I attended Chevra Torah (bible study) at Temple in Greensboro this morning. I don’t get there as often as I’d like, as I currently reside nearly an hour away. I prefer to make the drive with my friend Jayne, so that we can enjoy what I refer to as our post-Chevra session. The group is large and very different from the experience I had with a study partner several years ago. It has many merits but there is not usually the allowance for in-depth discussion of one or two finer points. That is my study preference, and one I can engage in to a greater extent in the car with my friend on the drive home. She could not join me today, so I was left to mull things over without the benefit of friendly discourse.
An aspect of today’s Torah portion that was of great interest to me was consideration of a single word: hear. One of the best known Jewish prayers is the Sh’ma:
Sh’ma Yis’ra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad. Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)
The word Sh’ma means to hear. It also can be understood as to obey, as well as to listen. Rabbi Andy led the group in considering the shades of difference between hearing and listening. I was apparently bobbing my head with much more energy than I would have had I been aware of myself. I do not like to draw attention to myself at these gatherings, and with few exceptions am extremely quiet during discussion. This is a product of two factors: fear of tripping over my tongue and not articulating my thoughts well, and tending to focus on one aspect of a discussion and not making rapid transitions from one aspect to another. Even though I can follow a large group discussion with a good deal of accuracy, thanks to my cochlear implanted ears, I still am not a major player in group discussions. But Andy walked over to me and said Yes? I see you’re relating to this? I replied: OH yes, one hundred percent! I live this! I don’t know if he thought I merely meant this in the sense of hearing versus being deaf, and of course there is that element. After all, I am deaf without my cochlear implants and lived the greater part of my life with significant hearing loss. When I was profoundly hard of hearing and without the benefit of cochlear implants (or hearing aids for several years) I was a complete failure at hearing. However, I was an exceptional listener. As a result of using every bit of data available to gather information—beyond hearing whatever I could, reading expressions became my lifeline–I was fairly good at understanding the messages being sent to me.
My exuberant expression of recognition this morning was about more than the functional aspects of hearing and listening. Jokes are often made about certain individuals having “selective” hearing. He or she is accused of hearing what is of interest and conveniently missing the undesirable messages. The ones made at the expense of spouses and partners are usually greeted with loud chuckles and knowing glances. Underneath the smart aleck humor is often a great deal of pain: one does not feel that they are being heard by those closest to them. I have often been thanked for listening intently to what another is saying. Although the hard of hearing among you may smile with recognition: well of course she does, she has to read their lips! But you know what? I don’t have to anymore, most of the time. I have been given an incredible gift: the ability to hear in reasonably quiet environments without hanging on to the speaker’s every lip movement, every facial expression. However, I find that I connect most deeply with another when I show by my physical actions that I am fully present. I also find that maintaining that practice means a greater chance of being successful at it. I propose to my normal hearing friends that while you may indeed have no difficulty hearing another speak while you have your face averted, you may be unwittingly diverting your attention from the other. In doing so, you may be missing out on the more nuanced aspects of hearing and listening, and depriving not only the other but yourself the deeper connections that make life so rich and satisfactory. I believe that there are many ways to practice meditation. One needn’t sit cross legged on a cushion to develop the ability to be fully present in the moment.
We also touched upon the concept of seeing versus looking this morning. Andy gave an example of a You Tube video that apparently went viral some time ago. The gist of it was that instruction was given to closely watch some kids playing a game-basketball or volleyball, I think. In the background, but in plain sight, there is an image of a bear walking through the scene. Apparently there are many people who are so focused on watching the game that they completely miss the bear until a second viewing or until someone points out the fact of the bear in the video. A classic example of missing the forest for the trees! This led me to thinking about what I see when I look up to observe trees silhouetted against the sky. Have you done this? Viewed through one set of “lenses” one can see that there are branches, needles and leaves. Perhaps one notices birds perched or sitting on nests, water droplets and butterflies. Switch the lens and one can see the sky, the clouds, perhaps some fog or drizzle or bright sun. One might observe leaves loosening from branches, falling to earth, or birds taking flight against the blue or grey sky. Viewed in totality, one can see how all the parts have their place in the scheme. Nothing is superfluous. In the practice of looking and listening comes a greater capacity to see and understand. Everyone needs a reason to get up in the morning. This is mine.