“Deep Listening is listening to everything all the time, and reminding yourself when you’re not. But going below the surface too, it’s an active process. It’s not passive. I mean hearing is passive in that soundwaves hinge upon the eardrum. You can do both. You can focus and be receptive to your surroundings. If you’re tuned out, then you’re not in contact with your surroundings. You have to process what you hear. Hearing and listening are not the same thing.”
— Pauline Oliveros
How much of your day is spent in detached work environments, watching the hours slip by and looking forward to the evening? When you get home, do you notice that sometimes your mind buzzes with the stresses and information of the day? Is it hard to get to sleep? Is it difficult to attain calm and balance? Do your relationships suffer as a result?
Deep Listening is a process developed by composer Pauline Oliveros beginning in the 1960s which became her life’s work. This work directly impacted many generations of musicians who attended her workshops, retreats, and seminars. The idea is that you must make your music with a deep resonance with your environment, to the point that “your feet become your ears”. Pauline regarded the whole body as a resonator, a vessel which might draw in the surrounding environment and synchronize with it.
Deep Listening is also the name of a therapeutic and relational practice in which we listen to another with wide open ears, not judging from our own experience or beliefs, but really listening to learn. It’s a practice that includes eye contact, attentive posture, silence and witnessing, and accurate echoing of the other to show them that you were, all along, with them. Buddhist author Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Deep listening is the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person. You can call it compassionate listening. You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her to empty his heart. Even if he says things that are full of wrong perceptions, full of bitterness, you are still capable of continuing to listen with compassion. Because you know that listening like that, you give that person a chance to suffer less.”
You may find that with spending a certain amount of time every day calming the wandering mind and allowing yourself to just listen, just see, or just feel begins to affect the control anxiety and stress has over your thoughts and emotions. This is because you are, in effect, growing the ability for the frontal cortex to exert control over the decision to worry or not worry, a process we call Mindfulness. This ability allows the effects of chronic anxiety and stress to fade over time- which may improve sleeping patterns, drug and alcohol consumption, irritability, interpersonal conflicts, work performance, chronic pain, and mood.
Mindfulness as a therapeutic technique has become immensely popular in the past 30 years, culminating with therapeutic approaches like Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Mindfulness approaches encourage mental health consumers to become cognizant of everything that is “happening”- what can you hear? See? Feel? Taste? What are your emotions in this moment? Your thoughts? Through presence, individuals can become more empowered to fight anxious thoughts (those “what ifs”), depressive beliefs (such as self-deprecation), and everyday stressors.
These approaches share a lot of common ground. They all encourage presence, both in time and in the body. Deepening our listening practice can help bring us back to the moment, getting in touch with what’s important in life. It can also put into practice those relational skills which will make us better friends, family members, and partners. Here are two activities to begin the practice of deepening your listening:
Attached to this blog post is a recording I took while walking during COVID isolation, to get started.
Go outside and begin walking. What do you hear? Listen for:
- The rhythm of your own steps
- The sounds of people
- The sounds of machines
- The sounds of nature
- Any ambient sounds
Do some sounds feel alarming to you? Do some sounds feel relaxing? Do some sounds remind you of anything? Why do they remind you of those things?
If you could change anything about your sound environment, what would it be? Can you make the change by moving to a new location? Would you rather be in a quieter or a louder place?
How has the world of sound changed in recent weeks? Do you notice anything different? Is there anything you like or dislike about this change?
What can you hear now that you couldn’t hear before?
What do you notice about the sounds of your own body and breathing within this new soundscape? Are you moving more slowly? Are you breathing more deeply?
Feel free to spend some time writing, making music, or creating art about this experience once you come home.
Begin by closing your eyes, and seating yourself comfortably in an upright position.
Allow your breathing to slow into a regular, resting pattern. Listen to your breath as it enters and exits your nose or mouth. Notice the rhythm of the breath.
Move your focus outward to your ears. Imagine your ears as satellite dishes, receiving any and every signal that comes in, without priority, category, or judgement.
What is it that your ears can hear? Perhaps there are sounds of the house, the office, the outside. Perhaps there are sounds of the body, or other bodies nearby. How do these sounds interact?
Allow your focus to remain broad, with no priority, category, or judgement over any of the sounds. Avoid judgement of your breath, for example. Avoid judgement of the people outside or the traffic roaring by. These are all simply sounds that make up the world, and you are here simply to notice them.
Notice your hearing. How do you tend to want to prioritize, categorize, or make judgements? Bring your attention now back to your ears as receivers. You’re here simply to hear.
When you have finished, return your focus back to your breath, noticing its rhythm. Has anything shifted.
The key to this practice is just that: practice. You may not notice a loosening of the busy mind for a little while yet, so patience is key. The second important element is noticing. At every stage, you are simple called to notice. You will find that this noticing habit sticks with you throughout the day. You begin to notice little signs that you need to rest well before you snap at your colleagues or noticing when you feel peaceful where you may usually feel stress. Absent-mindedness lends significance to feelings of stagnation and dissatisfaction where the practice of noticing celebrates small victories, growth, and significant change.
The Gift of Deep Listening | Psychology Today
The difference between hearing and listening | Pauline Oliveros | TEDxIndianapolis – YouTube
Deep Listening | Center for Spirituality and Healing – University of Minnesota (umn.edu)
THE SCIENCE OF LISTENING | HuffPost
Oliveros, Pauline (2005). Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice. New York: iUniverse, Inc.
Oliveros, Pauline (2010). Lawton Hall (ed.). Sounding the Margins: Collected Writings 1992–2009. Kingston, New York: Deep Listening Publications.