Sunday, February 26, 2012

Receptivity ii: On listening to people

Besides for its centrality in our connection to G-d, listening plays a crucial role in the interpersonal sphere. This role can be understood by observing two basic differences between seeing other people and listening to them:

1) When seeing people we primarily perceive their physical body; when listening to them, we experience their spirit. For through speech individuals articulate their thoughts, feelings, and beliefs for us to hear.

2) When we see people they appear external to ourselves; we have a distinctive sense that they are ‘over there’- standing in front of us, or by our side. In contrast, when listening to others, the words they speak seem to enter inside us, becoming part and parcel of our own spirit, changing the way we think and feel.

To bring these differences to life, I want you to become aware of the two main ways that you are experiencing this book: seeing and hearing. Though the book is not audible, your mind still translates the letters into a voice heard within your head. Since these two senses are interconnected you may need to alternate between them a few times in order to discern the perspective provided by each.

You should notice how seeing the book allows you to perceive only the material paper and ink – the ‘body’ of the book- while listening to it allows you to experience the messages it contains – the ‘soul’ of the book. Furthermore, the dimension of the book that you see appears external to you – in your hand or on the table – while the dimension of the book that you hear enters inside your mind and heart.

It follows that a relationship based primarily on sight offers a superficial physical connection, where the parties feel separate from each other; one based predominantly on listening, however, engenders an intimate spiritual bonding, where the parties feel themselves merging, becoming one.

Listening is important in interpersonal relations in other ways as well.  One such way is expressed in the advice a distinguished rabbi offered his son on how to properly study Talmud:

“All your efforts in studying questions raised by ancient commentaries on the Talmud should be to ‘listen’ to the questions and to fully understand them. Discovering solutions is no reason to rejoice; on the contrary, it is usually a sign you misunderstood the full depth of the questions.”

 Why was the rabbi so concerned about his son attempting to answer the commentaries questions? His logic was quite simple: if the commentators, who had a prodigiously deep and broad knowledge of the Talmud, failed to answer these questions, then his son surely cannot.  And, if he apparently does, it is most likely that he misunderstood their questions and is answering his own shallow interpretation of them. His answers are thus not addressing the commentator’s questions at all.

This teaching holds an important message concerning our interactions with others. We must listen carefully to what others say to ensure our response to them directly addresses the point they make. This is crucial when someone turns to us with a philosophical question or for advice. If we fail to accurately understand their question, our answer may not only be irrelevant but damaging and misleading. Furthermore, the recipient is less likely to take our advice seriously if he feels we haven’t fully understood his issue or empathized with him.

The rule is as follows: If someone comes to you for advice and you have an immediate or simple solution for them, ask yourself the following questions: have I fully reflected on the details and implications of the issue? Have I attempted to imagine myself in the other’s position to get a sense of how difficult and complicated their predicament is? Have I asked them enough questions regarding their issue to get the full picture? If not, then you are probably not addressing their issue, but only your own rough interpretation.

Another way good listening is important at the interpersonal level is in making a speaker feel important; poor listening, however, makes him feel redundant. Since people often associate listening with taking or receiving, they may feel that inattentiveness causes a speaker no harm. In truth, however, listening is possibly the noblest and deepest way of giving, and withholding it can cause immeasurable damage.
This is based on the notion that people need to feel important and powerful, and that these feelings, or their absence, largely determine a person’s state of well being and ability to function in the world. When we are receptive to another, affected by their words or actions, they feel potent, capable of influencing their environment. Such empowerment motivates them to further influence the world, and as a result their life becomes meaningful and worthwhile.

When, however, we are not receptive to another, ignoring them or being apathetic toward their efforts, we make them feel unimportant and weak. Repeated exposure to such non-receptivity can, in the extreme, cause one to feel like a phantom ghost; he feels his own existence, but is non-existent to everyone else. There is nothing more demoralizing; nothing more discouraging; nothing more depressing.

Imagine teaching a class of disinterested students who repeatedly yawn and show no appreciation for your teachings. Surely you would have little incentive to continue teaching them. In contrast, if your audience is receptive, inspired and affected by your teaching, you feel accomplished and empowered, motivated to teach more and better classes.

Our Sages emphasize the importance of feeling that the environment is receptive to us when they state, “Know what is above you: an eye that sees, an ear that hears, and all your actions are recorded in a book.” This teaching is commonly interpreted as a warning not to sin since one is constantly under G-d’s scrutiny. However, a deeper interpretation, one pertinent to our discussion exists:

Every person simultaneously exists in three worlds: his thought is in the world of Beriyah – Creation, his speech resides in the world of Yetzirah – Formation, while his actions are in the world of Asiyah – Action, our physical universe. A person’s every thought, speech and action alter – for better or worse - the corresponding worlds; a message underscored in the above teaching: ‘An eye that sees’ refers to the world of Beriyah, the realm of our thought. Since thoughts are chiefly visual in nature they are seen by the world of Beriyah; ‘an ear that hears’ alludes to Yetzirah, the residence of our speech. Speech is audible, its affects are thus heard by Yetzirah; finally, “the book” alludes to the world of Action, the realm of time and space. The pages of a book allude to space, while the text, which requires time to read and is in an orderly linear sequence is reminiscent of the sequence of time. Hence our ‘actions recorded in a book’ implies that they directly influence the physical universe - Asiyah.

The message in our every action being recorded, every word being heard, and every thought being seen, is that we are important beings influencing higher and lower worlds with every minor self expression. The cosmos is fully receptive to us; forever changed by our behavior. This truth makes life meaningful; crowning man with power. The message is not: ‘there is no escape’; the message is: ‘we can move worlds!’

Receptivity is arguably the greatest form of giving for at least two reasons:

a)     When we give to people in ways other than being receptive to them, such as by teaching, lending money, offering advice, etc, we tend to benefit them in specific and localized areas. When we are receptive to them, in contrast, we endow them with an all-pervasive and general feeling of importance, one that can directly influence every aspect of their self and every activity they engage in.

b)    The ultimate purpose for receiving things is to use them to benefit the world. Hence, when we give to another, be it something material such as money, or spiritual such as wisdom and love, we are supply them with the means to influence the world; though not necessarily will they ever come to use them. When we are receptive to another, however, and thereby encourage him to further share his gifts and talents, we allow him to connect with the ultimate purpose of his life.

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