Seven Thousand Ways to Listen

In May in my fifty-seventh year, I spoke in an innovative series known as Narrative Rounds at Columbia University medical school in New York City. As a cancer survivor, this meant a great deal to me. It was here that skilled medical teams finally diagnosed the rare form of cancer crippling me, and here that my first chemo treatment was horribly botched because the detachment of their great intellects precluded hands-on care.

After a small seminar in the afternoon, I was in conversation with two medical students when one asked me how to listen to a patient who didn’t want to talk. What a great question. It made me bypass all logic to recount this story from years ago.

We are the same

I was strolling through Santa Monica. After a while, I landed in a street-side café where I watched the wealthy walk by the homeless, neither acknowledging the other, as if I were watching an overlay of people from different times inhabit the same street. Except this, of course, was the same reality. I actually saw a well-groomed man, in perfectly creased slacks and a satin shirt, step over a homeless person sleeping near a store window so he could get a better look at a sweater. He stepped carefully over the unwashed man’s belly, taking his sunglasses off in mid straddle to catch the detail of the sweater’s weave. The homeless man, used to being stepped over, didn’t flinch or move.

I stayed there quite a while, not sure what to do or where to go. The sun came out and funneled into the alley across the street. There, it revealed another unseen soul in a wheelchair, his head leaning against the wall. Through the light traffic, our eyes met. For ten or fifteen seconds, the world stopped and opened. Neither of us looked away. In that long moment, I heard all he did not say. It pierced my heart. His stare intensified and I felt my shoulders drop.

Now my stare ached itself open and his shoulders dropped. And we knew in that long moment that we are the same; we just landed in different bodies on different sides of the street. The sun moved west. The clouds returned. And life resumed. He turned and wheeled himself away.

What it means to be alive

This moment revisits me every time I feel alone or sad for no reason; every time I am with someone broken open by hardship or illness. This moment has become the aching atom of humanity which forever grips me with what it means to be alive. It is a silent moment that keeps speaking, which I have only begun to understand as I’ve re-engaged it over time.

By the time I finished this story, the student who’d asked the question seemed puzzled while the one who was listening seemed to understand. I thanked them for their care and left them to each other. We so need each other to understand anything worth keeping in the world. As I went to sleep that night, I dreamt of those two students in fifteen years, saving the lives of people like me, long after the stone of our time together will have sunk to the bottom of their consciousness.

Listen to all that is unsaid

All these things are voices of the unspeakable: the brilliance and ignorance of the doctors who diagnosed me twenty years ago, the want of soon-to-be doctors to understand how to listen to all that is unsaid, the endless stepping of those who have over those who have nothing, the moment that life is held open by the stare of strangers through the human storm, and the cancered women wiping tears from each other’s eyes in the New Jersey night.

This is why I have come to New York in May in my fifty-seventh year: to trip through all these moments, trying again to listen to all that is unsaid. It is perfect that, when I leave the International Center of Photography, it is still raining. As I fumble with my umbrella, getting wet anyway, I bow my head to the water from the sky meant to soften our minds. I stop trying not to get wet; opened one more time by the truth that we should always hold everything unspoken with both hands.

To be asked over dinner or coffee with friends and loved ones. Try listening to everyone’s response before discussing:

1 Given the scene in santa Monica where the well-dressed man steps over the homeless person, describe a time when you were the one who for the moment ignored the life around you and a time when you were the one ignored.

2 Tell the story of a recent conversation in which all that was unsaid was greater than what was said. Was this conversation deceptive or revealing?

From Seven Thousand Ways To Listen, © 2013 by Mark Nepo, published by Atria

SEVEN THOUSAND WAYS TO LISTEN
by Mark Nepo

This profound and lyrical book teaches us the lost art of listening. Mark Nepo shows how, as you learn the art of deep listening, you open to the myriad spiritual voices of life that speak to your authentic self and begin to sense the truth and beauty of being alive. Click here to buy.

THE ART OF COMMUNICATING
by Thich Nhat Hanh

Sometimes it s so difficult to choose the right words in our dealings with others. Communication is key to all relationships we have in our life, whether friendships, romance or business, yet still many of us struggle with its most fundamental elements as we fail to really understand how to effectively present our true selves. Click here to buy.