On Listening

    by Satyen Khashu

    ‘Not listening to people’ is violence? It takes place every day. We don’t see it. It is ……unobserved violence

    Satyen Khashu shares his journey of doing something that his heart believed in, his struggles, rejections and what kept him going – the intention – the world needs more listening. …And he needs it too!

    I thought I was a very good listener, until I took a yearlong course on Mindfulness based- embodied listening. The course was very demanding, with classes, homework, assignments to be completed and peer work and assignments with clients and group work and then a final written exam. I completed the course.

    And I learnt that the first lesson about listening — you cannot listen to people by inhabiting only your head. You need to live inside every part of your body. And the second lesson — listening is hard, but possible with practice and small improvements.

    During the course, I noticed how pre-occupied, judgmental, wanting to advise, not present, distracted, wanting to comment, wanting to probe, wanting to fix, wanting to offer help when not asked – kind of a listener I was. As part of the course, all participants compulsorily had to take six counselling sessions. We had to go and share what we felt like sharing. I had very little life experience on this. I saw a lot of resistance in me to do this. It was scary and it also showed me how difficult it is for all of us to open up to anyone – because many of us we have not received ‘a good enough listening experience in our lives, leave alone a good listening experience’. If you receive what I call the being ‘un-listened wound’ early in life, it is so difficult to open up. The course helped me listen to myself and the course helped me notice one of my biggest needs to listen to myself and the world needs more listening.

    Mindful Listening

    After returning from Europe in 2014, I started a training business and at the same time was orienting myself to mindfulness. I continued to offer training programmes and also attend short courses, volunteered for a beautiful mindfulness conference and took the MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) course. As I continued my learning in mindfulness in 2018, I was invited to be part of a project called ‘Dying with Grace’ by my mindfulness teacher, Sandy Dias Andrade. There were a few of us and I understood that we were to prepare ourselves for a full year and then ‘be with’ people their families at the time death was near—support and offer them what was really needed. We met once a month for a couple of hours—started with mindfulness meditation, discussed the subject of death. We also took turns to reading books on death and dying to the group.

    After a couple of months, I understood that the project was not going to move ahead and I was very disappointed and upset. I was not able to express that I was upset with anyone then. I have got a little better. Now I am bodily aware when I am upset. But I don’t take any special effort to let people know.

    The project had inclined me on the subject of death. Death and listening. Death was an important subject for me — I had escaped death two times, once as a child when I lived in Kashmir, I was rescued from drowning in a well (all I remember is the dirty muddy water and frogs around me and one older friend rescuing me and then, all my clothes were taken off in front of everyone and I was wrapped around with a towel). Second, I had miraculously escaped a bomb blast at Jammu Tawi railway station all because my grandmother took time to drape her saree, we stayed inside the train compartment and everyone else who left to de-board quickly died or was injured. That was the first time, I had seen dead bodies, limbs flying up in the air—a cart of chola bhatura filled with pieces of flesh and blood. No one asked me anything, nor did I share this with anyone for years.

    Death and dying had also become important during that time. My father’s cancer relapsed and he had to undergo an emergency surgery because the tumor had spread to the spine. I noticed so much fear in all of us because of the medical information that was provided to us. I started writing a diary about it. This did not feel enough. I needed to have conversations and no one was ready to do it. I needed to talk about it and I could find no one strong enough to listen to me share what I am going through. I had read ‘Being Mortal’ by Atul Gawande, a couple of years back and I picked the book again and it gave me a lot of courage and resources. I took the initiative of starting the conversation with my father on death and dying and just listening to him. I was also trying to do a kind of ‘Tuesdays with Morrie,’ thing. Given his situation, the surgery had very high chances of not being successful. I approached the discussion in a very academic manner because at that time, I did not even know how to feel my own feelings. I was high on avoidance — which is changing now and I can sense my feelings sometimes. But I remember us discussing DNR and he clearly saying that he did not want to be on life support. It felt like an achievement that he found the space to share this. My dad was very open to these conversations and that encouraged me. I was keen to listen to my father’s responses to the critical questions on what my father really wanted at and closer to the time of his leaving. A couple of times, my father asked me to give him time and he wanted to write the responses and I felt that was also okay and it was like a kind of ‘listening’ to him.

