As anyone who has been in a relationship for any length of time knows, there is a big difference between hearing and listening. In the early days of any relationship, romantic or otherwise, we listen very carefully to the other person when they speak. As we become more familiar with people we may hear them but not with the same attention. I can recall with incredible clarity what Colin and I talked about on our first date, despite the eagle-sized butterflies in my stomach. I was as present and aware of every detail of the day as I have ever been. If you asked me the details of a conversation from this past weekend I would have a harder time. It is not for lack of interest. I still think that at any given moment Colin is the most interesting person in the room, it’s just that familiarity makes it easy to confuse hearing and listening.
Hearing is what happens when I ask my children to empty the dishwasher and they don’t move. They have heard me…but they aren’t listening. Listening is what happens when you calmly tell them several hours later that ignoring my requests makes me feel rotten, and emptying the dishwasher and making beds is just being a part of the team. Listening makes change, but in our family for people to listen to each other, voices can’t be raised and eye contact is necessary. Yelling, snipping, or coming from a place of exasperation pretty much assures that no one in my house will listen to you.
Thich Nhat Hanh, a well known contemporary Buddhist scholar, talks about “listening deeply” or “listening skillfully.” These are practices that one develops through meditation. By learning to listen to the rhythms of our own mind we are better able to listen to other people. We learn how to listen by being quiet and practicing non-judgmental awareness of what comes up in our own minds. It is the same when we are talking to a friend, a stranger, a family member, we have to see that person as they are, not as we wish they were, not rush them through to express our opinion, or in the case of loved ones, without the layers of history between us.
Skillful listening is something we can all develop. At one time or another it has come naturally to us: a friend in crisis, a new love, a child’s first words, but then we relax back into hearing rather than listening. These days I am working on really listening deeply, giving those around me my total attention. When I listen with my whole heart I am a better wife, mother, or friend. Like any practice it starts by noticing when you aren’t doing it, and gently drawing yourself back into the present moment. Eventually it becomes easier, replacing the old habit of hearing, with a new habit of listening.
The conventional wisdom is that it takes 21 days to change or create a habit, although new research suggests that it can take much longer. I have always been really interested in the relationship between routines and habits. Routines are based on habitual behaviors while habits themselves can exist outside of routine. For example, I have a habit of biting my lip. I do this regardless of the time of day or whether or not I am driving or watching tv; it’s just something I do. It is a habit that is not influenced by the rhythm of my day.
One of the things about moving to a new house and a new place is that so many of our routines were changed. I have written extensively over the last few months about how moving or transition can be an opportunity to integrate new habits or cut out things that don’t serve you. Lately, I have been thinking about reward systems for new habits. An example of this would be a meditation practice. Students always want to know how they will be able to tell that this habit of meditation is “working.” In any workshop or class this is always a tricky question. How do we encourage a habit or create a routine when there is no clear timeline or obvious payoff?
I used to tell students that the reward would be that they would be more available to the present moment, more awake to the nuances and habits of their own minds. I still believe that this is true, but it is the kind of answer that implies that without a formal meditation practice you are sleepwalking through life. This is not at all true. Meditation, yoga or a routine quiet activity or period of reflection is an important habit to introduce into every day simply because time moves extremely fast. I find that my days are a blur of activity, much of it shaped by routine. Every morning our house bustles until the last door has slammed and then it is completely quiet. Then every afternoon it again swells with movement and noise until everyone has eaten, fulfilled their last commitments of the day, brushed their teeth and then fallen asleep — only to do it all again the next day.
If we don’t build time into every day to reflect or slow down we are simply riding a wave of routine, which will happily carry us day after day, week after week. By taking time each day to stop moving, or to walk, run, swim, with total attention to the present moment, we are actually stepping outside of the rhythm of routine for just a moment. Taking that time is the closest thing that I have ever found to a reset button, taking a chance to step back and make sure that we are really experiencing things rather than just orchestrating them. A routine is an orchestrated set of habits that keeps your life running smoothly, but if you don’t examine it you can very easily lose touch with the fulfilling and exciting parts of an ordinary day.
I encourage everyone to add in something new for 21 days, some new challenge that shakes things up a little. It can be a meditation practice, or a change to your exercise routine. It can be learning a new skill that requires concentration, just something out of the ordinary. Twenty one days may not be the magic number but it is certainly a start. If our routines are running the show, it’s only because we let them. Introducing new habits, challenging ourselves to shake things up a little bit will bring a freshness and a vitality to everything we do.
It is almost always the simple things that matter most. Recently, we took our children on a trip where they were able to see and experience some of the greatest art and architecture in the world. We had a wonderful time, but everyone agreed that one of our most fun afternoons was spent in a park while we lay in the sun and the boys shot cans with a small homemade bow and arrow. We could have been anywhere, we happened to be in France. Sometimes, I think we lose sight of the fact that our situation is as much shaped by our attitude as by circumstance.
Obviously, it is easier to have a good attitude lying in the grass, under a warm sun with a full belly than it is doing deep knee bends on an airplane trying to calm a tantrumming child and ignore the stares of other passengers. Neither experience lasts forever, even when you wish it would or it feels like it might. One of the most valuable lessons I have learned from having a special needs child is to let things go, both good and bad. When our children were babies and sleep was an enormous issue, I remember thinking there was a perfect sleep recipe. The pajamas they had worn for their first long good sleep, became the “magic pajamas” or the sheets on the bed, or the meal I had, had before nursing. Certainly, you can do things that support good sleep for your baby, routine being one of them. But, every parent soon figures out that some nights they will sleep even with a marching band going through their bedrooms and other nights they won’t no matter what.
It is the same with everything in life, you can plan elaborate and exciting adventures for your family, and they can be great. Or you can all snuggle up onto the same couch and watch Fetch and sometimes that is better and was a happy accident. Being able to maintain equanimity in the face of anything, is what allows us to truly be at ease. We cannot control the outcome of any situation especially when children are involved. What we can control is our response. Some days will be awful, you will receive bad news, your bank account will be empty, loved ones will be in pain, other days you will find yourself lying in the sun in Paris. Life is like that. I am trying to greet both the good and bad with the same joyful attitude, the way one would meet an old friend. Inconvenience, sadness, joy, and ease, all familiar, all fleeting, all guests at the same table.