Speaking Well Involves Listening Well First

When we think about eloquence, our thoughts immediately turn to speaking well. And then we are inclined to believe that the eloquent person is just someone who has learned how to say the right thing. Then, should we ourselves wish to become eloquent like him, we would doubtless pour ourselves into practicing saying the right thing, thinking that this is what should be at the heart of our training.

It turns out that eloquence is born not out of speaking but out of listening. Quite naturally, there is a difference between hearing and listening and another difference between listening and listening well. An eloquent person has learned to say the right thing by virtue of listening well.

Take the difference between hearing and listening first: someone may hear noises in the street but not listen to such noises. Such noises remain in the background while someone listens to his friend about the latter’s troubles at work. Even though one cannot listen without hearing, listening is “intentional”: my attention is directed at what you are saying, my ears are “inclined” in your direction.

Take, secondly, the difference between listening and listening well. We listen well only when (a) our attention is one-pointed and our mind clear (so, our attention does not wander off onto other subjects), (b) we’re able to follow along, and (c) we’re able to make deductions from the said to the unsaid. Those who don’t listen well wander off, don’t follow along, and don’t make deductions.

Listening well, therefore, requires quite a high level of active responsiveness to the other, particularly to her words but also to her mannerisms and body language. And the larger assumption I am making is that one cannot listen excellently so long as one is self-centered. A clear mind means that one’s interests and concerns play, at best, only a very small part in what is transpiring between the speaker and you. Not being self-centered, you can seek understanding through listening for understanding–not manipulation, not steering–is the chief aim.

The paradoxical truth now appears: the eloquent person has become so less by spending countless hours saying the right thing and more so by spending countless hours learning to listen well. For out of listening well the right words–few, choice, apt–come forth.


Excitement and Anti-intellectualism in Philip Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen

I cannot imagine a more bracing, dramatic, stern, and triumphant account of Zen practice than Philip Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen. The very atmosphere of Zen is “lit up,” the mood is intense and alive and awesome, the figures very human while being supremely committed. I can see why the book, published in 1963, has had a magnetic effect on the practice and popularity of Zen in the West, and I can feel how it seduces me.

On each page, zazen, sesshin, kensho all seem very exciting and full of energy, and the roshis, even in their ordinariness, are these dramatic figures singularly devoted to helping their pupils “get kensho.” Notwithstanding the cold, the sparse food, the vigorous daily schedules, the powerful monks, the monasteries Kapleau describes just seem to crackle with the utmost height of life. The whole book is saturated, just saturated by the feel of those who have finally, ultimately, truly found and lived what they are looking for. I am astonished and touched by the beauty, the care, and the attention Kapleau put into the design.

I note, however, a particular deficit of spirit, a certain miserly prejudice when it comes to what Zen practitioners call “philosophy” and “speculation.” Over and over again, roshis, Kapleau, and pupils denigrate philosophy as only (they would say) reinforcing dualistic thinking: making distinctions between self and Buddha-nature, creating and applying concepts, asking speculative questions that cannot be answered, generally getting wrapped up in one’s own thinking.

This prejudice against philosophy, marring the book, is too bad first because it mistakes the essence of philosophy as logic-chopping, as the adoption and analysis of concepts; second because it fetishizes the peasant whose mind is without such cogitating and therefore is more primed for sartori (is this not already a political assumption about the peasant and leisurely classes?); and third–and this on a deeper political level–because our minds need to make distinctions and often fine-grained discriminations at that in order for us to deliberate in the hope of acting well in political situations that would otherwise confound us. The charge against Zen is that, under certain political conditions, it could let us lean in the direction of fascism: toward acting spontaneously without the requisite, nuanced political considerations, toward what Hannah Arendt might call “thoughtlessness.”

I do not doubt that more subtle Zen apologists will find room for a reply to my quibble, but that does not change the way that Zen has been received in the West and Kapleau has helped to perpetuate this misconception. Zen’s appeal in the West is owing, in large measure, to the death of God, the focus on practice, the pragmatic tendency in the American mind, the anti-intellectualism, and the enigmatic phrasings–and the bias against good, hard thinking is only exacerbated by the cult of the “spontaneous act.”

In my own letters and thoughts, I confess that I am becoming more acquainted than I had ever been before with the limits of the intellect in general and of my intellectualism in particular. I am humbled by this realization. Still, traditions that make room for faith alongside the limited, legitimate powers of the intellect are those that stand still to receive my allegiance. Lumping the intellect in with the “delusional mind,” as happens in The Three Pillars of Zen, is a dangerous move. Believing that philosophy is opposed to practice is another. Anti-intellectualism is as scary a position to hold on the Right as it is on the Left.

Late Bloomers and the Unlikelihood of Second Chances

This world does not look charitably upon late bloomers. So charming are the rarest of late bloomers that this world does not sneer at them or, more like, turn a blind eye to their fate but otherwise, well, woe be to the fellar who discovers a third or a halfway through life that something grand is shaking him to change his life course.

Silly as it is to say, things are tilted in favor of the one who can tell a linear story going back to the very “origin” of his being. This is as true of the careerist who spouts off crap progression through bullshit jobs as it is of the roshi (look at all that training since age 6), the yogi, and the artist. If it takes you a while to awaken to what bestirs your spirit or sends you off humming, then you’re likely to be passed and passed over.

Want a second chance in this life? “Good luck with that,” this world says. “You should have known your mind when you were still in the womb. Why, huh?, were you so ignorant or indecisive?”

Playing in bad faith, this world likes to have it both ways: it’s good for you to grow, to develop, and all that, and it’s good for us to be open-minded and all that, and we really, really do believe in justice and fairness (etc.), and it’s really good to be accepting, but come late to the party and you’ll likely be turned away. “You feel that cold breeze. Shit’s cold.”

The second best strategy of the late bloomer is to make shit up. “Oh yeah, I’ve been doing this, you know, in one form or another since I was, like, 2. So, you know, I’m really legitimate after all.” “Well… we’re not sure about you. Won’t you bolt tomorrow? Hey, show us your badge again. Oh, you don’t have one? Huh. How’d you get in here?”

It’s no wonder that so many late bloomers are making shit up (isn’t a resume or a CV just that?) or, thankfully yet riskily, turning to entrepreneurship. The best late bloomers figured out how to never hear again: “how’d you get in here anyway?” How they did that is a bit of a mystery.

Late bloomers, I feel great sympathy for you. I’m on your side, thinking with you, of you.