Robin Williams and the Art of Listening
Robin Williams, more than anything was an impeccable listener. Yes he could talk a light year a minute, but even then he listened.
He listened with utter concentration not only to content, accents, inflections, tonality, mannerisms, which he could then miraculously and hilariously reproduce, but also to the space in which something was being said to find the humour in the apparent tragic self-seriousness in manner that many adopt as an approximation to actually living. In this space of intense listening, the realm of the absurd revealed itself generously to him, which he then shared with us in all crudeness, delicacy, sensitivity, spontaneity, rawness, dexterity, sparkling wit and sheer bonhomie. His humour was devoid of cynicism and outrage. But all the more powerful then in the presenting of truth. I recall an interview, where he narrated that a German TV interviewer once asked him why the Germans did not have a sense of humour, to which he had responded with ‘well, have you considered that you had tried to kill all the funny people’.
In this regard he was the ultimate listener. His listening so complete, there was no opposition to what was being encountered, rather in the space provided, that which is being encountered can encounter itself and understanding inevitably arises. And humour. Hilarity and the general ridiculousness in all that we take to be so true and sacred, and serious, and tragic, incorrigible and locked in an eternal wrestle, ever making war with what actually is.
He listened actively, while performing, assessing the landing of his performance and to the subtle receptive cues from the audience and passively to all that happened around him, on a constant basis, allowing for the absorption and the delicate transformations which would then pour out of him in a micro moment’s notice.
Like many I had seen Mrs. Doubtfire and enjoyed his performance immensely, but it was while watching Good Will Hunting that I took real notice of him, in his incredibly sensitive and deeply restrained performance. There was this scene in which I think he is sitting by a bench in a park, and there was this subtle, subtle shift in his eyes, that conveyed a whole world of immensity, of pathos, that I sat up and thought, oh! This is acting. It was holy. It was sacred. It was profoundly human.
So then, it was with great sadness I heard the news of his death. And in paying my tribute vicariously by reading much of what was being written about in the media, it grieved me even more greatly to read the posthumous re-publication of an interview from a few years ago with The Guardian’s Decca Aitkenhead. The pervasive feeling reading, of course in the context of his tragic death, was that of his not being listened to, and the writing laced with a subtle seeming mockery of his even wanting to talk, actually talk, and be present in all his human dimension, rather than parrot, posture his way through an interview, like any odd celebrity, ought to. In the article, she clearly implies that he wanted to talk about things meaningful to him, that were personal, yet so very universal, and she seems profoundly incapable of listening to it. I do not blame the journalist for her inability to listen and be present to the interview that was happening, although that is the kind of interview she admits journalists want, but hardly ever get, for it is only indicative of the world at large that seems to have lost the simple art of simply listening. Besides wanting what it does not have, and ignoring what is being present, just right then. But that is another topic for another day.
We go through the rehearsed motions of our everyday interaction, so that we might actually avoid encountering any actual emotion. In this infamous interview, Robin Williams was raw, vulnerable, bravely exposed, warts and all, sans the armor of performance, entertainer or not, everybody dons, day in and day out, ever hiding the real face of our very selves, even from our very own selves. Having undergone an open heart surgery, he was willing to let go, be naked without this fake face, he was willing to experience the landscape of his interiority and god forbid, share this space as he found himself in, with someone ostensibly interested in ‘inter-viewing’ him.
Real listening is profoundly sacred, in that it is thoroughly healing. If not in a tangible and medical sense, but in an ineffable but thoroughly experienceable way. In this listening, you listen as a whole being, completely present to what is being said and left unsaid, without any preconceptions or prejudices, without any running commentaries in your mind, judgments or pronouncements, or preparations for a response.
This kind of listening is available to all of us. We all did that as children, say listening to our bedside stories. Such wide-eyed listening is still available to us. We are all capable of doing this. But rarely do. It is not something that we have to do in some big way for the sake of others, because, such real listening is beneficial to both listener and the listened to. It cleans out the illusory cobwebs of our minds and prevents them from becoming so dense as to be almost impenetrable to its own illuming light. In a healthy society such listening is as normal and common place as breathing. Nothing too esoteric about it. Although being this way in a regular manner is quite likely to bring in the realm of the numinous into the mundane, making all things sacred and worthy on their own accord, as is.
It is not just a coincidence that along with the tragic news of the suicide death of Robin Williams, came the report that 1 in 10 in the UK were utterly friendless, and 1 in 5 felt unloved. This is a sad but true commentary of our lives in this modern world. One can talk and debate over the numbers and causes and cures to no end about this, but I wish to humbly propose a very small idea, in honour of Robin Williams and the countless others who might wish to be heard, listened to, in a real way.
(I am by no means suggesting that somehow being listened to might have prevented Mr. Williams’ tragic fate. I have no intention of speculating the cause of this tragedy or that listening might be anything more than what it is, or that it might be a cure for the many forms of mental illnesses that plague the modern world.)
Having said that, here is my idea which is more an appeal really.
That we each take at least 15 minutes a day and set it aside for another to be given completely over to, in listening. Just listening. Not offering solutions. Not sympathizing. Not empathizing. Not trying to convey the feeling of being listened to, to the other person. Not trying anything at all. Not even trying, to listen. But simply listening. Actually, listening. In this listening, you are not ‘giving’ your attention ‘to’ the other person, but holding Space that is alive with your complete attention for the other person to say whatever it is that they are saying, however it is that they are saying…simply being present to the interaction, and responding from the depth of the space, as spontaneously, genuinely, guilelessly and artlessly as possible. Just fifteen minutes a day. With whomsoever you wish to. The train conductor may be. Or the grocer. The annoying talkative office colleague. Your lover. Your child. Your neighbour. The aging bag lady in the park. Your parent. The opportunities are endless and all around. And the practice enriching, self and society.
As I was ruminating about this world, I was envisioning a whole cadre of participants, who do this silently, facelessly, randomly, fearlessly and sincerely all over the world. All working to create and offer metaphoric ‘space’ for some random other, where there was initially none, filled with the ceaseless effluvia of self-seeking. And in this way, in such a map of relentless thinking, spaces created for the other in and with our minds, bloom like many flowers, enriching the environment for all. As we continue to offer this service quietly, hopefully our circles of listening extend, overlap and accommodate those who are in need of such listening, which might actually, not surprisingly include even our own selves.
And as we learn to listen to each other and be present to lives happening in that short span of time, we develop our abilities and our environment to a state, a culture of listening, where you can walk into a cafe, one day, don say, an yellow armband, a la, a Red Cross medic, and instantly let the environment know that you are available to be spoken to, and that all that you have to offer are your ears, but wholehearted ones at that. But until then, rest assured in hope that one’s very willingness to be of such service will bring the best suitably most in need of such service. The very offering is its own value.
The civic minded in me, envisions, such listening booths in street corners, in churches and community centers, where people know they can walk into and simply be heard. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Just a little secular(as in being present to that which is), apolitical, agenda less space, being held individually for that one person, by this one person, a sort of triage for the soul in a very very small and simple way. For what its worth. Just as.
Might we not atleast give it a try?