Listen! Take time to REALLY listen. Pay attention to the difference between the sounds of your house or office throughout the day. Enjoy those differences and notice if the sounds create a melody you like or if you want to change something about your environment so there are more opportunities for enjoying pleasant sounds and soft, simple quiet.

Paying deliberate attention to small sounds offers instant relief from tension that accompanies the pressures of daily life.

Can you hear corn singing or wildflowers bursting open? Do rivers and trees speak to you? What can lizards tell you as they sun themselves upon a rock?

If you’re like the old man in the beautifully illustrated The Other Way to Listen, a collaborative book by Byrd Baylor and the award-winning artist Peter Parnall, you can hear these voices of nature. If you’re like the child in this poetic tale for children of all ages, you will learn how to hear them.

However, as the old man says, it takes a lot of time and a lot of practice to learn the secrets of deep and open listening. You can’t be in a hurry. You can’t have a lot of assumptions and preconceived ideas. If I could hear such things, I imagine I would agree with the old man when he points out that trees are very honest and they don’t care much for “fancy people” and “you have to respect that tree or hill or whatever it is you’re with.” Further, “If you think you’re better than a horned toad you’ll never hear its voice — even if you sit there in the sun forever.”

After reading these simple ideas a couple months ago, I was determined to pay greater attention to gentle quiet voices of nature. Unfortunately, I haven’t been a great deal better at following through on my goal to spend time outdoors listening than I have been on my intention to slow down for life in general. (In a soon-to-be-written piece tentatively entitled “On Spaces and Zippers,” I’ll share the complications I’ve created by not taking time to have more space in my life.)

Nevertheless, even if we don’t set aside long periods of time to sit and listen — really listen — to whatever nature may teach us, I’ve discovered that there is a great deal we can hear if we simply attune ourselves to the small sounds that surround us. In this simple act of deliberate listening, I’ve found an exceedingly easy way to take a significant break from the stress of daily life.

And I didn’t have to set aside a great deal of time to learn how to hear hills singing.

You see, what I’ve discovered from my modest attempt to listen more consciously is that one of the reasons we don’t listen — really listen — to ordinary sounds is that our minds are busy thinking, planning, worrying, analyzing, judging, scheduling, and otherwise managing very busy lives filled with obligations and appointments.

While we’re engaged in all that activity, we don’t think there is room to pay attention to the sounds of life, except in irritation of those that annoy us, like jackhammers and helicopters and barking dogs. In fact, when I sat down yesterday to write this Take-a-Break, I assumed my usually quiet neighborhood would provide a perfect setting for discussing the topic of small, quiet sounds.

That’s when I heard the staccato barking of a nervous poodle several houses away, probably complaining about a telephone repairperson in a neighbor’s yard. That’s when I put on a CD to mask the noise, forgetting that one of the characteristics of active listening is the willingness to take in quieter periods of small sounds, or no sound at all, that lie before and after those sounds we identify as intrusive and noisy. Had I simply let the dog continue without trying so hard to cover it up, I might have experienced the delicious joy of silence in the air that follows the bark.

After all, unless we can manage to live permanently in the only place we are guaranteed perfect silence, which is in the closed chamber where we get our hearing tested, there is always a movement of sound in the air. Even in caves deep below the noisy earth’s surface, dripping water can be heard. So almost no matter where we are, there are all kinds of opportunities for small sounds and varieties of quiet, each moment offering a slightly different melody.

There’s the quiet of riding in a car without the radio on and the windows down, a quiet I greatly appreciate in my new well-muffled Avalon, which is different than the quiet in our Ford Explorer.

There’s the quiet between the time you ask your teenager where he went last night with the family car and the answer he figures will do him the least damage.

There’s the quiet in the house that you would say is quiet until the refrigerator shifts cycles and your shoulders droop a bit from the release of tension you carried in response to the motor.

There’s the quiet of a theater audience when the lights dim right before the curtain rises.

There’s the quiet when the baby’s howling changes to whimpers and then to soft breathing as she finally stops fighting sleep.

Yes, there are a thousand kinds of quiet. There are a thousand sounds. Which ones do you notice?

Yesterday on my exercise walk, I began by listening to “What’s the Worst Thing That Could Happen?,” a book-on-tape by one of my favorite authors, Donald Westlake, and narrated by a talented reader who delightfully portrays the off-beat characters in the Dortmunder series.

But knowing that I was in the middle of writing this piece, and wanting some practical experience to use for illustration (after all, those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach) part way through the walk I took off the ear phones and listened. Not only did I hear the wind blowing through the tall palm trees that line the road, but I felt the cool breeze on my face. Of course, it was cool earlier when I was paying attention to the book, but my focus was so much on the story that I missed some of the pleasure of being outdoors.

Then I noticed the swish—swish—swish—swish of my vinyl jacket as I swung my arms back and forth. The birds were making their final calls of the day as dusk began to fall. And it was clear that the cars passing on the street (there aren’t any sidewalks, so I was closer to the cars) illustrated the Doppler effect when they approached where I was and then moved away.

I still wanted to finish the book and turned the tape back on when I got home, yet there had been something very nice about the listening interlude. Of course, the truth is that I wouldn’t walk nearly as much if I couldn’t listen to mystery books and tales of intrigue. Always listening to nature on these walks wouldn’t encourage me to get out nearly as much as books do. But I plan to take my advice and turn off the tape player from time to time.

And one more illustration. A moment ago I left the computer to check on the washing and get a snack. So I paid attention to the sound of water running out of the machine and into the sink, which was a different sound than the water flowing from the faucet as I washed my hands. There were different sounds when walking on wooden floors or on rugs. There was a difference between the sound of placing my regular pair of glasses on the desk before picking up my computer glasses and the slightly heavier sound of putting my glass of Trader Joe’s “Vitality Juice” on the desk.

Of course, even if you agree that listening — really listening!! — is a goal you want to pursue, you won’t do it all the time. Like lots of us, you use television in your home and the radio in your car as an escape from all that thinking, planning, worrying, analyzing, judging, and scheduling you have to do. I’m just suggesting that another way to distract yourself from the pressures of life is to deliberately take a “listening break.”

Periodically stopping and listening is effective for this purpose because you can’t think of more than one thing at a time. Consequently, when you’re concentrating on listening, you can’t also be concentrating on your problems.

Happy listening.

©2001 Arlene Harder

Author's Bio: 

Arlene F. Harder, MA, MFT is Founder and Editor-in Chief of the websites Support4Change and Childhood Affirmations. She has been a licensed psychotherapist for more than 20 years. Her specialties include healing imagery and reflective meditation techniques, and she is certified by the Academy for Guided Imagery. She is a co-founder of The Wellness Community-Foothills in Pasadena, California, and the author of the book Letting Go of Our Adult Children: When What We Do is Never Enough, and Questions to Ask Yourself When You Want Your Life to Change. Currently, she is developing her innovative Better Tomorows Program for healing strained or broken relationships.
Arlene can be contacted at and can be found at her blog, Support4Change Blog.