TRUE LISTENING OCCURS BEYOND THE KNOWN
In this piece, we will look at whether we are open to seeing beyond our habitual and invisible thinking – to seeing what is.
Seeing through our hidden beliefs – you know, those ingrained beliefs we have kept on file forever.
Our beliefs about who we are, who we think others are, how life is, and how it should be – according to us.
Being open only occurs when we genuinely surrender our position on what we are discussing or on what we are reading.
Being open occurs when we enter a state of not knowing, not believing or disbelieving, neither agreeing nor disagreeing, not having an opinion, and being free of judgment.
It occurs when we stop thinking what we believe is ‘the truth’ – ‘the truth’ of anything and everything we hold in our memory, which we have been accumulating since birth.
Unshackled from our ‘conditioned’ mind, we open to genuinely hearing another.
ARE WE OPEN, CLOSED, OR DECEPTIVELY RECEPTIVE?
We mostly kid ourselves if we think we are listening to another.
We habitually listen to our beliefs, opinions, judgements and knowledge.
About what the other is saying or writing, comparing as we go:
I agree – I disagree – Yes – No – Good – Bad – Amazing – Rubbish.
We might be able to “fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time”, but we can never fool ourselves into not knowing so long as we continue to entertain the idea that we do know.
Can you and I listen via fresh Thought, and therefore from our state of Possibility, when we hold the idea that we know ‘the truth’ about any aspect of our life?
Especially that belief, the one we hold so dear, so precious, and is so much a part of who we believe we are? Christian, Muslim, Hindu, atheist, Democrat, Republican, Left, Right, understood, misunderstood – you name it.
That ‘certainty’ we have, the one you and I are so convinced is ‘the truth’, is the one I am asking you to consider. Can you ever drop that?
WE SAY WE ARE OPEN, BUT DO WE KNOW WHAT IT IS TO BE OPEN?
Most of us are closed to Possibility – our ultimate state of openness – much of the time. Paradoxically, this is especially problematic for those of us who genuinely think we are open to it.
Those who have explored science, religion, spirituality, philosophy, psychology and meditation may find it more challenging to let go of what they believe is ‘the truth’.
Yes, seeing beyond our well-considered, deeply reflected upon and carefully examined reality is tricky. We have immersed ourselves in it so completely. And we can develop a well-camouflaged arrogance and certainty about life and ‘the truth’.
Often, we are the ones that don a mask of humility and openness, hiding our belief that we have life worked out – that we know ‘the truth’.
This occurs when we have become wedded to a particular faith, philosophy, belief or spiritual system. Our certainty can be so ingrained that we fail to see how those ideas have become our way of seeing and living life – rather than seeing and living our life free of doctrine.
We do not see that we have stopped seeing beyond our once new but now limiting, memorised and mesmerising reality!
This can be true, especially if we have seen beyond the veil of our illusion in a moment of revelation. We start believing we have found ‘the ultimate truth’ and then live our life ‘smoking our own dope’ – we are closed to Possibility.
Momentarily freed, our beliefs again dominate our way of seeing and engaging with the world. We have ceased seeing what is and resume business as usual – seeing and hearing what we remember life to be.
Being open is impossible once we stop looking to the unknown – to the yet-to-be-seen.
WHAT DOES IT TAKE?
To recognise whether we are genuinely open or just sounding like, acting like, and giving the appearance that we are, requires that we intentionally take the position of ‘not knowing’.
We are open and able to truly listen to another when we bypass our knowledge, beliefs, opinions and judgements. That level of listening comes from a more profound understanding that what the other person is expressing does not represent ‘the truth’ either.
And why is it not always obvious when someone appears open but is not?
Why do we often get misled by their apparent openness, only to find that they were closed?
I USED TO THINK I WAS OPEN, AND TOO OFTEN STILL DO!
Today, because of the nature of my work, some might think that John Wood is an open-minded person.
