By Pravrajika Virajaprana
Pravrajika Virajaprana is a nun in the San Francisco Convent. Her paper will be posted in two parts.
Swamiji makes an important point in Raja Yoga, that though there must always be a word with a thought, “it is not necessary that the same thought requires the same word.” The thought may be the same in so many different countries, yet language varies. So though the word is necessary for the expression of thought, these words “need not necessarily have the same sound.” Sri Ramakrishna gives an example of this when he speaks of water. The content of the word water is the same but it is expressed variously in diverse languages, such as, aqua, pani, jal, etc. For example, with the exception of Swami Vivekananda who spoke English, many of our great spiritual teachers communicated in languages unfamiliar to many of us in the West. We read and study their teachings in translation, in a language that is known to us. However, though the words vary, the content, the idea behind the word, is the same.
In the 6th chapter of the Chandogya Upanishad, Shvetaketu, a young brahmacharin twelve years old, was sent by his father to a teacher to study the Vedas. Having studied all the relevant texts, he returned to his father’s house when he was twenty-four, conceited, arrogant and considering himself quite learned. His father recognized this and asked him, “By the way, Shvetaketu, did you think to ask for that teaching about the Supreme Brahman, “through which what is unheard becomes heard, what is unthought of becomes thought of, what is unknown becomes known?” Obviously, Shvetaketu hadn’t thought of asking about how something, which is unheard can be heard. This is somewhat like the Zen koan, hearing the sound of the clapping of one hand. His father then imparts a profound teaching to him which begins, “Dear boy, just as through a single clod of clay all that is made of clay would become known, for all modification is but name based upon words and the clay alone is real.”
So the sounds or words may vary but the connection between the thought and the sound, or the symbol and that which it signified exists. Therefore hearing is intimately connected with our thinking.
Hearing is different from listening
There is a qualitative difference between hearing and listening. Though both are biological processes and involve the same components, hearing is basically mechanical; whereas listening is a conscious effort to direct our attention, to concentrate on what is being heard, whether it is the spoken word or something read. Listening is hearing with attention. When we listen, we are fully engaged, focused, and concentrated.
Artists, musicians, poets, and others who are sensitive to their surroundings describe their experience of listening attentively mostly with regard to nature, such as poetic descriptions given of the gentle sound of the wind in the trees, birdsong deep in the forest at dawn, raindrops splashing in a pool of water, and so on. Henry David Thoreau, the American transcendentalist, remarked: “I wish to hear the silence of the night, for the silence is something positive and to be heard. I cannot walk with my ears covered. I must stand still and listen with open ears, far from the noises of the village. . . . A night in which the silence was audible, I heard the unspeakable.” It is their sensitivity to the natural world, the world of ideas and emotions and their creative response that marks them as artists and often lifts them above the senses.
In spiritual life this response is even more true and relevant. And this is exactly the point of cultivating the art of listening. Listening to the great spiritual masters is the first step on our spiritual journey. They are telling us, describing to us, subtle spiritual truths that at present we have limited or no access to. Our ordinary experience doesn’t encompass the realm beyond thought and mind. So we have no other recourse except to listen to what they have to say about it. As we’ve seen, listening and thinking are intimately connected. And through deep thinking, reflection and meditation upon what we have carefully listened to, we are able to gradually experience the subtle realms of spiritual reality, which transcends all sound and thought. So learning the art of listening is extremely important in recovering our true Self.
In the Vedantic scriptures this threefold method of attaining Self-Knowledge, hearing, reflection and meditation, shravana, manana, and nididhyasana, that Yajnavalkya taught to Maitreyi usually translates shravana as hearing, but for the purposes of this discussion, we will focus on the first of this threefold method, shravana, as listening. In the Panchadasi an important Vedantic text, shravana is defined as “listening with faith and reverence to the pertinent passages and trying to understand their meaning.” Through listening and reflection the seeker’s doubts and misconceptions regarding the existence of Brahman, its nature and means of attainment, can be removed and a firm conviction established.
Adi Shankaracharya’s Atmabodha states that to realize one’s true Self directly and clearly “like a fruit on the palm of one’s hand,” and not just to understand it intellectually, one has to first hear the truth. “Hearing means listening to the instruction of a qualified teacher, who explains from the scriptures the oneness of the individual self and Brahman.” Clearly, listening to an enlightened person is essential.
Now the practical question arises: How to develop the true art of listening? Let’s consider three factors that are essential: 1) interest; 2) appreciation for the value of what we are listening to; 3) mindfulness.
Interest: Whatever we are interested in, we effortlessly give our attention to that. Interest stimulates our feelings, holds our attention, engages our entire personality; infuses us with energy. We become alive, as it were, through interest. Our attention follows our interest. If we are not interested in, say, chemistry or biology, we will not respond to what is being said about those subjects, no matter how intriguing the professor may make the material, because our heart isn’t in it. Generally, our interest is scattered over many things. The more scattered we are, the harder it is to focus our attention on any one thing and hence we drift, become inattentive; the mind closes down instead of listening.
