The Art of Listening

To understand anything – not only what I am saying, but to understand anything – what is required? To understand yourself, to understand your husband, your wife, to understand a picture, to understand the scenery, the trees, what is required? Right attention, isn’t it? Because, to understand something, you must give your whole being to it, your undivided, full, deep attention, must you not? And how can there be deep, full attention, when you are distracted? – for example, when you are taking down notes as I am talking, you catch a good phrase, probably, and you say, “By Jove, I am going to take that down, I am going to use it in my talk.” How can there be full attention when you are merely concerned with words? That is, you are concentrated on the verbal level, and so are incapable of going beyond that verbal level. Words are only a means of communication. But, if you are not capable of communicating, and merely stick to words, obviously there cannot be full attention; therefore, there is no right understanding.

So, listening is an art, is it not? To understand something, you must give full attention, and that is not possible when there is any kind of distraction: taking notes, or when you are sitting uncomfortably, or when you are struggling to understand by making an effort. Making an effort to understand is obviously a hindrance to understanding, because your whole attention has gone into making the effort. I do not know if you have ever noticed that when you are interested in something that another is saying, you are not making an effort, you are not building up a wall of resistance against distraction. There are no distractions when you are interested; you are giving your full attention eagerly, spontaneously, to something that is being said. When there is vital interest, there is spontaneous attention. But most of us find such attention very difficult; because, consciously, on the upper level of the mind, you may want to understand, but inwardly there is resistance; or, inwardly there may be a desire to understand, but outwardly, superficially, there is resistance.

So, to give full attention to something there must be integration of your whole being. Because, at one level of consciousness you may want to find out, you may want to know; but at another level, that very knowing may mean destruction, because it may make you change your whole life. So, there is an inward contention, an inward struggle, of which you are perhaps unaware. Though you think you are paying attention, there is really a distraction going on inwardly or outwardly; and that is the difficulty. So, to understand anything, one must give complete attention; and that is why I have been suggesting at various meetings that no notes should be taken, that you are not here to do propaganda, for me or for yourself; that you should listen only in order to understand.

Our difficulty in understanding, is that our mind is never quiet. We never look at anything quietly, in a receptive mood. A lot of rubbish is thrown at us by newspapers, magazines, politicians, tub-thumpers; every preacher around the corner tells us what to do and what not to do. All that is constantly pouring in; and, naturally, there is also an inward resistance to it all. There can be no understanding as long as the mind is disturbed.

As long as the mind is not very quiet, silent, tranquil receptive, sensitive, it is not possible to understand; and this sensitivity of the mind is not merely at the upper level of consciousness, in the superficial mind. There must be tranquility right through, an integrated tranquility. When you are in the presence of something very beautiful, if you begin to chatter you will not sense its meaning. But the moment you are quiet, the moment you are sensitive, its beauty comes to you. Similarly, if we would understand anything, not only must we be physically still, but our minds must be extremely alert yet tranquil. That alert passivity of the mind does not come about through compulsion. You cannot train the mind to be silent; then it is merely like a trained monkey, outwardly quiet, but inwardly boiling.

So, listening is an art; and you must give your time, your thought, your whole being, to that which you want to understand.

– Jiddu Krishnamurti, Public Talk, July 1949 –