    I Wanted to do Something More

    The Dying with Grace project and conversations with my father made me understand how important it is to have conversations and ‘just listen’ and my course in listening had now made me a much better listener. I knew what was coming in the way of my being a better listening.

    During the course, we did exercises on listening to groups and this made a lot of sense to me. We live in groups and I liked being in groups. Could I do something with groups, rather than individuals? I had never a personal experience of sharing in groups comfortably and I know many people don’t. I wanted to give it a good shot — maybe host circles — listening circles with the highest quality of listening, of allowing, of supporting of just being there for each other.

    So I opened my laptop, prepared a short letter, a small note about what I want to offer. a sample poster, “A listening Circle on Death, Dying and what really matters in the End”. It was the joy of doing something beautiful. I took prints and with very high hopes, I went to a reputed college and met HOD of the Psychology department with my offering. He gave me a hearing and said —send me an email and I will see what I can do and he handed back the print outs to me. After that day, I met him 3 times more — once every year and also re-sent emails as he requested. He is a nice man, busy with his own work.

    I was quite convinced that a college would be a good place to start this work and the psychology department would appreciate this work. After a month, I visited the Psychology dept of another reputed college. The HOD welcomed me with continuous smiles. While I doubted his capacity to smile for so long, the smiles gave me hope. He read through my print outs and said “Many people are doing good work in a bad way and bad work in a good way. Why don’t you do some research and show me your findings and then we can discuss”. I call this an ‘attack from two sides’. Which of the questions, do I answer. These responses helped me arrive into a ‘freeze’ state and I did not have the courage to get up — say thank you and leave. ( I have got better at this now) I kept waiting for an opportunity to exit — my body was stuck to the chair. It happens with authority figures for me. And then with me stuck to the chair, he spent the next half an hour telling me how great his PhD. “If I had done a PhD, I think I would also do this, we all love our own babies.”

    I gave him a patient listening. And left saying “ Sir it’s nice that people are doing research. We need research, but we also need to do the work — reach the roots. I want to this work. He did not respond but ended with a very sharp, “Ok, Ok.” I was disappointed, but I don’t give up easily. And this has helped me in many situations in life and this has also burdened me sometimes.

    I knocked at the door of a few more colleges and met with rejections directly or indirectly and finally I saw a ray of hope one day. I was entering the premises of a building and I saw someone offering me a smile and saying. “Hello Sir, what are you doing here?” When you are struggling with something — a known face, an honest greeting and a smile can mean the world. And that day it meant the universe was responding.

    One of the volunteers at a Mindfulness Conference in 2016 ( a student then) who supported the conference was standing in front of me. “I am an Assistant Professor here now,” she said. I spoke to her about my intention and she said she would help me. She did and after a month, we did a few circles that were attended by 50 students from the MA Psychology department. She and another teacher also attended the Listening Circles.

    The First Listening Circle With Psychology Students

    So, we had the first circle. It is a simple college room. My intention was clear – a listening circle with the highest quality of listening, of allowing, of supporting of just being there for each other.

