Seven Thousand Ways to Listen: Staying Close to What Is Sacred
(by Mark Nepo)
This article first appeared in Watkins Mind Body Spirit Issue 39, Autumn 2014.
Mark Nepo moved and inspired millions of people with his No.1 New York Times bestseller, The Book of Awakening. In his continuing exploration of the human journey, he has been called ‘one of the finest spiritual guides of our time’, ‘a consummate storyteller’, and ‘an eloquent spiritual teacher’.
I was having lunch with Olasope Oyelaran, a linguist from Nigeria. As we talked, he brought languages alive like tropical plants and spoke of them as rooted things that sprout and reach in all directions for the light. He marveled that there are seven thousand living languages on Earth. And these are only the ones we know of. The music of his African voice flowed beneath his overtones of English. Listening to him affirmed the things that come before us and which, thankfully, outlast us.
That night, as I settled under the covers, with the lights out, I heard our yellow Lab breathe as the wind announced the stars. There, in the silence that’s never quite silent, I realized that, if there are at least seven thousand ways to speak, there are at least seven thousand ways to listen. And just how few we know.
The many ways to listen have been reaching into me for years. To enter deep listening, I’ve had to learn how to keep emptying and opening, how to keep beginning. I’ve had to lean into all I don’t understand, accepting that I am changed by what I hear. In all, it’s been an exciting journey, one that’s made me more alive. I offer what I’ve learned and am still learning, not as a map or set of instructions but as one way to open our humanity.
To start with, we must honor that listening is a personal pilgrimage that takes time and a willingness to circle back. With each trouble that stalls us and each wonder that lifts us, we are asked to put down our conclusions and feel and think anew. Unpredictable as life itself, the practice of listening is one of the most mysterious, luminous, and challenging art forms on Earth. Each of us is by turns a novice and a master, until the next difficulty or joy undoes us.
In real ways, we are invited each day to slow down and listen. But why listen at all? Because listening stitches the world together. Because listening is the doorway to everything that matters. It enlivens the heart the way breathing enlivens the lungs. We listen to awaken our heart. We do this to stay vital and alive.
This is the work of reverence: to stay vital and alive by listening deeply.
The truth is we spend much of our time on Earth listening and waking. When awake, we come upon the risk to be honest and vulnerable in order to live life fully. If we get this far, we are returned, quite humbly, to the simple fate of being here. Ultimately, a devotion to deep listening remains the simple and sacred work of being here.
To awaken our heart through the reverence of listening strengthens the fabric that knits us all together. Why? Because as cells are nourished and cleansed by the bloodstream, the bloodstream depends on healthy cells. All work together to keep the body alive and whole. In just this way, the world depends on the dance between the individual awakened soul and the river of Spirit that feeds us all. The world needs healthy awakened souls to stay alive and whole.
Yet how do we inhabit these connections and find our way in the world? By listening our way into lifelong friendships with everything larger than us, with our life of experience, and with each other.
Our friendship with everything larger than us opens us to the wisdom of Source. This is the work of being. Our friendship with experience opens us to the wisdom of life on Earth. This is the work of being human. And our friendship with each other opens us to the wisdom of care. This is the work of love. While we may feel lifted or overwhelmed by each of these on any given day, they are intertwined and inseparable – three friends we need to stay connected to if we have any hope of living an awakened life. These three friendships – the work of being, the work of being human, and the work of love – frame the journey of this book.
In a daily way, listening is being present enough to hear the One in the many and the many in the One. Listening is an animating process by which we feel and understand the moment we are in: repeatedly connecting the inner world with the world around us, letting one inform the other. Listening is an ongoing way of relating to experience.
There are many interchangeable names for listening. The place-holder we call listening is merely the eyehole to the kaleidoscope; the shell we hold to our ear that somehow reveals the music of the ocean. It doesn’t matter what you call it but that you find the entry that works for you. What matters is that you keep trying and keep putting your attempts together, that you gather your own understanding.
Though this book is called Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, there is obviously no secret number, no secret math involved. This is just a way of pointing to a path that has no end. As you read and gather notions of listening, I invite you to interchange them and grow your own sense of meaning along the way. For example, “Ways of Listening” might also be understood as “Ways of Keeping What Is True Before Us” or “Ways of Receiving” or “Ways of Entering the Unspoken.”
I welcome you to this conversation between the stars, the animals, and the trees of language sprouting from the Earth. I invite you to engage in the work of reverence; in the work of staying freshly connected by entering your friendship with this mystery we call life. I invite you to listen in every way you can, for listening in all things is the first step toward friendship.
Mark Nepo is a poet, philosopher and author of fourteen books, including the New York Times bestseller, The Book of Awakening. His latest books are The Endless Practice: Becoming Who You Were Born to Be and Reduced to Joy, a new collection of poems. Mark has appeared several times with Oprah Winfrey on her Super Soul Sunday program (OWN TV) and has been interviewed by Robin Roberts on Good Morning America. He lives in Southwest Michigan. For more information visit: MarkNepo.com ThreeIntentions.com
Seven Thousand Ways To Listen: Staying Close to What Is Sacred
Simon & Schuster