Listening was the earliest means of teaching. Before writing was developed, the history of the races was told in stories. The bards sang songs of past events; story-tellers travelled from place to place recounting legends, myths and amongst them, many truths. Men learned long sagas by heart to tell them to their children. The great teachings of the ancient sages were handed down by word of mouth for many generations.
The great epic the Mahabharata, a poem of 220,000 lines, was taught by word of mouth by the great Vyas to his pupil, who then recited it at a great festival of
King Janamejaya. In this great work, is the Bhagavad Gita, famous throughout the world, and specially dear to the Yogi for it is his hand-book.
We know very well how children will sit enthralled listening to a story. Dr. Shastri often used to intersperse stories in his talks for he would say:
“Children love stories, and we are all children at heart.”
But we are not such children that we can afford to listen to every teller of stories. There is a great art in listening. First we have to know what to listen to, then to know to whom to listen and finally how we should listen.
It is a very important subject, for we are told by men of real wisdom that the sense of hearing is the most powerful of the five senses. What we hear has a far greater impression on our minds than what we see, smell or taste. The great speeches of a Churchill, the words of King Lear spoken by a Gielgud, the piano played by Schnabel, the violence of a thunderstorm among the hills—they are experiences which are never forgotten, by a sensitive mind.
This being so we should guard our ears and what passes through them, very closely. But we do not. We take very little heed of the mind’s diet, though a good deal of time about the body’s. The result of this neglect is the very unsatisfactory instrument our minds have become. So unsatisfactory are they, that not only are we unable to live properly, but we cannot think properly, judge properly or know properly.
There is a Hebrew prayer which every Jewish child learns as soon as he begins his Jewish education.
“Shmah Yisroel . . . Hear, O Israel. The Lord thy God, the Lord is One. And thou shalt love the Lord thy God, with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.”
It is words like these that are the best to hear, and the seer who uttered them knew what he was about; he knew that if they were listened to properly, they would transform a man’s inner being and bring him the peace and the freedom and the joy that is to be found nowhere on earth, but only in the knowledge of the God who is One, who is not one of many, but one existence.
Yes, the seer who uttered them knew what he was about, but I did not know when I learnt them, and that must go for many others. Only after many years does one begin to understand their importance, and that understanding is the beginning of real living. The seer called aloud: “Hear, O Israel”. Some heard; some did not. Some listened, and they began to live. To me all those years ago, they meant very little. I had to learn them in a strange language and through a teacher who was not very inspired in his approach. Nor was the heart awake to hear them.
The infant Samuel, you will remember, was awakened twice from his sleep hearing his name called. He ran to Eli, thinking it was he, until he was told to reply:
“Speak Lord, for thy servant heareth.”
And then the Lord was able to work through him. But he had to listen first.
In many religious traditions, stress is laid upon listening. For to hear the great spiritual truths that are life-saving, not only helpful in living, but in saving it, is the highest work any man can be at.
There does not seem as if there could be much work involved in listening, but there is.
Adhyatma Yoga, though not a religion in the sense usually meant by the term, takes the truths of the great prophets to the peak of Truth, as it were.
In the Gita Shastra, the Lord, incarnated as Shri Krishna, speaks to his pupil, and many times calls for his special attention:
“Again, O mighty-armed one, listen to My supreme word” . . . “How, intent on Me, thou shalt know Me in full, that do thou hear.”
Nearly at the end of the classic, when the Lord has told the great Secret, He again says: “Hear thou again, My word supreme, the most secret of all.”
What is the Secret?
We have to understand what is meant by ‘secret’. It is not concealed, yet it is secret. It is broadcast on all sides, but it is not known.
Men are intent on looking, searching, probing for the secret of life, the one supreme purpose, and imagining it will stand out in direct contrast to everything else, to all ordinary things, they miss it. It will stand out. It does stand out.
But it is in ordinary things, through all that is seen, known, felt. There is nowhere it is not, this Truth—for it is the Lord Who is One, not among ordinary things or beyond them, but their essence—it is first known and to be recognised in man himself—his own Self who searches, who doubts, who ‘listens’.
