The world is a really noisy place. In the festive season, with all the glass-clinking and the jingle bells, it gets even noisier. Close your eyes and pay attention to all of the sounds you’re trying not to listen to right now: the central heating, the cars outside, your digestive system. Listening filters all of this, in fact a big part of listening is actually not listening. As I recently heard it compared to, it’s the bouncer at the door of the nightclub wearing a Black Sabbath t-shirt and asking you with a scowl “Got any ID?” The things we listen to and what we choose not to listen to are dependent on our experiences and belief systems and I’m intrigued to find out how changing the way we listen could change the way we experience our lives.
A few weeks ago I went to one of Jamie Catto’s workshops on creativity and he talked about listening. He suggested that through listening we can improve our relationships both with ourselves and others. However, the sort of listening he was talking about went beyond the sounds of the words that people say. On a daily basis we have to listen to an awful lot of bullshit, I’m not going to give examples because I think you know what I’m talking about. If the bouncer let in all of this bullshit into the nightclub, you would not be in for a fun night out. What’s much more interesting is the spaces between the words, the stuff that’s going on behind all of the fluff that people say, that’s the stuff that we don’t always listen to. Listening like this means trying to understand and appreciate that person without trying to “explain” them away in you head, and it’s a true gift to yourself and others because you’re really offering your whole self in doing so. We had a practice at this kind of listening during the workshop and I have to say it caught me unawares because I suddenly felt the true vulnerability of not being entirely in control of my own emotions, the sense of the possibility of being exposed at any moment. I found during the whole workshop I retreated to a former, shier self that I hadn’t seen in a while, perhaps it was the sudden awareness of the guard I’d been putting up, the earplugs I’d had in for a long time. I haven’t figured that out yet.
This notion of listening reminded me of something my housemate (an electronic musician) had said to me about this theory that music exists in the spaces between the sounds. Maybe that’s also where reality exists. When I lived and worked in a Quaker guest house I sometimes used to pop upstairs to the silent meetings for worship because I got a strange satisfaction from them. I came to realize that it wasn’t really a spiritual satisfaction but the lovely sensation of just being in a room with a bunch of people in silence, hearing their rustling and feeling their vulnerability in the quiet. There’s something really valuable in the spaces between the words that makes life just a bit more interesting and it might help us to understand each other better.
Jamie also highlighted the need to listen to the “committee” of voices in our own head, the never-ending dialogue we have with ourselves. We were told to stop and observe our own minds and the way we think, which is a really insightful experience. The constant cabaret of the human mind is another noisy affair and we all have our own unique line-up, in the Hayley Spann show the stars are:
- The damsel in distress, the poor little victim who suffers at the hands of everyone else.
- The lovable rogue (a ‘Del-boy’ type) who is always plotting a new way to be liked, though in the end his make-shift solutions always collapse.
- The tyrannical villain – you must work harder! And faster! How else will he achieve world domination? This one keeps the rest of them on a tight leash.
- The holier-than-thou Catholic priest who is always checking “what do you have to be guilty about now? There must be something you’re doing wrong you heathen!”
Whether we like it or not, we spend a lot of our time locked in our minds with these voices and again, we all know that a night out with these guys isn’t that fun.
So how should I go about turning my nightclub from Phoenix Nights to Fabric and use these characters to make my life richer? Sack the bouncer? That doesn’t seem like a smart plan, there’d be chaos and besides you’ve got to make sure there’s enough room to dance. Maybe the answer could lie in a silent disco. The novelty of the silent disco is that you can take your headphones off at any point and listen to the more subtle sounds you couldn’t hear before, like the shuffling of feet on the squeaky dance floor and it somehow makes everything seem less intimidating, less cool and more sort of cute, you realize that the other people in the club are more vulnerable than you thought. You can also listen to the bouncer, who is he letting in now? Why is he not letting those people in? That could be interesting.
This year I’m going to take my headphones off and listen to the voices inside my head, find out what they have to say. I’m going to look warmly upon them and maybe offer to buy them a drink if they look distressed. I’m going to chat myself up. I also want to listen to the other people at the club, the ones that aren’t inside my head, and watch some of their dance moves with my headphones off, seeing if I can relate to them on a deeper level. Maybe I’ll chat them up too, minx that I am.
Finally, I’m going to send my bouncer off to music therapy classes because this bouncer needs to loosen up a little if there’s any chance of any really wild parties happening in this night club. I’ve discovered that music contains a special sort of freedom. According to the musicologist Jonathan Berger, sound is a knot we are always trying to untangle. The sound of traffic for example is an easy knot to untangle, you listen to it, you figure out its source and you forget about it which is why it doesn’t tend to disturb us very much. Sounds that are less predictable, for example the sound of a dripping tap are more difficult to untangle and can be quite jarring which is why it can stop us from getting to sleep at night. Music can be either predictable or unpredictable, it can have jarring chords and changes in rhythm but we don’t get that uncomfortable feeling that we sometimes get when we hear a tap dripping. It’s a triumph over what’s automatic in us because it allows us to enjoy even those sounds which are unpredictable. Maybe that’s why musicians have a reputation for being so damn chilled out, because they’ve tuned into a world of unpredictability and learned to enjoy it. This year I want to be more like a musician and become more tolerant of uncertainty. In a very inspirational interview Joanna Macy said “It’s that knife-edge of uncertainty where we come alive to our truest power”, have a look at this talk here:
Uncertainty, as she suggests, is inevitable. There are no real guarantees of anything; there is no control. We can either waste a lot of energy trying to control it or we can acknowledge it and try to find a way of living with it and making our lives richer. One of the ways which I think this could be made a possibility is by listening, hearing things as they really are and using the lack of control as a new opportunity to bring new things into our lives.
My new year’s resolution is to be a better listener both to my inner and outer world. In that process I hope I’ll be gentler with myself and those around me and that I’ll be more at peace with uncertainty. It’s not going to be an easy feat, that I know, because listening is truly an art. I recently heard the story of a woman who was born almost completely deaf and then after an operation began to hear the world for the first time. With that change, she had to learn the art of listening. It’s a lovely story, if you get the chance, take a listen here to Rachel’s Story
Thanks for listening.