Only when dropping all that we know can we hear the essence of what another is saying.
TRUE LISTENING OCCURS BEYOND THE KNOWN
In this article, we will look at whether we are open to seeing beyond our habitual and invisible thinking.
That includes seeing through all those dangerously hidden beliefs. You know, the ingrained beliefs we keep forever on file when thinking about who we are, who we think others are, how life is, and how it should be, according to us.
Being open can only occur when we genuinely surrender our position on what is under discussion or on what we are reading – like now.
It occurs when we enter a state of not knowing, not believing or disbelieving, neither agreeing nor disagreeing, not having an opinion, 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, our accumulation since birth.
Unshackled from our conditioned mind, we open to genuinely hearing another.
ARE WE OPEN, CLOSED, OR DECEPTIVELY RECEPTIVE?
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.
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 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 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 may have explored science, religion, spirituality, philosophy, psychology and meditation may find letting go of what we have become to believe is ‘the truth’ more challenging.
Yes, seeing beyond our well-considered, deeply-reflected-upon and carefully examined reality is tricky. We have immersed ourselves so completely. And we can develop a quiet, 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 arrogance 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 daily way of seeing and living life – rather than seeing and living our life free of doctrine hiding a deeper reality.
We do not see that we have stopped seeing beyond our once new but now limiting, memorised and mesmerising reality!
As said, this can be true, especially if we have seen beyond the veil of our illusion in a moment of revelation, start believing we have found ‘the ultimate truth’ and living life ‘smoking our own dope’ and closed to Possibility.
Momentarily freed, our beliefs again dominate our way of seeing and engaging with the world. We have gone back to sleep. Having ceased seeing what is, we 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 truly open, or just sounding like, acting like, and giving the appearance that we are, requires that we take the open position of not knowing.
We are only ever open and able to truly listen when we bypass our knowledge, beliefs, opinions and judgements – from the understanding that they do not represent ‘the truth’.
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 my work, some might think that John Wood is an open-minded person. Even though 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. Or worse, when being deceptively receptive – i.e. fooling myself into thinking I’m open. We will explore that problematic concept in some detail.
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 the more significant part of my life. I don’t eat any meat, fish, fowl or eggs. I was (and still am) committed to a particular diet, and in the past, my mind was closed when someone challenged my choice.
No longer do I defend my vegetarian diet, nor suggest, or think, while still maintaining a strict regime, that being a vegetarian is the right or best way to eat. I enjoy it when my family, as they sometimes do, poke fun at me being vegetarian and at vegetarians in general – especially vegans! We deserve that.
There were other closed areas, but they seemed, in the scheme of my life, few. I regarded myself as among the ranks of the liberated, open to life’s infinite possibilities. As is so often the case, I was mistaken.
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.
Ronnie, my wife, had a different view. She often told me I was closed and used words to describe me like ‘inflexible’, ‘rigid’, ‘self-opinionated’ and ‘arrogant’ (views shared by others).
Ronnie was correct, but back then, what she saw was invisible to me. My life’s journey was about being open. So was my work as a counsellor, coach, adviser, teacher and businessperson.
I was committed to being open.
Where would she come across a more open human being? What was she on about?
One glorious spring morning in Western Australia’s stunning south-west forest country, looking through a huge picture window, soaking in the early morning sun, it suddenly dawned. 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.
What specifically triggered that insight, I can’t recall. 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!
From where I was now seeing myself, the distinction between receptive and open was the distance between Perth and London. For the first time, I experienced 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 quickly, receive new ideas or suggestions favourably (that I agreed with), and hold or receive (ditto). 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. This enigma will be fleshed out below.
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.
The words open and receptive are used interchangeably. Receptivity, like openness, is considered a positive quality. In terms of listening deeply, it is a trap.
When it comes to being genuinely open, receptivity is as open as is closed. Receptive is simply being closed, cloaked in nice, 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 from the realm of Possibility and genuine openness to others’ point of view. We find it hard to move beyond ‘I agree’, ‘I disagree’ and stay with ‘Not knowing’.
We kid ourselves into thinking we are listening to another. What we habitually do is listen to our own beliefs, opinion, 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. Crap.
HOW DO WE DISTINGUISH BETWEEN BEING OPEN AND RECEPTIVE?
