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To Really Listen, Give Someone Your Divided Attention

Left unexamined, thoughts and feelings can cloud your reception.

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Do you have a moment? If so, would you be able to give this article your divided attention? I promise you’ll get more out of it if you do.

No, that’s not a typo.

As a longtime music critic and the founder of Beginner’s Ear, a series of transformational listening experiences centered around meditation and sound, I’ve thought a lot about what makes for good listening.  A common notion is that it’s about focus. About handing over your undivided attention.

That does sound like a lovely goal. But the more I study my own mind through meditation, the more I realize it’s an impossible one. And, I’ve come to believe, counterproductive.

Instead, I want to make a bid for listening with artfully divided attention. Done right, it can unlock a deeper connection, whether to a song or a conversation.

When I listen to a person speaking, my mind is firing off reactions all the time. Some are ideas pertaining to the subject at hand. Others are observations on things that pop into my field of vision. Thoughts triggered by background sounds. The niggling realization that my stomach is growling.

Some of those impulses pop up fully verbalized on my inner screen. But others drift unarticulated into the murk of my subconscious. My emotional resistance to an argument.

The emotional halo of a memory that’s been triggered. Impatience with my state of being hungry.

Over time, left unexamined, these build up like silt clouding my reception.

In meditation, we practice noting such distractions in the privacy of our own head. The classic technique is to call an unbidden mental impulse by its name. Just that simple act of labeling – thinking … sensation – helps dissolve the distraction. 

There is a second level to this meditation practice that I found transformational when I first tried it. This is the concept of feeling tones, the possessive charge of – or my relationship to –  a given thought, sensation or emotion.  

In the Buddhist theory of mind, there are only three feeling tones: pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. In meditation, you bring awareness to these whenever a distraction occurs. I might label an itch as: sensationunpleasant. Or a daydream as: thinkingpleasant.

The stated goal of meditation is to devote undivided attention to whatever object is our anchor. Most often that is the breath. Yet the real work happens when we bring awareness to the glitches in our focus. As we become more skillful at illuminating these glitches, our ability to pay attention deepens.

A wonderful way to practice this is with unfamiliar music. If you have an ad-free account on Spotify, try settling down somewhere quiet with this 15-minute playlist and see what happens if you divide your attention between the sounds coming at you and the pings of pleasure, aversion, and clinging that bubble up inside you.

Notice what happens when you acknowledge them and then let them dissipate. See if  you reemerge more clear and receptive. 

And the next time you’re in a conversation, allow your attention to weave back and forth between the speaker and your own inner chatter. The key is not to berate your own mind for being so jumpy. Rather it is about realizing that those inner voices will grow calm as soon as they receive the same thing that your conversation partner craves and deserves: to be heard and acknowledged.

Photo: Mimi Thian on Unsplash

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