A cliché opening for a story begins: “It was a dark and stormy night…”
Truth is, last night was so dark and stormy that a small tornado touched down and devastated a swath of homes in my region. I mention this dramatic backdrop because I had set aside the evening to drive an hour, through dirt backroads and twisting sideroads, in order to meet with some musical friends – outdoors. Our intent was to replenish our beings after a long drought of not being able to improvise musically with other people, in person.
By the time I reached the farm, not only were my friends arriving. Another severe thunderstorm was gathering. Our original idea of playing in a field was about to be thwarted. We subsequently hauled our instruments into an old barn filled with hay, tractors, and the barnyard cat. Before entering the space, I looked to my left and saw the decaying remains of an abandoned piano. The ivory keys were falling off and the soundboard had become detached. The natural elements – everything from sun to rain – were breaking it down. What I imagined was once a beloved piano, played by family members, was now becoming an ode to impermanence. The instrument was returning to silence.
You, dear reader, may not have access to a barn, a stormy night, a circle of musicians, or a stray barn cat. Yet each of us improvises with words in the same way that musicians might improvise with notes. Daily, we enter conversations with loved ones, attend Zoom meetings with colleagues, and engage in casual exchanges with a neighbour or store clerk. Regardless of the interchange, even when talking about the weather, an opportunity is presented to practice mindful listening. This term refers to such intentional choices as coming into the moment, consistently paying attention, giving respect to the speaker, and leaning in with curiosity regardless of what is unfolding.
Taking a page from my dark and stormy night outing, here are a few reflections on mindful listening, improvisation, and conversation.
Flexibility: Our musical circle had to move indoors due to weather. Similarly, we may plan to meet a friend for a chat in a downtown café only to find that the ambient noise or crowded condition asks us to adjust and come up with Plan B, such as a walk and talk in a park. Some conversations require a dedicated setting for intimacy to occur.
Silence: The rainstorm in my gathering got so loud, due to the barn’s tin roof, that occasionally we had no choice but to put down our instruments and go silent. In a meaningful conversation, two people can equally benefit from including space in the exchange. Connecting with another person doesn’t always happen through adding more words but by periodically sitting in the quiet and making room for fresh themes to emerge.
Decay: As I gazed at the crumbling piano, I was reminded of the naturalness of integration and disintegration. In conversation, we sometimes trot out old stories, ideas, and habitual attitudes that, in the end, might be better off as compost. In a spontaneous conversation, two participants might be pleasantly surprised when unrehearsed content is allowed to disrupt, inspire, or cause deeper inquiry.
Contrast: In musical improvisations, I like to make room for differences such as someone tossing in an odd meter, a quirky solo, or letting a high energy soundscape drop into a softer dynamic. In conversation, the act of mindful listening can bring about contrasting perspectives. We don’t always have to agree with everything another says. Nor do we have to initiate a heated argument because someone maintains a radically different point of view. A diversity of understanding can ensue when we stay open, get curious, and maintain an attentive ear. I’m not suggesting that we passively let hateful or disrespectful comments slide by. What I am proposing is that contrast can provide a good antidote to sameness. Rather than communicators always sanctifying the familiar, a healthy interchange can accommodate differences.
In addition to one-on-one conversations, most of us take collective forms of communication as an audience member, a student in a class, or a consumer of the news. In these contexts, individuals can sometimes struggle to discern what degree of truth-telling is present in everything from a leader’s address to a politician’s press conference. Just as the magicians of old were capable of weaving spells through speech, large bodies of people can become charmed, persuaded, or enraptured by a skilled yet manipulative communicator. There was a time when religious bodies and political organizations gave rise to great orators, public speakers, and individuals capable of inspiring the human heart. Today, too much scandal or deception has tarnished our trust in words delivered from the pulpit or platform. Hence the ongoing need for us to cultivate and practice mindful listening.
Although the field of communication can be rife with complexity, we can always return to the core practice of mindful listening: bringing our full attention in the present moment with an open, receptive, nonjudgmental and compassionate ear for one another.
Gary Diggins has maintained a private practice in Soundwork as Soulwork for over four decades. As an expressive arts facilitator, Gary combines counselling, mindful practice and music as medicine. As an educator, Gary teaches at various learning institutions in North America, Europe, Israel, South Korea and Africa. An author of four books, and an internationally acclaimed musician, Gary is an integral member of the Mindfulness Without Borders team in his capacity as Music Director and Program Facilitator. Gary lives in Guelph, Ontario where he co-owns an arts facility called Silence.