The Art of Listening

In a recent trip to Africa, we saw animals in their natural habitats, zebras in the grasslands of Masai Mara, Impala, Thomson’s Gazelles, Lions, Cheetah, Leopard, and so on.

A key concept that stood out was the way the herbivores listened. They had designated “Lookouts”, who stood guard while the herd grazed on grass and did what they do on a regular basis. The “lookouts” had to do a good job of watching, smelling and listening. In fact, given that the predators could easily camouflage themselves in the tall grass, they had to be very good at catching the scents and hearing the sounds.

That type of listening, such that one’s life (or many lives) depend on it, is a rare art form for humans today. Most people don’t listen that way. We tend to focus on the sounds that we are most familiar with (at least that is the way it is for me) and listening for other types of sounds is actually quite hard. For instance, when we listen to a piece of music, if there are vocals, we normally latch on to the vocals. There might be an instrument playing what is known as a “hook”, the kind of tune that gets into your head and keeps playing long after the music has stopped — we pick up on those types of sounds. How many of us actually pick up on every different piece, every subtle layer of music that might be involved in a piece of music?

Yes, we hear all the sounds, but only listen for stuff that is most familiar to us. The same could be said about spiritual teachings too. We might listen to a lecture on a spiritual topic, but nine times out of ten, we would likely pick up on parts of the lecture that resonate with us at a personal level. Maybe we were taught some of that in our formative years. Or perhaps we have picked these up specifically during our studies. Yet, mostly we don’t *really* pick up on all the subtleties of the teachings in one listening. We sometimes might have to listen over and over again, until we come to terms with all the constituent parts of the teaching.

Spiritual teachings are the inheritance of all sentient beings. It is the birthright of every sentient being to listen to spiritual truths, and the result of the proper application of these teachings is the ultimate goal. At least that is the perspective I garner from the teachings of Vedanta.

However, how we listen is very important. In the video shared below, Swami Sarvapriyananda beautifully articulates the different “ways” of listening, and then explains the right way of listening. I will summarize these below for the benefit of the readers. As I was listening to Swamiji’s lecture, I found myself observing the similarities of how I see people react to such topics in various other media. It is not unlikely that you, dear reader have encountered individuals on some internet forum, who seemed to be interested in what you had to share, only with the purpose of “tearing it down” or “proving him/herself right” (and you wrong).

Vedanta’s process of spiritual practice begins with listening – shravana. Then it proceeds to contemplation – manana, and finally meditation – nidhidhyasana.

Given that listening (could be considered reading or watching a youtube video too) is the most important crucial step, when the knowledge is transmitted by the teacher, it is very important to have the right attitude thereof.

The three wrong types of listening are as follows —

  • Listening like an upturned pot – just like a pot that is upturned (bottom up), cannot be filled, a listener who does not pay attention to the teaching, will be unable to grasp and retain what is being taught.
  • Listening like a dirty pot – just like when you pour clean water into a dirty pot, the water gets contaminated, similarly, when a listener is colored by their pre-judgements, they will hear the most pristine of teachings and corrupt it. We see this with skeptics, who are waiting to find something that is contrary to their preconceptions, which then they proceed to attempt to tear down. Such skeptical listening results in wasted opportunities.
  • Listening like a pot with a hole in the bottom — just like when you fill a broken pot with water it keeps leaking, a listener can be “leaking” if they are preoccupied with many other activities and are unable to retain any of the teachings. Such individuals might take copious amounts of notes, but don’t “listen” very well.

The right way to listen then is with the attitude that “I trust the teacher when he/she says something. Let me try to find out what he/she really means”. There needs to be a sincerity in the approach.  This type of attitude is called “adhikāra”. There is a strong thirst for this knowledge and a humility to acknowledge that one might not have all the answers, and therefore keep an open mind while listening.

Formally, there are four characteristics of an adhikāri (or someone who is deserving of the jñāna (knowledge) of Vedanta.

Viveka – The ability to distinguish between real and unreal.

Vairāgya – Detachment from the samsāra. This results in an inward flow of the mind…away from sense objects and worldly sensuality towards the source and stillness, leading to the development of the six virtues or shad-sampat.

Shad-sampat – Six-fold virtues of śama, dama,uparati, Titiksha, Shraddhā and Samādhāna (शम, दम, उपरति और तितिक्षा, संग हो श्रद्धा व समाधान कहलातीं ये षट् सम्पतियाँ, जिनके द्वारा होता ज्ञान). This is a huge topic but involves following of a certain code of conduct, a purification of the senses and mind, and development of fortitude, reverence towards the knowledge (and teachers) and the ability to fix the mind on a single point (Brahman or Self) (

Mumukshutva – A burning thirst for liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth.

To quote Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev (inexact quote) —

“the problem with approaching spirituality with too much intellect and being too dependent on the intellect is akin to wanting to stitch clothes with only a sharp knife or a sharp pair of scissors”.

The job of the intellect is to dissect and analyze. There are necessary conditions for that. But there is also a point at which the intellect needs to be suspended for the essence of the teaching to bloom. To all my skeptical and incredibly smart and cerebral skeptic friends out there, heed this teaching (below). It can be a beautiful life-changing  event for you, or it could just be another source of casual intellectual stimulation and entertainment.

