Chapter 5: The Art of Listening
The first trick is: we hear only that which we want to and not what is being said. With great cleverness we hear what lets us remain as we are; nothing goes in which may cause a change in us. This is not only the observation of the sages; scientists who have carried out research on the human mind say that ninety-eight percent of what we hear we do not take in. We only hear the two percent that fits into our understanding; that which doesn’t, cannot bypass the many obstructions.
Anything that synchronizes with your understanding cannot change you. It can only help to reinforce that understanding. Rather than transform you it gives yet more stones and cement to strengthen your foundations.
The Hindu hears only what strengthens his Hindu mind; the Muslim hears only what strengthens the Muslim mind; so also the Sikh, the Christian, the Buddhist. If you listen only to strengthen your own preconceptions, to strengthen your own house, then you will miss hearing completely, for truth has no connection with Hindu or Muslim or Sikh. It has nothing to do with the conditioning of your mind.
Only when you set aside your entire way of thinking will you be able to understand what Nanak means; however, this is a very difficult thing to do, because our concepts are invisible They are microscopic, or as transparent as a wall of glass; they cannot be seen. Unless you knock against them you are not conscious of their existence. You think that there is wide open space ahead, and the sun, moon, and the stars. You are not aware of the transparent wall in between.
Hearing a speaker you tell yourself that he is correct when what he says is consistent with your thoughts. to other things you say that it is not so because it disagrees with your thoughts. So you are not truly listening but only lend your ear to what agrees with you and strengthens your opinion. The rest, that you don’t care about, you ignore and forget. Even if you do happen to hear something that is contrary to your understanding, you tear it to bits with your reasoning, because one thing you are sure of: whatever matches your thoughts is correct, what doesn’t is incorrect, false.
If you have attained truth there is no further need to listen, but you have not attained truth so it is incumbent on you to listen. How can you still be searching for the truth if you have the idea that you have already attained it? Instead, you have to stand before truth absolutely bare, empty, void, naked. If your scriptures, your beliefs, your doctrines stand in the way you will never be able to listen; whatever falls on your ears will be nothing but the echo of your own concepts and you will hear only your own thoughts throbbing within you. Then Nanak’s words will seem a preposterous exaggeration.
Another way to escape listening is to fall asleep when something significant is being said. This is a trick the mind uses to save itself; it is a very deep process by which, when something is about to touch you, you fall asleep.
I was a guest at the house of a very learned pundit. He was well-versed in the shastras and there was no one to equal him in reading the Ramayana. Thousands of people came to hear him. We were staying in the same room and as we put off the lights to prepare to sleep, I heard his wife come in. She spoke in a low tone but I could still hear. “Please say something to Munna. He won’t go to sleep.”