Even though I am dedicated to being open, I can be blind to my closed mind; and it’s laughable and sometimes embarrassing when I realise just how closed I am. Or worse, when being ‘deceptively receptive’ – i.e. fooling myself into thinking and acting as if I am open.
I thought I knew those areas in my life where I was a closed shop.
For example, I eat a strict vegetarian, primarily vegan diet and have done so for most of my life. I was (and still am) committed to a particular diet, and in the past, my mind was closed when someone challenged my choice.
I no longer defend my vegetarian diet, suggest, or think that being a vegetarian is the right or best way to eat.
According to the 21st-century Collins Dictionary, the word ‘open’ means ‘not closed or barred; affording free passage, access, view; not blocked or obstructed; not sealed, fastened or wrapped; having the interior part accessible’.
This definition seemed to fit the way I saw my openness.
However, my wife Ronnie had a different view.
She often told me I was closed and used the words’ inflexible’, ‘rigid’, ‘self-opinionated’ and ‘arrogant’ (views shared by others) to describe me.
My life’s journey was about being open. My work as a counsellor, coach, adviser and teacher demanded openness.
The proverb states: ‘THERE ARE NONE SO BLIND AS THOSE THAT WILL NOT SEE.’
One glorious spring morning in Western Australia’s stunning southwest forest country, while I was looking through a huge picture window, soaking in the early morning sun, it suddenly dawned on me that Ronnie was right.
My wife and others had been experiencing something about me I had been closed to – something I had previously not seen. Suddenly, I saw what was evident to others.
Years after Ronnie’s first feedback (and countless others), the penny dropped on that glorious morning. I had an insight. I awoke to the previously unseen – I had a fresh flow of Thought and saw Possibility.
It became clear that, rather than being open, I was, at best, merely receptive.
Receptive was not being open, but instead was a deceptive way of appearing to be open – deceptive to others and me. Receptive had, until that moment, looked open to me.
This insight hit hard!
For the first time, I saw that open and receptive were poles apart.
The 21st-century Collins Dictionary definition of ‘receptive’ is: ‘able to apprehend quickly; tending to receive new ideas or suggestions favourably; able to hold or receive’.
I was generally able to apprehend beliefs quickly, receive new ideas or suggestions favourably, and hold or receive opinions (that I agreed with). I was receptive at best – but no way was I ever genuinely open.
In that moment of seeing Possibility, I saw how being receptive blocked a person from being open.
What is so self-deceiving and potentially deceptive to others is that being receptive can give the impression to both the speaker (you) and the listener (me) that the listener (me) is open.
We use the words open and receptive interchangeably. Receptivity, like openness, is considered a positive quality. However, that is not the case regarding genuinely listening to another.
Regarding being genuinely open, receptivity is as open as closed.
Receptive is being closed with the camouflage of friendly, urbane packaging. A nice smile and a warm disposition can give the appearance of openness.
We learn to believe we know ‘the truth’ and fail to engage with life under the influence of Possibility and genuine openness to others’ points of view – to the yet-to-be-seen. We find it hard to move beyond ‘I agree’ or ‘I disagree’ and be with ‘not knowing’.
We kid ourselves into thinking we are listening to the other.
We habitually listen to our own beliefs, opinions, judgements and knowledge about what the other is saying or writing – comparing and contrasting as we go: I agree. I disagree. Yes. No. Good. Bad. Amazing. Ordinary.
DISTINGUISHING BETWEEN BEING OPEN AND DECEPTIVELY RECEPTIVE?
As I said, I eat a vegetarian diet. Vegetarians, particularly vegans, have a well-earned reputation for being closed, more than a tad defensive, and sometimes hostile around the question of eating non-plant food of any description.
The following three examples look at being closed, receptive, and open in a short conversation about the value of eating meat.
Let me be clear. I’m not suggesting that you have to be open.
To see Possibility, you need to be open, and being so is a lot more demanding of us than it might seem.
