A single thunderstorm upended Gordon Hempton’s life. While on a cross-country road trip in his mid-twenties, he decided to pull over in a field to get some rest. As the storm rolled in, he simply laid back, listened, and began to hear things he’d never noticed before: chirping crickets and the way the thunder echoed across the valley.
The experience made him realize that his understanding of listening was all wrong. “I thought that listening meant focusing my attention on what was important even before I had heard it and screening out everything that was unimportant even before I had heard it,” he says. “But I really hadn’t been paying a lot of attention to what is all around me.”
Filled with the sense that he had been living his life “incredibly wrong,” Hempton dropped out of graduate school and became a bicycle messenger with one goal: Become a better listener. In this week’s On Being interview, Hempton talks about how he came to the field of “acoustic ecology” and describes his decades-long journey around the world collecting sounds.
Shifting from inattentive to deliberate listening can be a vulnerable act. Hempton’s definition of true listening reminded me of a line in The On Being’s Project’s Grounding Virtues — that it’s “more than being quiet while others have their say. It is about presence as much as receiving; it is about connection more than observing … It involves vulnerability — a willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity.”
What might come from this heightened attention and presence — whether with the natural world or with one another? If there’s any truth in Mary Oliver’s assertion that “attention is the beginning of devotion,” then listening — as Hempton articulates it — could offer us a new orientation to the world. I also like how Brené Brown thinks about presence — not as what’s possible between people, but “what’s true between people.”
To settle into the truth of the world can be life-changing — even if you decide to stay in school.
Editor, The On Being Project