THE ART OF LISTENING: INQUIRY VS. ARGUMENT
“If we want there to be peace in the world, we have to be brave enough to soften what is rigid in our hearts, to find the soft spot and stay with it. We have to have that kind of courage and take that kind of responsibility. That’s the true practice of peace.” – Pema Chödrön, Practicing Peace in Times of War
Self-inquiry and the assertion of argument represent two dialectical capacities of handling information. The Yin-Yang dialectics of Chinese medicine prove helpful to understand their contrasting energetics. Yang is an outward, projected, aggressive energy. Yin is an interior, expanding and embracing, introspective energy. As they relate to information, argument is the Yang dissemination of information. Inquiry, and particularly self-inquiry, is the Yin, internal processing of information.
Self-inquiry is a deep listening that mobilizes many of our uniquely human faculties. Listening is an art because when we listen from our deep bodies – as “embodied presence” – so many aspects of our brain and its extended nervous system are activated and work synchronically to produce not only understanding, but that whole-bodied experience of empathy and compassion which can be felt by another as more than the registering of logistical information. Indeed, it is also the registering of the other person’s emotions, their total experience, what their information means to them. This deep participation with others via our own caring capacity is also a physiological activity, an embodied spirituality of compassion.
Arguments, in a sense, are the opposite of deep listening. We argue during formal debate or informally with our partners, friends, coworkers, and family. We all know how lousy it feels to argue with those we love; it stresses us out and no one hears much of what the other has to say, and more damage is often done in the process. The aggressive stance of projecting an argument seems to shut down the parasympathetic processes that foster introspection, reflection, feeling safe, open-hearted, relaxed, and vulnerable – all the qualities that contribute to empathy, compassion and unconditional love.
Arguments are wisdom killers when they bar us from ourselves and others. Therefore, if our lives are truly about learning and helping others, we could be mindful of our tendency to assert ourselves at the expense of listening. Or at the very least, we could experiment with softer arguments that also allow us to consider and respect another side of truth. To do this, we might need to hold our own position more lightly. If this is uncomfortable for us, then we can look into what might be behind our need to be so assertive and argumentative. Maybe our own insecurities for which we need to convince others so as to convince ourselves? Or a hidden low self-esteem of not being “enough”? When I get aggressive or bull-headed, I like to ask myself, “What is preventing you from being compassionate in this moment?” Sometimes, too, I just get passionate about ideas and the sport of debate, which I happen to enjoy, to a point. When listening is obliterated and defensiveness takes control, it’s time to take a break. I continue to try to be more alert to when this impasse arrives, and to have the wisdom to politely stop. At the end of the day, each of us prefers to be heard and respected, and to hear and to respect. Remembering this can help us know when to engage and when to release, when to put down our need to be right.
When indulged, argument can become simply an aggressive habit, a platform for our entitled egos. We craft an argument, assert it and try to discredit or debunk our opponent. This is the nature of an “argument.” Arguments are not usually between two people curious to discover the deeper curves of truth. But we can try to make them more so. Information exchange via argument, along with its physiological tenor, can quickly and unwittingly become bad habits, an addiction and parasite to true caring. This is how Yang quickly gobbles up Yin. We easily forget the tender soft spots of our being, those that allow us to learn more and to see ourselves more clearly through the process of self-inquiry, including the underlying predispositions and insecurities that might be behind our need to argue. As in most self-growth, inner alignment and integrity informs and keeps our outer assertions and work in check. This is another way of saying, we change the world most efficiently and sustainably by first changing ourselves. When Yin inner work (inquiry) precedes Yang action (assertion) we create sustainable progress and more loving, kinder interactions.
The position we occupy during emotional inquiry is radically different than the aggressive, and often arrogant, asserting of our positions. During inquiry, we not only have to understand what we hear but we have to digest and sit with what is communicated, both verbally and non-verbally. This happens in relation to others and with ourselves. We have to listen, deeply, to others and to our own body’s subtle language and signs, the way we feel into the “spirit” of a forest, or a child whose meaning he cannot yet express in words.
