences or upon what others say.

This latter source is essential for spiritual knowledge. Until we have our own direct perception of spiritual reality, we have to depend upon shabda pramana, the verbal testimony of a spiritual master, or authority, one who has realized the Truth. And our access to this testimony is through listening to their words, either through their speech or inaudibly through reading their words.

The connection between listening (sound) and thinking
There is another aspect of sound which connects us with our inner world of words and thoughts as well as with the thoughts of others; that is the thinking process itself, a most mysterious phenomenon that scientists, even today, openly admit they have no real understanding of how thinking actually happens. We have to admit that thinking is unique, a most incredible faculty that all humans have, and yet we have almost no clue how we do it. If we have brain surgery, what will we find other than a mass of tissue, nerves, and blood vessels? So how does this physical configuration of matter produce or transmit subtle ideas, visual images, words and so on through our nervous system? What is the connection?

This is the unsolved mystery of the mind and its functions. Neuroscientists continue to puzzle over what the mind is, where it is spatially located in the brain, and how electrical impulses convey concrete words and ideas that we all seem to more or less agree upon. And then there is the biggest mystery of all¾consciousness. Just recently when the Obama administration sanctioned resources for mapping the human brain, similar to the genome project, one prominent scientist admitted that brain research was still in its infancy and that investigating the realm of consciousness was still far off. But in spite of our lack of academic knowledge and the intuitive perception of our sages, we somehow manage to communicate with others what is going on in this mysterious inner world within our minds. But how we do this, we don’t really know. So when we don’t really understand what is going on in our mind, is it any wonder that we don’t know what’s going on in someone else’s mind, that we misunderstand each other, and fail to communicate with one another?

And yet language is the basic mode of connecting with others, of acquiring knowledge. We learn from others by listening to them, by processing the information we receive externally through the complex internal mechanisms of our own mind. We’ve already mentioned that ideas and words are inextricably connected. Whatever idea we have has a corresponding word to express it; the “word and the thought are inseparable.”

Words spoken or written are external, whereas the idea or thought is the internal part. These two cannot be separated.  Try it.  Can you have ideas or thoughts without words and similarly can you have words without ideas or thoughts? It’s impossible to separate them. Furthermore, we can’t think without a symbol and language which is composed of words constitutes those symbols. When we think we are actually hearing ourselves verbalize thought. We cannot think without sound.

So when we are thinking, we are actually quietly talking and simultaneously listening to ourselves, though external audible sound is absent. As just mentioned, a finer form of sound is involved in forming thoughts and in thinking, which is just putting certain thoughts together. Unless we speak or hear someone else speak, we cannot verbally communicate with them, or have any definite notion of what they are thinking, except of course through what we designate as unspoken language, such as body language. But even in this case, there is a symbolic representation or communication of the inner thought of the other person through their behavior. We generalize and interpret this behavior based on our previous experiences–a dubious source of knowledge.

Read Part 2

Global Ecology and Vedanta: Part 2
June 1, 2013
The Art of Listening: Part 2 Pravrajika Virajaprana
December 1, 2013
Show all

The Art of Listening: Part 1 Pravrajika Virajaprana