Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Practicing the Discipline of Listening

"In the Silence"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

I’ve been thinking about the many monasteries I have visited over the course of my life. I have spent time in Christian monasteries in the United States, Italy and Great Britain and I have visited Buddhist monasteries in South Korea. As I think about it, the one common characteristic of all these different monasteries is the fact that, for the most part, monks spend little or no time actually “talking” to one another unless it is absolutely necessary to do so.

Today (July 11) is “Saint Benedict’s Day” on the Christian calendar. Back in the 6th century Benedict established his first monastery and wrote a “Rule of Life” for his monks to follow in their common life together. To this very day, this ancient Benedictine “Rule” is practiced in virtually every Christian monastery throughout the Western world.  In fact, St. Benedict is known as the “Father of Western Monasticism.” Although the “Rule” is fairly complex, establishing specific times for prayer, work, study and rest, the very first word in this rule is:


In some sense this one single word summarizes the entire spiritual direction followed over the ages by all the monks who live together in the Benedictine tradition -they practice “listening” as  the ultimate discipline on a spiritual journey. This is why monks spend way more time listening than talking. The goal of the monastic life (in the West as well as in the East) is to “listen” and to pay attention to what is revealed in each and every present moment.

Years ago, when I first began to spend time in monasteries, I used to think that the “no talking” rule was kind of silly. After all, we learn from one another by “talking,” by sharing and discussing ideas. I have since come to realize that if I am not always talking, I am much more prone to listen and when I listen and pay attention to what “is” I am far more likely to discover what life has to offer as opposed to what I want or expect life to offer.

I have come to believe that the practice of the discipline of listening may be the ultimate discipline for any spiritual journey - not just a “Rule of Life” for monks who live together in a monastery.

I am reminded of something I once read from an article in one of my Buddhist magazines:

Ancient human beings survived by listening,
constantly scanning their environment for an awareness of sounds.
But the modern world has become so full of white noise,
that people have literally changed the way they listen.

Instead of keeping our ears open to everything,
we turn out the drone of a leaf blower
or the noisy sound of passing traffic.
We only listen for what we think is important
and we filter out what is unimportant before we even hear it,
and so we don’t make ourselves available
to all the many sounds that come to us
in each and every present moment.

On this “Saint Benedict’s Day” I recommit myself to the practice of listening more carefully in my everyday life. I hear the sound of the trash trucks coming up my street, a dog is barking in the distance, the air conditioner is humming, a breeze is blowing through the palm trees and the fountain in my garden is gurgling and bubbling. There are so many sounds in every present moment – the beautiful harmony of existence, the voice of “God.”


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