Listening deeply to ourselves and being able to determine what is true for us are the cornerstones for emotional healing and spiritual integration. People who spend their time debating and arguing are likely not reaping the inner growth that occurs during quieter moments of humble and bare-bones honest introspection, a self-inquiry process that happens most robustly via the “felt-sense.” This requires that we let go of the energy of argument and assertion. It is a delicate and nuanced practice demanding tremendous vulnerability, true open-mindedness, sensitivity, and a refined awareness of the impulses, sensations, and images that occur in our interior milieu of body and mind. In the end, those who do not listen to or “hear” you likely spend little time genuinely connected to their own bodies and hearing themselves. Try to have compassion for them and find someone else who can hear you to get your need met for being heard.
I find that I don’t trust people who repeatedly argue their position. I don’t trust the integrity of people who talk at me without bothering to ask or notice if I am interested what they have to say. Thankfully, I am usually kind to tell them. The disinterest I refer to here is distinct from defensiveness; it is simply preference. For example, I am not very interested in hip-hop and spoken word, but I am in classical music and Romantic poetry. I like basketball and not baseball, so I am not being defensive when I’m not interested in following the World Series.
Generally, we tend to trust those who appear know what they are talking about, the ones who confidently disseminate their schtick, and even argue well. But when that confidence accompanies a lack of compassion, arrogance, and open-mindedness, it’s problematic. True, it takes confidence and organization to put forth a body of knowledge. This is normal erudition and conveyance of logistical information. But truly honest people are more apt to say I don’t know a lot more than we may be comfortable with hearing. When we give up the fantasy that one person, or a group of persons, has all the answers, we can tolerate more “I don’t knows.” When someone tells me they don’t know, and they genuinely mean it, I feel it and tend to trust them more.
Then there are the extremists who claim that we know nothing at all, which is less likely true than the possibility that we indeed know many things about the world, just not everything. And likely, many things we take dogmatically for granted, may not be true at all, or not as true as we believe them to be, or would like to believe them to be. We do not unreasonably have to assume the position of beginner’s mind all the time, but we can be well-served to regularly check ourselves not to assume “all-knowing” mind, especially when used as a justification for relentlessly asserting our argument. Curiosity and humility feel really good, have you noticed?
We all know people who make a lot of assertions, especially without the credentials or personal experience to do so, but don’t consider other points of view. We may do it ourselves. Granted, a denied point of view may be ludicrous, but some grow so used to arguing that other opinions or perspectives don’t see the light of day. These folks also fail to consider the reality that their own stance is also a matter of opinion. There are many opinions floating around in the world today, by relatively equally credentialed individuals with equally valid perspectives, and those who think they know “the truth” will usually argue so, to a fault. What is that fault? Dissention, disharmony, and at the end of the day, a failure to connect and to truly care for another.
People tend to assert their opinions when they are emotionally invested in those opinions. Their ideas substitute for their compassion, care, and love, such that kind connection goes missing altogether. If you threaten their opinion, they can go ballistic on you. And they will justify doing so. They might call you annoying, or ridiculous, or any other name which their ego conjures up to simply defend themselves against seeing another reasonable point of view. I recently had a run-in with an old friend who believes that science is non-dogmatic because it corrects its errors and is always refining itself. But, what if this certainty is at least partially myth, as the article I presented to this friend by a qualified scientist proposes? Indeed, many scientists report that it is a myth that science operates so accurately, honestly, seamlessly, and efficiently. But, tell this to the dogmatic science believers who hold a perfectionist fantasy of science – not so different than a religious person’s heaven – and you are liable to get a reaction similar to someone defending their god. Again, people have their biases, egos, and emotional agendas behind what they believe and what they assert. Dismantling our egos allows us, via the Yin inner work of inquiry, to be more honest and less defensively assertive, less deaf and blind to what might be the rest of the truth, that could save us, and those we interact with, some grief.