Phil (an omnivore), like James (a vegetarian), is interested in health and nutrition. What follows is a snippet from three conversations with James when he is in a closed, then a receptive and finally an open state of mind:
CLOSED – (JAMES DOES NOT SEE POSSIBILITY)
Phil to James: ‘I can’t see how you will get enough protein from a vegetarian diet. I understand that you will likely suffer the consequences from a sustained lack of sufficient, high-quality protein in your old age.’
James replies with a much-used response to such a proposition: ‘Well, Phil, elephants, one of the largest, strongest and long-lived animals, get enough protein from eating only plants. Being vegetarian doesn’t seem to affect their old age. And what about the gorilla …!’
James’s reply is adversarial. He will discover nothing new about how Phil sees health and nutrition and the benefits of eating meat. Nor is Phil likely to gain any potentially helpful information about the possible benefits of a vegetarian diet because of James’s defensive response.
In this exchange, James is making his usual retort to such challenges to his vegetarian beliefs. He has potentially turned their conversation into a debate that may escalate into an argument rather than a conversation exploring an idea. James is closed – game, set and match.
The following example shows how sounding receptive, James can seem open – and how doing so is a camouflage, hiding the reality that he is closed.
RECEPTIVE (JAMES IS STILL NOT ABLE TO SEE POSSIBILITY)
To the same proposition, James says, under the deceptive guise of openness: ‘Well, Phil, I have considered the same question many times. I am open to and interested in what you have to say. But at the same time, how do you explain that the elephant, the largest and strongest of animals, eats only a vegetarian diet and lives to a ripe old age? And think about it: the gorilla, much closer to man, is primarily vegetarian. Stronger and longer-lived animals are hard to find among meat-eaters. But please, Phil, tell me more about what you think.’
In this example, James seems, on the surface, much less defensive – and is even open to Phil’s point of view. You might say he is receptive to an exchange of ideas and discussion. His tone and words are much less adversarial and more engaging – warm. He is inviting Phil to consider his point of view and is even asking him for more input.
James shows he is a skilled conversationalist but with a set mind. He is doing his best to be open and engaging. But despite his pleasant response, James’s mind remains closed. He is convinced (he knows for sure) that vegetarianism is the best diet for humans. He will look for ways of proving his point. He is not exploring what Phil knows.
Because James is holding onto his beliefs around vegetarianism, he will discover or see nothing new about the possible benefits of eating meat. Although even disguised to himself (and possibly to Phil too) by his deceptively receptive way of engaging, his mind remains in compare-and-contrast mode.
James’s thinking is (as in the first example) caught in the trap of knowing (being right about vegetarianism), and his bottom line is to disagree, so making Phil wrong.
The distinction can sometimes be more subtle and complex than in this example.
Most of us, in fact, all of us, for at least some of the time, are just like James.
And again, I’m not suggesting it’s compulsory to be open. If we want to see Possibility, then being truly open is the gateway.
OPEN (JAMES IN A STATE OF MIND TO SEE POSSIBILITY)
Finally, to the same proposition. James intentionally releases his convictions around vegetarianism. He puts them aside.
Letting go of our beliefs can be hard to do. With practice and intention, it’s possible.
Remember: seeing Possibility and the kindness, understanding, wisdom and common sense inherent in that state is the potential reward. The other is that our relationships improve.
James responds with authentic neutrality: ‘Phil, I’m interested in what you know about the value of eating meat. Tell me what you know.’
James, in this conversation, is genuinely not interested in what he thinks he knows about meat-eating or vegetarianism. He is open to understanding what Phil knows. He puts aside his knowledge and beliefs and opens up to Phil.
The conversation flows, with Phil explaining to James the nutritional and health advantages of eating meat. James asks Phil questions, seeking more information about what Phil knows and how he came to those conclusions.
James is not trying to find any weakness in Phil’s position.
James does not give examples of how or why vegetarianism might be better unless Phil asks. Then he might, but only if he sees that Phil wants to know what he thinks (i.e., is genuinely open) rather than just being a polite conversationalist.
