Listening Heads


Patience opens the door to resilience. It generates a gap, also known as Mindful Gap. That gap is space. It is wisdom. When we create this gap, we’re creating a kind of safety zone that can help us begin to accept the situation we’re in. And acceptance is essential when we’re dealing with difficult challenges in our lives.

Our resilience comes down to how much we can face an adverse circumstance with patience, tolerance, and acceptance. When we have very little tolerance, that results in a more intense experience of suffering. And if we have a great amount of tolerance, if our mind is clear, lucid, and stable, if there is balance in our mind, that will result in an experience of very little suffering.

Our level of patience, then, determines whether we’re able to befriend a particular circumstance as a support for accomplishing our goals and aspirations. So patience is a very important quality to develop. Patience is the gateway to resilience.

We all know the word “patience.” But in a tangible sense, what does patience look like? What does tolerance look like to you? For me, a good example of patience is the act of listening.

Test Your Own Patience
The degree to which we are able to listen, or not, is a good indicator of our level of patience.

Especially when our patience is really tested. Say you hear something that you don’t want to hear, or that you don’t agree with. Or sometimes you’re in a situation where you feel that you’d rather talk than listen. When you feel those things, you can look to see how much skill you have. You can test your own patience, right there.

The reason I like the example of listening with patience is that it’s not just a matter of listening to others. It also involves listening to our own mental chatter. There’s a lot going on in this head of ours.

When we’re on Zoom and I see all the faces on screen, it reminds me of this album I used to have, by this rock band called The Talking Heads. Of course, the heads we see on Zoom are not just talking heads, they can also be listening heads. And we, too, can be a listening head. If we all do that, we can start a new band called The Listening Heads.

And what do we do with all the chatter going on in our mind? Are we listening to what it’s saying? Or are we talking over it? Usually, before our thoughts can finish telling us something –– before they can even complete their sentence –– we’re already talking over them.

Our thoughts are very creative, you know. So, why don’t we just sit back and listen to those stories? If we listen well, we can hear that most of the stories our thoughts tell us are fictional. Sometimes our thoughts are reading us a Stephen King book, or a Harry Potter fantasy.

If you just sit back and listen, you can really enjoy those stories.

Do you think Shakespeare is a great writer? We always like tragic stories, and he could really write those. But our thoughts can do even better than Shakespeare. The stories we hear from our thoughts are so dramatic! There’s a tragic ending, full of melancholy. If we just listen and don’t react, then at the end we can say, “That’s a great story. It’s a beautiful fiction.”

In the court systems, they often say that a witness’s memory is not very reliable. There have been many cases where a witness identified someone who supposedly committed a crime, but then 30 years later they found out it was not the right person.

So it’s an interesting question: To what degree can our memories, or our thoughts, be considered accurate? I have no comment on that, personally. I will leave it up to you, the jury, to decide.

The point here is, we’re rarely patient when listening to our mind’s chatter. We don’t just sit back and listen to the story. Usually we hear only one piece of that story before we start trying to take it in a different direction. When we do that, we’re not practicing the art or the skill of listening. But we can start practicing that now, right away. No waiting!

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Listen to Your Mind: An Exercise

1. Give Your Full Attention
Most of us know it’s not polite to interrupt. So don’t interrupt your thoughts – pay attention when they’re talking. I find that when I listen to someone talking and I let them talk, they soon run out of things to talk about and then we both just sit in calmness. So listen to your mind’s chatter.

2. Try to Delay Your Judgment
When listening to your thoughts, you are the jury, judge, and executioner. So the first thing you need to do is get the full story. You have to do that before you can analyze it. So don’t rush to judgment, don’t rush to a conclusion.

We often talk about avoiding preconceptions. We say, “Don’t be judgmental” and so on, but the thing we can do, in a practical sense, is delay . . . our. . . judgment. If you’re asking yourself not to be judgmental, that isn’t really practical. Maybe we can do that at some point, but not at this point. We have to accept being where we are. So the second thing you can do is delay your judgment, delay your condemnation, delay your verdict.

3. Be Kind
And as always, be kind. Go kind. Listen with a sense of kindness to yourself and to others. Little things like this can make you a better listener, and therefore more resilient. It may seem like a small adjustment, but it can make a big difference to you and those around you. The better you are at listening, the more resilient you are.

The teachings on which this article is based were given by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche at the retreat “Be Wise, Go Kind: Joy on the Path of Resilience” in April 2021, hosted by Nalandabodhi International and Nalanda West.