As said, I stay with a vegetarian diet. Vegetarians, particularly vegans, have a well-earned reputation for being closed, more than a tad defensive, sometimes hostile, around the question of eating non-plant food of any description.
The following three examples look at being closed, being receptive, and then being open in a short conversation around the value of eating meat.
I’m not suggesting that you have to be open. I am saying that to see Possibility, you, of necessity, 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 NOT ABLE TO SEE POSSIBILITY):
Phil to James: ‘I can’t see how you will get enough protein from a vegetarian diet. My understanding is that you are likely to suffer the consequences in your old age from a sustained lack of sufficient, good quality protein.’
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 …!’
His 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 around any possible benefits of a vegetarian diet because of James’s reaction.
In this exchange, James is making his usual retort to such challenges to his vegetarian beliefs. He 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 James, sounding receptive, can seem like he is open – and how doing so is a camouflage, hiding the reality that he is closed.
RECEPTIVE (JAMES STILL NOT WILLING 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.
‘On the other hand, how do you explain the fact 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. A stronger and longer-lived animal is hard to find among the meat-eaters. But please, Phil, tell me more about what you think.’
In this example, James seems, on the surface, much less defensive – and even open to Phil’s point of view. You might say he is receptive to an open conversation and discussion. His tone and words are much less adversarial, 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 behind the scenes, his mind is made up. He is doing his best to be open and engaging. But despite his pleasant, sophisticated 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 looking to explore with an open mind, from the realm of Possibility, what Phil knows.
James, because he is holding onto his beliefs around vegetarianism, will discover or see nothing new about the possible benefits of eating meat. Although 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 more complex to see 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, however, 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, but with practice and intention, it’s possible.
Remember that seeing Possibility and the kindness, understanding, wisdom and common sense inherent in that state is the potential reward.
James responds with authentic neutrality: ‘Phil, I’m interested in what you know around 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 intends to put aside his knowledge and beliefs and into opening 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 asked by Phil to do so. Then he will, but only if he sees that Phil wants to know what he might think (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 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.
Nor is this conversation about agreeing. James is coming from a position of genuine neutrality and discovery – of not knowing. He is listening from the realm 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 has 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 then joke about the subject, close or change the conversation as quickly as possible. 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. One’s mind is lost in opinions, judgements or evaluative ideas based on personal beliefs.
No matter what our opinion is, we cannot apply it to or judge what someone is saying and at the same time be open to them, 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 that we allow free passage and access; our mind is not blocked or obstructed. Our interior is accessible—these examples clarify the clear distinction between receptive and open.
In holding, even feather-lightly, the hidden opinion ‘I disagree’, even though we may appear receptive, we are closed to the other person while holding that view.
And again, don’t be fooled. If we hold the opinion ‘I agree’ and genuinely receptive to what is said, we are equally closed. We are judging with a concurring belief. We are not open; we are conspiring with the other person.
The acid test as to whether we are open or not is this: Are we are evaluating, comparing, contrasting, judging what another is saying, or are we allowing their ideas in, and holding these ideas 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 – awareness that has us seeing through and beyond our conditioned mind to The Realm of Possibility.
Being open is a state free of opinion, positive or negative – free of agreement or disagreement.
Open is a state of looking to see afresh – not having anything on our mind other than the intention of innocent enquiry.
Open is a state of discovery. To be truly open, we experience life beyond – or maybe it’s before – what we know, beyond or before what we believe to be ‘the truth’.
To be open, we are in a state of awareness that has our memory, the already formed, relegated to the ‘back of the bus’.
Being open is when we are as close to the unknown as is possible for each of us at our present state of awareness. In that state of openness, we are most likely to experience fresh Thought and see Possibility. We can call this state the unknown or the yet-to-be-seen.
If we are closed or receptive, what we know is always expressed in the form of ‘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.
To hold a position, any position (including whether you agree or disagree with this statement) is to be closed, whereas to be open is to be temporarily unshackled (other than of one’s best attempt to be free to hear).
Being in a state of holding an active opinion or position is, as said, our state of impossibility.
When I thought I was open, I was not. I was, at my best, deceptively receptive, and my receptivity fooled me into thinking I was open. However, I didn’t mislead Ronnie or many others.
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, being a so-called good listener or being 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 in 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.
Warmly … John