He is the Lord who is One, there is no other—no other god, no other thing, nothing that does not owe its name and its form to Him. Take away these things, and they are all passing, take away the perishable, and only the One remains.
There are three important avenues along which the student of the Spiritual Science travels—listening to the Truth, cogitating the Truth, and meditating on the Truth.
The first we can say is the most important, because without it the other two will not come about. Very often it seems to be mere chance or coincidence that brings us to the place where we can hear about it. One sees an advertisement; one reads a book, one has a friend who has heard from a friend . . Sometimes it is the result of a conscious rejection and selection of many approaches and many theories.
How are we to know that we are hearing the Truth and not just an opinion; how are we to recognise it and know that it is not backed by any self-interest or desire to teach, to found a centre attracting many people and become powerful and wealthy—a thing our Teacher so often warned us about.
We have to have discrimination and use our reason, not only our feelings. If the Truth is given impersonally with no fees asked, no demands made; if it is shown to be absolutely universal, with no barrier of creed, race, colour; if it is spoken of with the utmost respect and reverence, and if reverence is given to all revealed scriptures, all the incarnations and saints of God—then we can listen more carefully to what is said, for the grounds for thinking that here is Truth, are there.
One who follows the Truth will never say: “I know”, but will tell of what he has been taught. ‘Thus have I heard’ is a common expression among the Teachers of Truth. For he has listened. He has learned to listen. So we have to learn to listen if we want to know. When we think we have found where Truth is expounded, where the greatest knowledge of all is told, we sit down and try to take in what is being said. Simple indeed.
Why then do some come and never return?
Why do others come again and again and then vanish?
Why do some come and stay for ever?
They hear the same thing, but some listen, others just hear words which convey nothing. Others again hear, and their minds translate what they heard into something quite different.
We all know the sort of quarrels and misunderstandings that go on for years; all arising from a few words imperfectly listened to. If this can be said of ordinary worldly affairs, how much more must it apply to the true work of Self-knowing, which being carried on so close, so immediately, does not allow any objective appraisal.
What we have to investigate is the investigator. What has to be known is the Knower himself.
There is no external goal, and the work of investigating and knowing is internal.
So when it comes to listening to the Teaching about It, it is especially important that we listen properly. But what can we do about it?
Each of us is a bundle of likes and dislikes, impulsive reactions, pet prejudices and opinions. We can start with these. We adopt ideas and then bury them in the ground and go on for years defending them, without ever re-examining them to see whether time has dated them. And we have to be very careful to differentiate between what we believe and what is only a prejudice.
The difference is that you can explain a conviction without getting angry. To recognise some of our attitudes of mind, is half way to being detached from them.
Before we allow ourselves to listen, we can do quite a lot to make our minds receptive, not to a blind acceptance of whatever is said—far from it.
But at least, to the best of our capacity let us try to hear what is said and not what we think is said. Being a subject hard to explain, about Truths which are not limited to reasoning or indeed to thought, but have to be known as the direct experience of the listener himself,— even then only quiet and serious consideration can justify an acceptance or rejection of the Teaching.
Those who come in the ‘listening mood’ have a good chance of hearing an echo of Truth within. The Infant Samuel, living for so many years in the Temple, imbibing spiritual food along with his every breath, found it easy and natural to listen to the voice of the Lord, when his attention was directed to it. It was no outer voice! The outer approach, whether of touch, sight or smell or speech, is the grossest and clumsiest means of communication, of knowing. If we limit life, existence and understanding to that which comes to us through our five senses, we are very earth-bound.
Shakespeare puts it like this:—
Look, how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold;
There’s not the smallest orb which thou beholdest
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-ey’d cherubins:
Such harmony is in immortal souls
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close us in, we cannot hear it.
The ‘listening’ process has to be repeated again and again. The prescription for life’s ills called Adhyatma Yoga, is not like the illegible scrawl written out for us by the doctor, which is transcribed into pills for £5 by the chemist. It is more like cleaning one’s teeth. It has to be done every day to keep them free from decay and the mouth healthy. So we listen to different aspects of the Truth—different reasoning to support it, different approaches to it.