Dogmatic idea-pushers are so certain of their position, so emotionally attached to their position, that they often cannot and will not see another way, any more than a magical thinker will give up on their belief in unlikely fantasies. They value being right over kindness. The ones who have the most to lose by opening to the possibility that they only see the foot or tail of the elephant they are standing on or swinging from, are the least likely to investigate the possibility that the elephant has other body parts!
One antidote to all manner of fundamentalism, narrow-mindedness, excessive argument, and defensive, close-minded posturing, is to cultivate a rich inner life. A rich inner life grows out of deep listening, one welcoming and curious about all relevant emotions, logic, and other information (except baseball scores, metaphorically speaking!). It is one that can handle feelings of insecurity: not being “enough,” not knowing, knowing too much, or being dead wrong, and therefore, accepting of being humbled. A rich inner life embraces difficult emotions such as fear, grief, anger, helplessness, and shame. To make peace with these inner states requires a tremendous amount of humility, sensitivity, courage, and self-honesty – the humility to see and feel oneself as honestly as possible, the sensitivity to discover one’s personal truth in one’s body, the courage to allow one’s heart to break open, and the self-honesty and vulnerability to see and correct one’s ego defenses in order to experience heartache, as well as to hear and respect another.
To retreat into the cozy lair of our hearts, as I once wrote in a poem, requires the opposite energy of aggressive, outward assertion. I notice that when I get into debates and asserting a position that no matter how hard I try to listen, most often both the pace and the tone of the debate format do not foster inquiry, entry into any open-heartedness, much less broken-heartedness. It does not foster receiving a piece of information, such as some of the suggestions in this writing, and sitting with it to see if it is true. Yet for growth and wholeness both assertion and reception, Yin and Yang, are required. For this we can more gently and skillfully assert our intelligence to aid our body-centered inquiries (for example, discovering if something is factually true or not) and we must be receptive to what our inner wisdom of sensations, emotions, images, and impulses reveal to us. For example, we can use our reason to discover if our perceptions of another, or of an event, are true before reacting emotionally. We can also soften and employ reason and logical assertion by presenting information and ideas to the wisdom of our body-minds to discover the truth about a pattern of meaningful events (via the felt-sense mentioned earlier) – for example, rather than rebel against a perceived hurtful comment we can breathe deeply, soften and ask ourselves if it is true, and what pattern of wounding or unfulfilled need it might have triggered in us.
In sum, assertion and argument are Yang endeavors; reception is Yin, or more feminine in nature. Since both men and women possess both Yin and Yang energies, we are all capable of both asserting and receiving information. It is yet another myth that women are unilaterally more emotionally aware than men and men are more reasonable and logical. The Yang capacity to appropriately assert ourselves, coupled with the Yin capacity to receive information of all kinds, contributes most robustly to our healing and wholeness—to our integration of mind and body, our peace and fulfillment, and our ability to meaningfully show up for others in a full-bodied presence attentive to both their non-verbal and literal communications.
The Yin-encouraging quote by Pema Chödrön that introduced this writing speaks to the yet undervalued aspect of our feminine natures (introspection, breaking open, deep feeling) so needed in our world today. It applies equally to the war between nations, the war between friends and lovers, and the war within ourselves. Notice how Pema locates compassion as a bodily sensation, a “soft spot.” This soft spot is the locus for deep listening and self-inquiry, an antidote to war, egoic argument, and intolerance. The courage and bravery to acknowledge and work through and from our soft spots is theYin power needed to curb and inform the pathological Yang path of bull-headed, excessive argument and unsustainable, technological progress. This Yin power grows scarcer with industrial progress, yet without it we are gonners. So, it is up to each of us to bolster the sacred feminine Yin in our inner and outer lives.
This somatic Yin orientation fosters a more genuine, integrated sort of compassion than the sugar-coated kindness we often call compassion (“empty Yin”), which has a distinctively superficial feeling to it. Indeed the soft spots in our own hearts are the paths into our wounding, the Earth’s injuries, our deep listening and compassion, our antidote to warring and arguing, and therefore into the powerful healers can be to re-establish the balance of nature in our Yang-obsessed world.