Dec 152010
Cup of Tea by Yuki-Ona

Listening is an important skill to have in life. Yet we do not always do it properly. Our failure to listen well can affect our relationships and cause misunderstandings. One factor that hinders our ability to listen is a saturated mind. When the mind is full of opinions, it is hard for anything else to go in. To better illustrate this point, let me share with you a story.

A Cup of Tea

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

-101 Zen Stories-

How to Empty the Mind and Listen

It is well and good to know that we must empty the mind to listen. But how do with go about doing so when we value our own opinions so highly? There are three ways of doing so which I will now share with you.

1. Adopt a Learning Attitude

A person who feels that he has nothing to learn will not do so, clinging stubbornly to his views instead. To learn, you need an open mind. To have an open mind, you have to rid yourself of any views and preconceptions that you may have about a subject. Only when your mind is empty will you be able to absorb new knowledge and information.

2. Humility

The proud and the egoistic often have trouble accepting views that are contrary to their own. They believe that they are right and know better. This view makes it hard for them to empty their minds and listen. But humility has a different take. By being humble, you accept that others may know something that you do not. Such a mindset makes it easier for you to let go of your ideas and listen.

3. Understand the Other Point of View

If you cling to your own point of view, you will not be able to listen well. You will spend too much time and effort defending your position. But if you focused your efforts on understanding the other point of view, it becomes easier to empty your mind. On the one hand, you have to let go of your ideas so that you can focus on listening. On the other hand, when you try to understand the other point of view, you have to empty your mind to do so.

Taking Action

Listening with an open mind is not easy. Often we forget ourselves when our opinions are at stake. Even so, we should make an effort to listen for the sake of our relationships. When you find it difficult to do so, do remember the story of the overflowing cup and the three points I shared. It made be hard to listen well at first, but practice always makes perfect.

What are the problems that hinder you from listening well? Are there any other ideas you have that help you to listen better? Do share your thoughts and comments below. :)

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  15 Responses to “How to Empty the Mind to Listen”

  1. Irving,

    I have heard that cup of tea reference before. But it is a great one. no better way to illustrate that you need to be free of preconceived notions to really LISTEN.

    One thing that has always struck me is that most people do not have a dialogue, they actually engage in dual monologues. One person speaks, and the other person is simply waiting for their turn to rebutt.

    That is not conversation. Active listening and having no preconcieved notions is the only real way to have a conversation.
    Steve@Lifestyle Design recently posted..Is THAT The Best You Can DoMy Profile

    • Wow Steve,

      That was a really prompt response. I just twitted the article moments ago and replied to a comment and “BAM” I get your comment. But it is a good thing! Just noting the promptness and the power of twitter. :D

      I love your point on dual monologues because I have seen it happen often and at times I am guilty of it myself. You are right, dual monologues are conversations. To really have a conversation, we need to listen with no preconceived notions.

      Thank you for your super prompt comments! :)

  2. Gosh, I know alot of people who should read this. I find it frustrating when a person’s own voice is so loud they do not hear. There is a strong difference between speaking and talking. Also between listening and hearing. Your tips are spot on. They make us better people. We need to have a learning frame of mind. We need curiosity. Thanks Irving for this great post! So smart!

    Dandy recently posted..Do you get lost in a relationshipMy Profile

    • Hi Dandy,

      A lot of people do not know the difference between speaking and talking, listening and hearing. Thus we see it often that people complain about not being heard or listen to, especially in relationships when it is most important, but easiest to take for granted. Still with a little practice and the right mindset, we can all become better listeners.

      Thank you for your comments! :)

  3. My biggest struggle (sometimes) is formulating a response while the person is still telling me something!

    Best to just spend most of your energy focusing on what they are saying. Take it all in. Only then create your response.

    I agree open mindedness is important. Because only then can we forge the greatest degree of obectiveness. Only then do we have any hope of learning something new.