While I shared the video of Swamiji below to have you listen to this topic specifically, the entire talk is a beautiful exposition of Advaita Vedanta. It is worth listening to, over and over again.

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6 Replies to “The Art of Listening”

  1. This is just an alternative opinion, some loud thinking.

    I was watching how Swamiji cerebrally explaining Advaita, giving very cerebral, logical constructs, arguments and example, trying to reason (I think he gave 4 reasons) out cerebrally, logically with audience, trying to appeal to the cerebral, logical, reasoning part of the audience’s brain.

    Vi-zravas is hearing.
    When it is associated with iLA (speech, coherent knowledgeable verses) it produces Kuvera (wealth).
    When it is associated with keka (cries) it produces different types of music/noise patterns (rAvana, kumbhakarna, vibhishana etc)..

    The difference between ilA and keka is this.

    ilA is speech. It appeals to our cerebral areas. It interacts with us and produces wealth of knowledge that impacts us. The information it produces becomes knowledge when it interacts and impacts us. Thus ilA gives rise to Kuvera.

    Keka appeals to our emotions (like music/noise), emotional parts of our brain. It does not interact with us informatively. It wants to subdue us or excite us. It leads to rAvana who excites us with music, vibhishana who makes us surrender, kumbhakarna who makes us sleep etc.

    So it is upto us if we use our faculties to create kuvera or ravana/kumbhakarna/vibhishana in our minds.


  2. That was a beautiful observation on what Zebras listen.

    When we listen, we listen for those verses (sounds) that resonate with us. We look for usual thoughts (what reinforces our thoughts and beliefs), what makes us more comfortable in wherever we are, that makes us happy.

    When Zebras listen, they probably listen for sounds that do not resonate with them, that makes them fearful and alert, the difference from normal usual sounds.

    In general, We listen for being complacent. Zebras listen for being alert. (this is my imagination)

    1. Hi TBT,

      I find that (the human way of perception) has been the case for me personally. It is applicable in all aspects of our experience. I too find that we mostly work with mental constructs which might be triggered by a genuine perceptional impulse. The memory and imagination takes over as soon as an impulse is received by the sensory apparatuses.

      For me, the art of Taichi (Taijiquan) has been a wonderful training tool to help me stay open and aware. Especially in the scenarios of what we call “push hands” or two person practice, where two people free flow and try to apply tai chi “moves” on each other. If we work from a place of preconceptions, we will end up eating dust again and again, when facing a talented individual. This “no mind” (non-grasping mental condition) is very important in our normal life as well. It solves a lot of problems, especially those dealing with vacillation between past and future.

      I liked your comment about ila and keka too. Very insightful. As far as Swamiji using intellectual arguments goes…since it is jnāna yoga (Advaita Vedānta), it is therefore germane that the intellect be used (as it is the faculty that truly helps complete the assimilation of jiva into Atman imho).

      Some great comments. I think now we’re really “cooking” in terms of common ground of understanding.



  3. There was a study which said, when a child enters a room, it sees the entire room. The brain of a child observes every detail in the room. When a grown-up enters, they see a very small part of the room and the rest of the room is built up the brain, by its own constructs and imaginations.

    I think it also applies to hearing and speaking. As our brain gets filled with pre-defined information, what we listen and speak is narrowly new and the rest are just the same old stuff that has been repeated for years.

    If we need to listen and speak new things, create more wealth of knowledge, then we need to get rid of this old information that is already filling us up. We need to offload it. We need to unlearn it. That unlearning in my view is avidhya.

    What is meant by getting rid of old information or unlearning..?

    We need to be like that Child which has just the prajnA and a very little bit of knowledge to grasp information. We need to go back to our basic prajnA or consciousness level with very little bit of information that is needed to grasp more information.

    This is what, in my view, is getting back to consciousness or reaching the prajnA to realize more.

    How do we get back to our consiousness or prajnA with just the bare information..?

    One way for that is to surrender to a guru, get all the information. Because when we don’t surrender, it is possible that our brain receives only a part of it and makes up the remaining part as in the study.

    This surrender is something that we do in a College. We believe a professor has better knowledge than us. So when he teaches quantum physics like “no matter what the barrier is there is a definite probably to break through the barrier”, though it appears non-sensical in the first sight, we go onto understand and research what he says.

    When we listen to a Guru or to a Professor, we have to be the empty (near prajnA) pot to grab it more. That being empty does not mean, we need to be give up our intellect, our ability to dissect and analyse. We need to push aside the old information, old knowledge and make space for new information.

    Again, this is just an opinion, a loud thinking.

    Sorry to spam with comments.

    1. HI TBT,

      imho, being empty means to have a non-grasping mind. Thoughts will flow through it, even intellect will operate. But the mind should not latch on to any specific concept as a position (this is right, that is wrong; this is good, that is bad and so on).

      1. I would say read it in full. In the above set of thoughts, I used the words empty pot. i meant was mind with prajna and with ability to grasp, like an empty pot. Water is not held in air/vaccum. So the pot is the mind with prajna and ability to hold.

        “When we listen to a Guru or to a Professor, we have to be the empty (near prajnA) pot to grab it more. That being empty does not mean, we need to be give up our intellect, our ability to dissect and analyse. We need to push aside the old information, old knowledge and make space for new information”

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