    And we begin with grounding and some mindfulness practice to being attention to the present moment and I invite conversation through questions. And soon, I notice that students are showing more of themselves. Stories, life events, current struggles are finding place in the circle to be shared. And we just listen, we offer support by not asking questions, not giving advice, not passing comments and also not by giving indirect education to people. Some students, don’t speak at all till the last 10 minutes and then they feel comfortable to share a few things. With the success of the first circle, we ended up doing a few more circles. I decided to speak to the students after the circle to know what it meant for them to be part of the circle. Many students shared their personal experiences with me through long phone conversations. I also received a lovely letter of appreciation from the HOD. When I looked at the narrative feedback from the students along a researcher, who is also Psychotherapist, she shared “Satyen, the feedback is lovely — what the students have shared is that the listening circles helped raise awareness about mental health in their class, increased empathy, allowed unheard voices to be heard and students understand that they are not the only ones struggling and most importantly helped build new connections and belongingness among the students. This is Good work”

    Other Listening Circles

    Post this I offered listening space to various audiences. To little children, Non-Teaching Staff at a School. During the pandemic, together with a friend, I co-facilitated a listening circle for 14 months, every Thursday for people who were away from their families and those who were back with their families. This was again a different experience, doing it online, but also doing in regularly and understanding the impact of just being listened to by someone. Right now, I am offering circles again in Pune in various locations. Last month I offered my first circle in Marathi language. Small steps to build a listening culture and give listening its due in the world — at home, at organisations, communities.

    There is very little research about listening. But I am noticing the impact of this – participants report many things. Where we are constantly distracted with activity outside of ourselves, listening and listening circles create opportunity to build attention and attention span towards ourselves, but also listening to others when they share. I was having a conversations with a lady, who I met at Jagriti Yatra this year and asked if I would be willing to come and speaking to her group of self-help women, outside of Pune. And I thought we could do a lovely session on listening and she replied, “No Sir, these women don’t know how to speak and put forth their point of view.” And I took a pause and told her. “ When we listen to them, repeatedly, they will speak beautifully. People who feel ‘listened to’ naturally speak authentically. Speaking authentically does not have to be taught. It is our natural way to speaking” She said – “Yes, no one listens to us”

    Holding Intentions

    In 2009, I watched a film called ‘The field of dreams,’ while studying NLP & Clean Language in UK. It has a dialogue —’if you build it, people will come.’ This stayed with me. In 2016, I worked on a conference with my mindfulness teacher, where for every meeting we started with setting the intention.

    And now in 2023, I am getting a more ‘whole sense’ of this — how much we can build by feeling what we want inside us, also get grown inside others who resonate with it. And how much we can build, if we have a clear intention. And how much we can build if the intention is needed by everyone in the world. And how much we can build, if the intentions keeps building new floors inside the heart. And the outside – in material world what needs to happen, happens – take place – much faster and better when the intention is beautiful.


    Most Important

    If you have not been listened to by someone, find someone who will give you a good listening experience. As a starting point – someone who will let you speaks and not interrupt till you tell them. “I feel done” and they still wait for a couple of minutes. Don’t listen to someone, when you don’t have the energy and space. Take small steps to listen to people. Listening is hard. Take time to learn it. Don’t be in a hurry to become a better listener.

    Listen with Intention

    Who you are when you are listening to others?

    • Are you someone who knows everything?
    • Are you someone is tired?
    • Are you someone who is distracted or upset right now?

    Listen with Attention –

    What are you attending to when you are listening to others?

    • Are you attending to a laptop and a phone while listening?
    • Are you attending to your own thoughts while listening?
    • Are you attending to tomorrows dinner planning?

    Listen with Self Awareness –

    What are your compulsions (urges), when you are listening to others?

    • Are you noticing your urge to advise?
    • Are you noticing your urge to comment?
    • Are you noticing your urge to interrupt the speaker?

    As you get more aware of your compulsions (urges), you understand your intention and you bring in more attention into the place, you will cultivate better listening.

    Satyen Khashu, lives in Pune and offers training programmes. He also offers Listening Circles on various subjects, mostly Death, Dying & what really matters in the End ? and workshops on Listening & Leadership. Satyen has studied International Strategic Communications at Columbia University. He is an MBA in Marketing from Pune University. He has over 25 years of work experience in India and Europe in Marketing Communication, Environment Learning & Sales. Satyen writes, composes & sings songs in Hindi & Kashmiri.
    Contact – Satyen.khashu@gmail.com

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