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The Monkey and the River

It is said a great Zen teacher asked an initiate to sit by a stream until he heard all the water had to teach. After days of bending his mind around the scene, a small monkey happened by, and, in one seeming bound of joy, splashed about in the stream. The initiate wept and returned […]

Waterfall in deep rain forest jungle (Krok E Dok Waterfall Saraburi) Thailand.
Waterfall in deep rain forest jungle (Krok E Dok Waterfall Saraburi) Thailand.

It is said a great Zen teacher asked an initiate to sit by a stream until he heard all the water had to teach. After days of bending his mind around the scene, a small monkey happened by, and, in one seeming bound of joy, splashed about in the stream. The initiate wept and returned to his teacher, who scolded him lovingly. “The monkey heard. You just listened.”

The difference between listening and hearing.

Before now, we lived between listening and hearing. We lived between work and sleep, to-do lists and loves, weekdays and weekends. The more we listened the more hard edged we became – right was right and wrong was wrong, certainty was the only truth, and clarity was the only reality – listening quieted the thunder of hearing. We plugged in or checked out. Listening was being checked out from the complexity of life. I am not judging listening, that would be to say there is no time and place for disconnecting. In fact, disconnecting makes connecting possible. I am only saying there is real value in hearing and we are being asked to hear now more than ever.

We hear when we want to hear. We listen when we want to listen.

Listening and hearing are a choice. Similar to happiness and sadness, kindness and cruelty, light and dark, we actively choose when we listen and when we hear. When we listen we stay in our head thinking two steps ahead, about a clever response, about something that happened yesterday or a year ago, or about the next thing on our list. When we hear we allow our heart to take the wheel and drive. We notice beauty. We experience wonder. We breathe the air reserved for the joyful.

We can hear intentionally.

To hear intentionally means we actively choose to hear. We create moments to hear. We surround ourselves with people who hear. We value hearing to the extent that when we feel ourselves starved of opportunities to hear, we choose differently. Our intention is toward being awake. Our intention is toward giving. Our intention is toward creating. Our intention is toward love.

Hearing is sacred.

I do not use the word sacred lightly. Sacred is right up there with holy and reverence in the hierarchy of spiritual significance in my book. I can only make a short list of sacred experiences: experiences that defy the everyday and are magic and joy, experiences that remind me that there is a source bigger than I understand that is love manifest, experiences that carry grief and sadness in their warm embrace. Can hearing happen everyday and still be sacred? I believe so. I don’t believe we need to sequester hearing. Rather, we must make hearing as natural as breathing. Right now is a time to hear.

Hearing makes all the difference.

In this world defined by the fierce urgency of now. In this world where the horizon is as wide as our minds allow and simultaneously petrifying. In this world where change is global and deep-seated. In this world where normal is defined by the love we give. Hearing makes all the difference. Hearing allows us to speak in the language of interdependence. Hearing allows us to grow in the earth of worms and soil and water. We are asked to be the monkey in the river. We are asked to hear.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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