Don’t forget that if it is Truth, then it is for all, and there will be a way to it for each. We all have different types of mind, and need the approach that corresponds. If we do not go on listening, then the temporary effect will soon fade, and the deadly decay of our ordinary outlook on life, will continue its work.
It is not only in the initial period that the ‘listening’ attitude is needed. It grows from an external exercise done through the ears, to an internal one. That great genius of sound creation, Beethoven, became stone deaf before he composed his most glorious works. We get a glimpse through his letters, of the depth of suffering and anguish to which he sank as he realised that he would never hear again. Music was his work, his medium, his life. Within him there surged this terrific creative force struggling for expression in sound and he could not hear. But the urgency of his need, the power of his suffering and his indomitable belief, brought his ‘inner’ hearing to such perfection that he gave to the world music none has yet equalled. Surely this is what Shakespeare meant:—
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close us in, we cannot hear it.
We know that Samuel did not hear orally. We know that the saints and sages who held converse with the Lord did so without words, without any bodily visitation. Not that such is impossible, indeed there are many instances where the Lord has manifested Himself to His devotees.
The experience of Teresa, who met a young child in the church, is well known.
The child asked her who she was, and she replied: “I am Teresa of Jesus!”
Whereon he responded: “I am Jesus of Teresa.”
In every faith such things occur and they are not imagination. The actual Incarnation of the Divine King in human form is recognised by a Christian as Jesus, and to a Yogi it is recognised also as Ram, as Buddha, as Krishna, for many times the Incarnation has descended to teach man Truth.
He manifests Himself in such a body when He is attracted by the great love of a great soul, and appears to him as Jesus did to Teresa.
But where there is an outward appearance, there is loss of inner communion. What is outer is indirect; there are the barriers of flesh and mind. The true communion is experienced by the inner man on the subtler planes of being. Two people, dear to each other, how often and deeply do they misunderstand each other.
How little can they really know of one another? Only in rare cases is there an inner communion. As the Yogi grows in understanding and purity, the medium of communion grows subtler until there is no separation between the Lord and his Self,—the Truth floods his consciousness—his Lord is his Self!
But that is not yet. That experience, although it is and always has been a fact, is the end of ‘listening’ and the end of suffering—and the consummation of living. As the follower of the Yogic Wisdom grows more and more attuned to the meaning of the outer exposition to which he listens, he becomes aware that there is a minor revolution going on within him. When I say ‘follower’ I mean one who has caught the sound of Truth and it keeps turning over and over in his mind, much as we are apt to get hold of a popular tune which, in spite of ourselves, goes on in our mind.
He finds himself then listening all the time, as it were. Even during his ordinary daily life, he still hears. The talk of friends, of business acquaintances and those he has to contact as he goes about, begins to sound empty and ring hollow. The two sounds do not harmonise, anyhow not at this stage.
The contrast of the idea of the One indivisible Being, the Essence, the Self in each, with its concomitants of tolerance, compassion and an understanding of men whatever they may say or do or appear to be—with the self-interested, localised outlook of those who have not yet listened, becomes more and more evident.
When we close our eyes, we see many strange shapes and colours, but we know that they are only optical illusions and not real. So when a listener shuts down his external hearing and the other senses, he finds many irrelevant and inconsequential thoughts and images. They stream through his mind; they dance fantastic figures: they suggest many alternative and attractive ways and plans for life, coloured by their desire to distract.
To listen presupposes a silence, and the silencing of these clever, most astute subterfuges and the cunning diplomacy of the mind, is a major achievement. This is where the habit of listening proves a great asset, for if well and truly formed, it is like a life-belt to a drowning man. It will hold him up above the din, which will gradually cease as the power and the strength with which he has hitherto fed them is withdrawn through disregard. Then he begins to hear truly.
