Mark Nepo: How to Listen to Your Life
Listening is a personal pilgrimage that takes time and a willingness to lean into life. With each trouble that stalls us and each wonder that lifts us, we're asked to put down our conclusions and feel and think anew. Unpredictable as life itself, the practice of listening is one of the most mysterious, luminous and challenging art forms on earth. Each of us is by turns a novice and a master—until the next difficulty or joy undoes us.
In truth, listening is the first step to peace. When we dare to quiet our minds and all the thoughts we inherit, the differences between us move back, and the things we have in common move forward. When we dare to quiet the patterns of our past, everything starts to reveal its kinship and share its aliveness. And though we can always learn from others, listening is not a shortcut, but a way to embody the one life we're given, a way to personalize the practice of being human.
In real ways, we're invited each day to slow down and listen. But why listen at all? Because listening stitches the world together. Listening is the doorway to everything that matters. It enlivens the heart the way breathing enlivens the lungs. We listen to awaken our heart. We do this to stay vital and alive. This is the work of reverence: to stay vital and alive by listening with an open heart.
Yet how do we inhabit these connections and find our way in the world? By listening our way into lifelong friendships with everything larger than us, with our life of experience and with each other.
Our friendship with everything larger than us opens us to the wisdom of Source. This is the work of being. Our friendship with experience opens us to the wisdom of life on earth. This is the work of being human. And our friendship with each other opens us to the wisdom of care. This is the work of love. We need to stay loyal to these three friendships if we have any hope of living an awakened life. These three friendships—the work of being, the work of being human and the work of love—frame the journey.
In a daily way, listening is being present enough to hear the One in the many and the many in the One. Listening is an animating process by which we feel and understand the moment we are in, repeatedly connecting the inner world with the world around us, letting one inform the other.
All of this helps us hear who we are because our identity and the reach of our gifts can only be known in relationship. The wave would not exist if not for the reach of the ocean that lifts it, and the mountain would not exist if not for the steadfastness of the earth that supports it. Listening helps us discover our relationship to all that supports us in life. Listening helps us find our place as a living part in a living Universe. And each moment is a new place to start, no matter how overwhelmed we might feel. For the living Universe can be entered at any time by listening to our inmost self. This begins by meeting ourselves and opening our minds to silence. It helps to think of silence as the connective tissue for all life. By listening to silence, we can be nourished by everything that is larger than us.
It is giving our complete attention to the silence that holds our self that awakens us to both the soul's calling and the call of the soul. While the soul's calling is the work we are born to do, the call of the soul is the irrepressible yearning to experience aliveness. The center of our aliveness doesn't care what we achieve or accomplish, only that we stay close to the pulse of what it means to be alive. In doing this, we stay close to the energy of all life.
The deeper we look at listening, the more we find that it has to do with being present, because a commitment to being fully present enables us to listen more to others, to their dreams and pain, to the retelling of their stories. It deepens our compassion. And listening to the history of our heart allows us to hear and feel the sweet ache of being alive.
Each of these ways of listening—to our inmost self, to the silence that joins everything, to the soul's calling for meaningful work, to the call of the soul to simply be alive, to the complete presence of others that holding nothing back opens in us, and to the tug of life and its sweet ache of constant connection—is a practice that deepens our understanding of who we are and of the precious life we're given in our time on earth.
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