  4. By the way, my response would have been a little different from the professor.

    I would have said:

    Are you out of your ever loving mind?!?! You’re wasting perfectly good tea!!! STOP THAT!

    • Hi Bamboo Forest,

      You’re not alone. Sometimes, when my opinions are challenged, I prepare my rebuttals and stop listening to what is said, being only concerned with finding an opening to reply. In the past, this happened without my awareness, but nowadays when I am more aware, I can check myself and listen.

      Haha, I see you like good tea. There is nothing better than just sitting down and enjoying tea and the moment is there?

      Thank you for your comments! :)

  5. Hi Irving,

    We all love to talk but sometimes we forget that it’s much better to listen!

    Listening, as you say, can be difficult. And we often ‘selectively’ tune out those things we don’t want to hear – either because it doesn’t fit in with our views or else it’s a truth we can’t face up to.

    To really listen to what matters takes even more skill. There is so much useless chatter about, that it’s become difficult to filter out the stuff we should be listening to from the other noise. General listening isn’t as valuable as specific listening.

    I think we’re more likely to listen to trusted sources of information e.g. reliable confidantes, rather than random people. This helps us filter information that we ‘hear’ and turn this into ‘listening’.
    Scott McIntyre recently posted..The Cautious Person’s Guide to Risk TakingMy Profile

    • Hi Scott,

      You’re perfectly right about how chatter and noise impairs our ability to listen. Listening, as you say, isn’t easy. I agree that since we can only listen to so much, we are likelier to listen only to trusted sources of information.

      Thank you for your well thought out comments! :)

  6. I have always enjoyed the story of the overflowing cup. We really should spend more time listening properly than talking more. Obstacles that hinder my listening is when I have already come with a bag of prejudices. It’s hard to listen when I am having inner talk at the same time the other person’s talking. I have to keep reminding myself to put my own issues aside in order to truly listen. Sometimes it’s amazing what I can discover: that I was wrong about my friend in the first place.
    Evelyn Lim recently posted..Launch News of Abundance Alchemy- Journey of GoldMy Profile

    • Hi Evelyn,

      All of us have so many filters when it comes to listening. Having our own prejudices is definitely one of the obstacles which obstruct our listening. Since it is easier to make assumptions than to see things as they really are, it is not surprising that make errors in judgment when it comes to people. It is best to empty our minds and really listen to people to avoid mistakes.

      Thank you for your comments! :)

  7. I thought this was a great post and you are so right that it is important to be able to really listen and learn from others. I really liked the advice you gave to adopt a learning attitude. I do think that can go a long way when it comes to really listening. If you are always open to learning from other people, I do think you are better able to open your mind and listen to the information they are sharing. Great post and great list.

    • Hi Sibyl,

      I am glad that you liked my post and the advice I gave about having a learning attitude. :)

      I got the idea of having a learning attitude from the ancient Chinese. Back in the warring period of China, the great warlords were people who were ready and willing to listen to advice. Because they were receptive, they got good advice which helped them to achieve their goals.

      The same attitude is also found when the student is learning from a teacher. Unless the student is ready to learn and willing to listen, no teaching can take place.

      Thank you for your comments! :)

  8. I’m not sure about the ‘empty mind’ Irving, the only way I can imagine this happening is through quiet meditation. I did however connect with #2 Humility.

    I have opinions, but I operate on the basis that everyone’s opinion is valid. It certainly is for them. Like most people my opinions don’t normally change through discussion or argument. But I do find that by LISTENING you come to appreciate how the other person arrived at their view, and you gain a new respect for their opinion.

    I’m really glad I found your blog (via Steve Scott) and I will definitely be back for more philosophical musings. 8)

    John McNally recently posted..TV News and Visual DeceptionMy Profile

    • Hi John,

      I have seen you on Steve’s website before. It’s good to see you here. :)

      As long as you believe that everyone’s opinion is valid, you are more than able to listen to what they say with respect. That is about as good as having an empty mind.

      Thank you for your comments and hope to see you around again! :)

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