James’s interest is genuine in finding out why Phil sees value in eating meat. He is not pushing his barrow of vegetarianism and has nothing on his mind other than holding the intention of listening deeply to Phil.
James is entirely open to discoveries around the value of a diet that includes eating animal protein – and, more broadly, about his new friend, Phil.
This conversation is not about point scoring, disagreeing, or even different points of view, as were the first two, although James’s apparent receptivity disguised his intentions in the second one.
This conversation is an exploration by James of the unknown – Phil’s view on eating meat.
Nor is this conversation about agreeing.
James is coming from a position of genuine neutrality and discovery – of not knowing. He is listening under the influence of Possibility – being his most open in each moment of the conversation.
Being open doesn’t mean James will: give up his vegetarianism, remain a vegetarian, or that he needs to defend being a vegetarian. It doesn’t mean anything other than he is truly open to seeing what is on the other side of (beyond) his thinking around being a vegetarian.
As a vegetarian for a significant part of my life, this topic of conversation was a litmus test for me on being open. I still don’t always pass the test (if I am tired or sense the other person is looking for a debate rather than a conversation).
Hand on heart, if I recognise that I can’t shift to being open, I joke about the subject, close or change the conversation. I don’t want to defend my vegetarianism or any other aspect of my life.
So, being closed is being closed.
Being receptive might be listening to what someone is saying with attention and even good grace, but don’t be fooled. We are closed if one’s mind is lost in opinions, judgements or personal beliefs.
No matter our opinion, we cannot apply it to or judge what someone is saying and, at the same time, be open to them and their ideas – and more to the point, open to Possibility. It’s impossible: we are not wired as humans to simultaneously hold two differing thoughts in our minds.
Being open means: ‘free passage and access; our mind is not blocked or obstructed. Our interior is accessible.’
The examples, I hope, clarify the distinction between receptive and open.
In holding the hidden opinion, ‘I disagree’, even though we may appear receptive to what they are saying, we are closed while having that view.
And again, don’t be fooled. We are equally closed if we hold the opinion ‘I agree’ and are genuinely receptive to what is said. We are assessing what the other is communicating with a concurring belief. We are not open. We are involved with our ideas and closed to the other person’s view, even though it may be very similar to our own.
The acid test as to whether we are open or not is this: are we evaluating, comparing, contrasting, or judging what another is saying? Or are we allowing their ideas in, holding these ideas feather lightly and reflecting on them with interest and curiosity?
BEING OPEN IS A STATE OF AWARENESS
Being open is experienced in a heightened state of awareness—that has us seeing through and beyond our conditioning.
Being open is a state free of opinion, positive or negative – free of agreement or disagreement.
Being open is a state of looking to see afresh – not having anything on our mind other than the intention of innocent enquiry.
Being open is a state of discovery.
To be truly open, we experience life beyond – or maybe before – what we know or before what we believe to be ‘the truth’.
To be open, we are in a state of awareness that has our already formed memory relegated to the ‘back of the bus’.
In being open, we are close to the unknown. In this state of openness, we will most likely experience the yet-to-be-seen – fresh Thought and Possibility.
If we are closed or receptive, what we know is always expressed as ‘agreement’, ‘disagreement’ or even ‘the jury is out’. In that state, we live life from the past, from memory, the form Thought has already taken for us.
The formless and fresh is temporally blocked.
Holding any position (including whether you agree with this statement) is to be closed. To be open is to be unshackled from the known – our accumulation and open to Possibility.
Being in a state of holding an active opinion or position is, as said, our state of impossibility.
The question that remains (and be honest with yourself at this moment) is: are you open when you think you are or are you deceiving yourself by being receptive? By being polite, friendly, a so-called good listener or a warm human being?
Because our minds are so busy processing our beliefs, opinions, judgements, memories and imaginings, it’s unlikely that becoming open can be achieved immediately.
With patience and seeing our thinking for what it is, we can move into that state of innocence – of not knowing.
Getting into a state of being open is the state of awareness necessary for seeing Possibility.