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T4W: Listening

We have a natural bias towards the visual – image pervades our culture -when we visit somewhere new, especially where the scenery is dramatic, it is the landscape that gets our attention – we stop, we look, we photograph it. This bias is not surprising given that sight takes up to one third of our brain and uses about two thirds of its processing capacity – but it does mean we can miss out on  other aspects of our surroundings especially the soundscape which is often more varied and interesting.

A meagre 3% of our brain is dedicated to hearing – that may explain why we find listening difficult. But listening is also challenged by our noisy world. We pump sound into every available space – supermarkets, lifts , city streets, waiting  rooms, our homes – the TV is on, and music is mobile now – we can take it with us – constant static  drowning one thing out with another until we are left with  no perspective at all – swamped by noise.

In his ‘The Screwtape Letters’, C.S. Lewis, discusses ways the devil has for winning souls away from God. In one of these letters, Screwtape, the senior devil, is advising Wormwood, his young nephew, and a trainee devil, on the most effective way to win souls from God.

Wormwood is trying all sorts of elaborate techniques to win the person assigned to him and getting nowhere. Screwtape eventually loses patience and explains to Wormwood that they have a well-established method to seduce people from God. “All you have to do is create enough noise so the person can no longer hear the voice of God and he is yours.”

So Wormwood reverts to this tried and tested technique and soon has his man. In a later letter, Screwtape announces, “ we will make the whole world a noise in the end.” And it doesn’t help that our stone-age brain was never designed for the bombardment of noise and data it gets today – data – feeding the mind’s hunger for information and diversion -24/7 – and squeezing out important alternatives…time for silence, peace, thinking, playing, for doing things that are real rather than two dimensional…

Our relationship with God, (as are all our relationships) is premised on our capacity to listen – prayer is above all an act of listening and it takes work- it is not just hearing which is passive – and the anatomy of listening reveals three things we can do to free up the 3% of our brain set aside for listening:

  • We need to be HUMBLE – put ourselves aside (de-centre)- get off your high horse, shelve ones pre-occupations and create a space for the other- be hospitable.
  • We need to pay ATTENTION/ to focus, “absolute attention is prayer” according to Simone Weil. And our frenetic lifestyle is reducing our ability to pay attention – the average attention span of a goldfish is nine seconds, and according to a new study from the Microsoft Corporation ours is now down to eight seconds….work to do…
  • We need SILENCE: silence to hear the voice of the other and our own internal tappings – silence to hear the deepest needs of our heart and the promptings of the spirit – areas and moments of silence – time and space to hear the voice of the other. Take a technology detox – dare to switch off our gadgets.