But in spiritual life we have to become one-pointed; our interest has to be directed within. As one of our late senior swamis said, “Unless you have withdrawn your mind from outside interests, you will not be able to hold your mind inside.” This is a very profound statement, which certainly governs our ability to listen attentively. If we are not really interested in something, for all practical purposes, it doesn’t exist for us. As long as we are all wrapped up in this world and are satisfied here, that yearning for spirituality will never come. But the moment genuine yearning dawns, our interest begins to shift from worldly things to the divine.
So having an intense interest in acquiring spiritual knowledge, in Self-realization, is perhaps one of the most salient means of cultivating the actual skill of listening. In Sadananda’s Vedantasara, it is mentioned that one should approach the teacher as if one’s hair has caught fire. If our hair is on fire, we won’t stop to consider how it happened, or how to extinguish the flames. We won’t take the time to ask all these questions; we just rush to put out the fire. That’s how urgent it is; that’s how strong our interest should be. And then there is still another factor: feeling, love. As Swamiji said, “Love concentrates the will without effort.” What we love, we want to hear about it. It is said that Swami Brahmananda used to attend monastic classes just to listen to scriptural discourses or holy readings. The more we listen, the more we want to listen, because we get joy from it.
Appreciation for the value of what we are listening to: This is the second factor in cultivating the art of listening. Whatever we value, we have respect for that and want to hear about it. We pay attention to it and find delight in dwelling on it, because it has meaning for us. A spiritual seeker is deeply appreciative of what the teacher and scriptures are imparting. There is no other source for this kind of knowledge other than our own direct experience. In the Vivekachudamani again and again the Sanskrit word shrinu, listen, is mentioned. The teacher keeps reminding the disciple to listen to what is being said. “Listen attentively, O learned one, to what I am going to say. By listening to it you will be instantly free from the bondage of samsara.”
As Shankara said the scriptures are like hundreds of mothers and fathers eagerly seeking to instruct, to guide, and to uplift the seeker. So the value in listening to our spiritual teachers is immeasurable, incomparable. It is the means for crossing this terrible ocean of birth and death. That is why it is so important to give our undivided attention to them.
There’s another point to remember here and that is the words of an enlightened person, as well as those of the scriptures, are imbued with tremendous spiritual power; they convey the assurance of the truth and our ability to realize it, which strengthens our convictions and impels us to intensify our practices. As we’ve mentioned, our minds, thoughts, words, sound itself¾ all are vibrations. The words of one who has had experience of the Truth has a subtle influence on our own thoughts. We will also begin to vibrate with the same frequency. The power of holiness purifies us, which is a great gain. The Srimad Bhagavatam says through this contact, we touch the Divine, the presence of God.
Mindfulness: Mindfulness is the third factor in mastering the art of listening. Ordinarily, there is so much noise inside our minds, we are so scattered, that we can’t possibly listen to someone else; we are too busy with what’s going on in our own head. With regard to this, one of our swamis remarked, “We cannot listen to the voice of God when our minds are dissipated, given to restless activity and are filled externally and internally with noise.” So in order to listen properly, we have to learn to filter, to screen our thoughts, to quiet the vibrations within.
To a large extent, through diligent practice we can learn to control our thoughts and thinking. Concentration of the mind is a major player in this. Swami Vivekananda once said that if he had to undergo his education again, he would empty his mind of everything he had learned, and simply focus on developing the power of concentration, so that he could direct his mind at will wherever he wanted it, and similarly he could detach it at will. Even in our daily lives when we pay attention and listen carefully to others, to ourselves, and to the world around us, it is an excellent training for listening to the subtle truths of the spiritual realm. After all, it is the same mind that receives and processes all information, secular or spiritual.
Likewise we can choose what we hear; we don’t have to be hapless victims. But how can we possibly choose what we want to hear? Mainly by our response. Learning the skill of listening is also the result of conscious effort and practice, of bringing more self-awareness, more mindfulness. Again, it is a matter of how much attention we give the sound. If we do not infuse emotion or energy into what we hear, our interest wanes; the meaning fades and drops away. The mind simply doesn’t go there. The law of association operates in how we sort out what we hear. What we hear has to be relevant to us or it has no meaning. Relevance directs our response.
If we deprive sound of it’s meaning, it doesn’t affect us in the same way, either positively or negatively. We remain neutral. Similarly, if we empower sound with meaning, then what we listen to can have a profound effect on us. That is why the teacher exhorts the disciple: “Listen attentively . . . to what I am going to say. By listening to it, you will be instantly free from the bondage of relative existence.” And what can be more relevant and transforming for a spiritual seeker than listening to such words of an enlightened teacher?