Listening to Others, Listening to Ourselves

“Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force…. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.” – Brenda Ueland, author and writing coach

When I was a teenager, my friends and I didn’t spend much of our free time with parents. But one friend’s home was different. As soon as I walked in the front door, my friend’s mother, Mrs. W, greeted me warmly and invited us to come sit by the fireplace. She brought in a tray with a teapot and cups and cookies, and we three would talk. What meant the most to me was that Mrs. W asked questions about my life and then listened respectfully. On one occasion, the conversation turned to relationships with guys. I can still picture Mrs. W’s face tilted towards me, listening with attentive care. After hearing what I had to say, she offered her own perspective. I found I was open to what she had to say because I felt respected. In fact, her listening to me helped me to find, and listen to, my own inner wisdom, my own guidance system, so to speak, and this helped me to make wiser decisions down the road.

I’m so grateful to Mrs. W for how she listened to the young me. Her respectful listening helped me to listen to myself—something that is so essential to us women, whatever age we are.

To be honest, however, listening is not my strongest quality—for example, with my own son. When he does start talking to me about his life perspectives and his concerns, I find that in my eagerness to help I jump in way too quickly to share my wisdom and knowledge. But my talking too much—or too soon—may rob him of his ability to fathom his own wisdom. By not engaging in listening, or even dialoguing, I may be robbing him of listening to his own inner guidance.

So I am taking to heart words I remember my father sharing with me from theologian Paul Tillich, “The first duty of love is to listen.”

I have learned a lot about listening from writer and writing-coach Brenda Ueland. Her writing career spanned the 1900’s, but I find her candid perspectives to be fresh and relevant today. (Carl Sandburg considered her seminal book, If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit, “the best book ever written on how to write.”) In her profession as journalist, as well as in her personal life, she paid attention to the importance of listening. She shared insights in her essay, “Tell Me More.” Ueland asks, “Who are the people…to whom you go for advice? Not to the hard, practical ones who can tell you exactly what to do, but to the listeners; that is, the kindest, least censorious, least bossy people you know. It is because by pouring out your problem to them, you know what to do about it yourself.”

She continues, “Think how the friends that really listen to us are the ones we move toward, and we want to sit in their radius as though it did us good…. It makes people happy and free when they are listened to. And if you are a listener, it is the secret of having a good time in society (because everybody around you becomes lively and interesting), of comforting people, of doing them good.”

When we listen to each other, a creative synergy unfolds. I participated in this synergy with an extraordinary professor I had in college. Dr. David Orme-Johnson, a psychology professor, did not merely lecture. He engaged us students by throwing out an intriguing idea, sparking responses from us, leading to further ideas. I can still picture him writing our ideas on the board with arrows leading from one idea to another, unfolding some new, creative theory that we generated together. What I remember most is not the content of these theories, but rather his genuine enthusiasm in listening to and responding to each of our ideas. I remember feeling incredibly exhilarated in his class.

Brenda Ueland has said, “When we listen to people there is an alternating current, and this recharges us so that we never get tired of each other…and it is this little creative fountain inside us that beg
ins to spring and cast up new thoughts and unexpected laughter and wisdom….”
I have had this very experience with groups of friends, including at the Women’s Transcendental Meditation Center, where we get together over tea and we talk about meaningful topics. Exciting and fulfilling discussions unfold as we listen to and play off each other’s ideas.

So listening allows us to become receptive to deeper, wiser, more creative levels of each other, and of our selves.

But what if we are filled with inner noise or anxiety? Or gripped by strongly held ideas? Are we able to listen to others in a way that is genuine? And more fundamentally, are we able to listen to our own deepest inner wisdom, our own guidance?

My father, a minister, used the term “spiritual radar,” the sense of divine guidance that we have when we are quiet inside. He and I would talk about this inner silence, often in the context of the Bible verse that is sometimes translated as “the still small voice of God,” or “a sound of gentle stillness,” or “a sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:12). From a religious perspective, an essential component of prayer is being able to listen to divine guidance within.

We all experience, however, that when we are stirred up with anxiety, or dulled with fatigue and overwork, or overwhelmed, distracted and stuffed with input from so many sources, we lose connection with that inner sense of wisdom and with creative inspiration as well. This state of mind and body reminds me of an old radio I used to have—filled with static instead of clear musical notes or voices.

Stress does this to us: keeps us jangled and full of chaotic noise, preventing us—even when we have the desire—from being able to hear each other, from being able to hear or sense our deepest, wisest selves.

Ueland states that each of us has a “little creative fountain [that] is in us all.” However, “if you are very tired, strained, have no solitude, run too many errands, talk to too many people, drink too many cocktails, this little fountain is muddied over and covered with a lot of debris. The result is you stop living from the center, the creative fountain, and you live from the periphery, from externals. That is, you go along on mere willpower without imagination.”

Ueland describes this inner fountain—that can be muddied over or blocked—as “the spirit, or the intelligence, or the imagination….”

One of the things that I value so much from the Transcendental Meditation practice is that it allows me to go beyond the noisy surface of awareness and settle into inner quietness, where awareness is clearer. Within our settled state of awareness, we sense or feel wisdom. Founder of the TM technique, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, calls this “the fine feeling level.”

In truly great people, the ability to listen is grounded in authentic humility that comes from inner fullness. Maharishi gives this analogy: It is the full mango tree that naturally bows down in humility.

I am struck by how authentically great people have a natural respect and genuine curiosity for learning from others, recognizing that each individual has something unique and valuable to share.

Two great people I know, who are highly successful leaders in their fields, give a clue to their success with their ability to listen. I remember one of these leaders sitting quietly in a meeting concerning an education program, taking notes as each attendee spoke. At the end, he read a summary of each person’s ideas, and then gave his own response. He showed a willingness to learn, and he made it clear that he had carefully heard each person’s point of view.

Another great person whom I have experienced as a good listener is Rona Abramson, who holds leadership positions in TM for Women, the David Lynch Foundation, and who founded with her husband the Rona and Jeffrey Abramson Center for Peace – Division of the David Lynch Foundation in Washington, D.C. As a group of us sat around her dining table over a delicious meal she had prepared and served, she asked for our views and ideas on several topics and listened with interest, responding with positive appreciation. Talking and listening together, creative ideas flowed.

Can you imagine if we practiced this open and genuine listening in every area of our lives, from family to work to our nation and world? Respectfully listening to each other could allow us to come up with highly creative solutions to challenges, personally and collectively.

As Paul Tillich has said, “All things and all men [and women]…call on us with small or loud voices. They want us to listen. They want us to understand their intrinsic claims, their justice of being. But we can give it to them only through the love that listens.”

Listening to others is grounded in the ability to listen to ourselves. And this ability is grounded in silence, calmness and inner peace, where we touch and feel gentle sources of wisdom and of creative springs. From this experience comes quiet confidence and true strength. And so cultivating this experience is yet another reason why I meditate.

  1. Tillich, Paul (1960). Love, Power and Justice. London: Oxford University Press, 84.
  2. Ueland, Brenda (1993). “Tell Me More” from Strength to Your Sword Arm: Selected Writings. Duluth: Holy Cow! Press.
  3. Ueland, Brenda (1987, 2nd edition). If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit. Graywolf Press.

For more Brenda Ueland see my blog post: Creativity is Sharing, An Overflowing of Fullness

About the Author

Cynthia Johnson is a teacher of the Transcendental Meditation program. She holds a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School and is a mother, wife and writer. She is a contributor to the book A Symphony of Silence: An Enlightened Vision (1st and 2nd editions) by George Ellis.

More Posts by Cynthia E.