Each “Mark Nepo” post in this Listening Series is written to stand alone, however, for additional context, specifically on his most recent book, Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, click here.
When I was a little girl, my brothers used to call me Megaphone Mouth. Or just, “The Mouth.” Apparently, I’ve never had an issue projecting my voice. Being raised by two people with hearing loss has caused me to crank up the volume. (At least that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.)
A Mom With Hearing Loss
I was born to a mother who, as a child, ran a high fever for several consecutive days. It didn’t help that Mom grew up in a country where the medical care isn’t quite what it is here in the US. The fever, coupled with the lack of medical attention, led to a permanent hearing loss. Something she has struggled with her entire life.
A Dad With Hearing Loss
Hop forward less than a decade. While still in elementary school, my step-father entered my life. If you’re a regular follower of TLT, you know that this beloved man recently passed away. This beloved Army man, specifically an artillery-Army man (think: cannons), was exposed to nearly four decades of explosives, sometimes at close range. I can guarantee you that during my dad’s day (WWII – 1979), soldiers did not wear special gear to protect their ears as they do today. Back then, that protocol simply did not exist. So, as a natural defense to the substantial noise, the body would produce scar tissue in order to protect the ears. As more scars formed, the more one’s hearing was impacted. By the time anyone realized what was happening, it was too late.
These two people, both of whom sustained the type of hearing loss that hearing aids don’t give much relief, were people I talked to each and every day growing up. I learned to speak loudly out of respect for them, but also to lessen the number of times I had to repeat myself. (Who doesn’t go for the win-win?)
First Mom, Then Dad, NOW WHO?
Life had prepared me for the one person I was destined to spend even MORE time with than Mom or Dad, (with the exception of my husband), and that person is my son.
At birth, his hearing tested normal. It wasn’t until he was nine-years old that I suspected he was reading my lips. We later confirmed he has a condition that has led to a degenerative hearing loss. Luckily, this is a slow process. As his hearing oh-so-slowly grew worse, he compensated by reading lips — without even being aware of what he was doing.
One afternoon, as he and I were leaving the hearing center, my son stopped a few steps outside the front doors. “Did we forget something?” I asked. Barely audible, as if in a trance, he said, “Birds…. I hear birds.” Then, to no one in particular, “This is the best birthday present ever.” It was my son’s tenth birthday, the same day he received his first pair of hearing aids.
Not Hearing Vs. Being Heard
When I spoke to Mark Nepo, I shared this story with him. The story of my mom, my dad, and my son. I wanted him to understand how I approached his book, Seven Thousand Ways to Listen. That although I cannot relate to a hearing loss firsthand, Life has surrounded me with people who do not hear well. Thus, placing me on the opposite side of the equation: I am the person who deliberately speaks loudly. Who wants others to hear. I am the person who wants to be heard.
Over 20 years ago, Mark received chemo for the treatment of cancer. He discovered many years later (ironically, during the writing of this book), that during those treatments, the cilia in his ears, which transmit frequencies in the inner ear, had been damaged due to the chemo. With similarities to my dad’s story, and a brush with my son’s birds, Nepo writes, “No one thought of this back in 1989, but those of us who have survived can no longer hear birdsong.” He continues, “So the cursed-blessed chemo that helped save my life has taken something else. How do I damn it and thank it at the same time?”
As I mentioned, it was during the writing of this book, a book about listening, that Mark first realized he was having difficulty hearing. His loss of hearing had crept up on him, just as it had crept up on my son.
Early on in Seven Thousand Ways to Listen (pp. 7-8), Mark tells of the day he picked up his first hearing aid, the one for his left ear. He recalls the audiologist putting the new aid in his ear, stepping back to her desk, turning it on and asking him, “How is that?” He wrote: “And hearing her voice sweetly and fully made me cry. I had no idea how much I wasn’t hearing.”
He went on to tell me that once outside the building, the first sounds he heard were birds.
Adapting Where We Should Not
Feeling nostalgic at remembering the expression on my son’s face when he heard the birds, not wanting to leave this particular facet of listening, I asked Mark to tell me more. This is what he said:
As a writer, teacher, poet, I so want to listen. How easy it is to acclimate to not hearing.
[There is] also a lesson in terms of heart and mind. There’s a very thin line between adapting and enduring and acclimating where we shouldn’t. When our mind acclimates to our own views and we stop listening to other points of view, we start to go mind-deaf. And when we stop feeling, the pain and joy of others, and we only acclimate to our own frame of reference, we start to go heart-deaf.
I have also learned there is much to be heard in silence. When we are forced to stop the noise around us and within us, we begin to hear everything that is not us. This is the beginning of humility and the renewal of our soul’s energy.
Here’s something I’m sure you’ve experienced from the other end: when you can’t hear very well, you don’t holler out to someone who’s in another room — you walk over to where they are. This causes both parties to face each other more, forcing both to be present in another way.
As I was writing this book about listening, at first not even realizing my hearing had broken down as much as it had, I was called to listen with more than just my ears, as we all are. I was being called to listen with my whole being, with my whole mind and heart.
…which is what all spiritual traditions speak about in terms of being present. When we’re being present, we’re leaning into whatever life is giving us, completely. And that’s listening with all of who we are. So listening both to words, and to what’s in between the words, what’s underneath the words, to the silence out of which the words come, gives us a way to listen to everything that is larger than us.
I believe we are small parts in a very large whole and that our individual souls are waves of spirit in the great ocean of spirit that holds everyone.
When we can be fully present, we start to listen to all the things that don’t speak.”
Like many of you, I hear primarily with my ears. And like ALL of you, I want to be heard. May I never rely on my ears so much, that I fail to listen with my heart, to my heart. May I never use my mouth so loudly that I drown out someone else’s Truth. May I never grow heart-deaf or mind-deaf, and may you never grow heart-deaf or mind-deaf either. May we never retreat into ourselves so much we stop listening.
“When we retreat more than we need to, we thicken the walls of our habits.” ~ Mark Nepo
Listen with more than your ears. Listen-with-everything-you-got! I know my son does. Mark Nepo does. Listen with as many senses as possible, even those you think are not possible. Listen with ears, eyes, skin, breath. Listen to self. Listen to others.
“The way blue and yellow mixed will make green visible, your heart and mine, mixed through true listening, will make visible the color of the Earth.” ~ Mark Nepo
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First article posted Jan. 27, 2013: “Listening, Who Cares?”