This is the process of Meditation, the silencing of the mind, so that what its noise and discord has hidden for incarnations, will be known. But what can he hear when silence reigns? At certain times in our lives, we have all heard another voice in our minds—another sound. It has usually been a disturbing one, directing us to some course we have not wanted to take, something we have refused to face, so we have, ‘hardened our hearts’ as Pharaoh did, and ignored it.
If we have ignored it persistently, then it has probably ceased to be heard, and we have lost a most precious signpost, a most needed pointer to the Truth we now want. This voice is the voice of our higher mind, the purest strata of the mind, wherein the Truth is most clearly heard until the final direct experience.
As we listen interiorly with a mind growing increasingly clear and pure, those truths which the saints and sages call true wisdom, become alive for us. They seem to crystallise in the stilled mind and we know so surely and differently that we wonder how we could ever have imagined we had known before. For we do think so. We think we understand what humility means, what love means, what compassion, pity, honesty and patience mean, and it is a very good thing that we have some idea, but it is only when one has listened for a while, that their real implications slowly dawn in the quiet mind, and they leave their own haunting echos which help to prepare the waking soul for the experience of Truth. They are the forerunners, the ‘overture’ as it were, to the soundless Sound which is the Truth Itself.
No one who becomes a true listener, can remain unchanged. What he will hear in the inner silence, he can never tell. Not that he would not; not that it is forbidden—but there are no words in which to frame these things. He can hardly think them. They are just ‘known’, more clearly and certainly than anything in the outer world can be known. Yet they will show themselves in many ways.
I am not hinting that he will perform miracles, will heal, will ride on the wind—or foretell the future. These things have no value to one who would hear Truth. They are as trivial and unconvincing as the stories a child tells. Our Teacher used to say that the man who works in a tannery, carries with him the badge of his trade wherever he goes, for the smell becomes part of him. So one who works long and steadily in the inner silence, ‘listening’, carries with him the perfume, the subtle fragrance of great things.
Often Dr. Shastri remarked that every saint, every man who sought Truth, became a poet, a fact which he proved himself. One can understand how this is. The gradual accumulation of inner wisdom, of real understanding with its dynamic power, must find an outlet. Nothing can remain static and survive: even water stagnates unless it flows: how much more this force. It must be translated into beauty, into service, into compassion, into art, into some form that will benefit the world, even as Beethoven translated his inner creations.
In this way of hearing there is no room for error; I say this, for some may think it is just a play of the imagination. No, it cannot be, for in this pure atmosphere of the higher mind, which, remember, has been controlled and cleansed by the training, the practice, the imagination has no part. It lies dormant along with the emotions. There is no thought process as we usually conceive it. There is just receptivity, a waiting, a listening: and when the Jewels of Truth drop into the pool of the still mind, they are instantly known without any doubt or hesitation.
Now this is an experience waiting for all men. There is no exclusive strata of men, no priority, no waiting fist. You turn to a fire in winter and you receive warmth. You bathe in a stream in summer, and you become cool. You hold your senses still, your thought still, your emotions, imagination and desires still, and you will hear.
The more you listen, the deeper your silence, the more certain the sounding of the sound of Truth. And the final sound will ring out, as it were—Tat Twam Asi—That Thou Art—that Indivisible Lord of all is your own Self— which will flood your being and the whole creation with I am That.
You will smile when others say:—“How do you know you are right? Isn’t it a form of hypnotism? How can you be sure there isn’t any further goal?” We all ask these sort of questions whilst we do not know, whilst we are trying to be sure that this is the right path to Truth.
The answer our Teacher gave was—“No man can prove it to you. You have to experience it for yourself.”
Here the ordinary channels of knowing are transcended and the Truth known as It is, and that direct and uncontradictable experience leaves no doubt, no fear, no limitation.
Try it, for that can be your only touchstone.
If thou wouldst hear the Nameless,
and descend Into the Temple-cave of thine own self,
There, brooding by the central altar,
thou May’st haply learn the Nameless hath a voice
By which thou wilt abide, if thou be wise:
For knowledge is the swallow on the lake,
That sees and stirs the surface-shadow there,
But never yet hath dipt into the Abysm.