The Art of Listening – Why Listening is Imperative to Health

By Emma Suttie D.Ac, AP

In over 15 years of practice, I have learned that listening is essential to good health. I realize this may sound strange, but it is actually a very fundamental part of Chinese Medicine. Let me explain what I mean. 

We live very differently than our ancestors did. Many of us live in crowded cities, commuting to jobs where we often sit at desks in front of computers all day. When we exercise, it is usually inside, at a gym watching tv or listening to music. We are often rushed, stressed and underslept, eating when we can and trying to balance everything in our hectic lives so we can keep going. Sound familiar? This was my life for many, many years and I know it is the life many of us have in our fast-paced, modern world. 

Our ancestors, however, lived in a different way. Some may look upon ancient peoples ways as being simple and their lives harsh and without pleasure. But more and more, we are beginning to understand that the way many ancient cultures lived was far more conducive to health and wellbeing than our manic modern lifestyles. So, why is that? Well, the key is that people in times past were living in harmony with the natural world, and as time has gone on, the development of technology, factory farms, automation and the movement of people to big cities, we have disconnected ourselves from the natural world and a connection that is deeply ingrained in each and every one of us. It was literally the way we had survived for thousands of years. Paying attention to our surroundings and being aware of the earth’s cycles and rhythms was the way that we were able to anticipate and make subtle changes to our behaviour to ensure our survival. 

This breathtaking photo by farfar on Unsplash | Laozhai, Guilin, China

A Word About Listening

A vital part of this connection to our external environment was our ability to listen. And I am not just talking about listening with your ears (although that is certainly an important part). I am talking about a heightened sensitivity to all exterior stimuli – a listening you do with your entire body. When you live harmoniously with nature as our ancestors did, your senses are heightened in a way that they are probably not living today (unless you are living very remotely and have in fact not lost this connection at all). People rose and slept with the sun. They raised crops and had to be attuned to the weather and the changing of the seasons to know how to adjust to what their plants needed. They could tell you what the weather would be and would know what the sky looked like when a storm was coming, or there was an approaching cold front. In colder months more warming foods were eaten, foods that grew in that season as well as the inverse, eating lighter fare in the warmer months because that is what nature provided at that time of year. 

The behaviour of animals also held clues to what was going on in the natural environment. For example, animals can often sense disasters like tsunamis and survive when humans don’t by escaping to higher ground. This is because they are so attuned to the earth that they can feel minute vibrations and hear the wave coming long before humans have any idea of what is going on. Studies have also shown that many animal species use the earth’s magnetic field to navigate. If you are attuned to your animals they will usually give you clues to changes in the environment. Unusual animal behaviour should always be taken seriously and as a warning, that danger could be afoot. These are all ways in which we listen. 

Because our ability to listen was directly tied to our survival, it was an essential skill. It was normal and natural and something we all did by instinct. Our days were spent outside hunting, gathering or farming so we were very connected to our surroundings and living in a state of symbiosis with the world around us. Our relationship with nature was a symbiotic one. 

This stunning Photo by Robynne Hu on UnsplashAvatar Mountain, Zhangjiajie, China

In those ancient times, we considered ourselves PART of nature and not separate from it as we do today. Listening to our surroundings also can be turned inward and listening to our bodies was integral to keep healthy with the goal of never getting sick. Our bodies speak a language that we all know and understand. But, as with any language, if you don’t practice, you will lose it and eventually forget how to speak it at all. 

The body offers us many clues to tell us what is happening. They begin very subtly and, if not attended to, will become more and more pronounced, until they finally manifest as serious diseases in a last-ditch attempt to get our attention. So, what kind of clues am I talking about? Well, pain is a good one. A headache, stomach ache or wandering pain are all ways your body is speaking to you. One way to think about it is to compare the body to a garden. Your body, in a healthy and balanced state, is a beautiful garden, bursting with life and vitality. One must tend a garden every day for it to be healthy and thrive. You must walk through your garden, observe the flowers and plants to see which ones are growing well and which are struggling. Some may need more water and some may be getting too much sun. Then, make small adjustments to make sure everything in your garden is getting exactly what it needs. Of course, no one is born a master gardener, but we are all born with a very strong and innate knowledge of how to listen and recognize when things need attention. This approach teaches us that making small changes is far easier than waiting until things become catastrophic and getting back to balance is more difficult.

The Disconnect

As we moved away from living off the land and our connection to our surroundings, we began living in larger and more industrialized places. Towns and cities sprang up everywhere and people were anxious to participate in this new, fast-paced way of life. In the process, many of us moved away from nature entirely and inevitably, our deep connection to ourselves. It is interesting that the move away from nature inevitably ends in a disconnect from ourselves and that is because we literally are part of nature and inseparable from it. 

This beautiful photo by Zach Miles on Unsplash | New York City

Work, instead of being outside hunting, tending crops or animals, is now defined as sitting in offices under electric lights and staring at computer screens for hours every day. To know the time, we look at a clock instead of the position of the sun. To know the weather, we look on our phones or an app instead of simply looking out the window. Most of us no longer grow our own food, but go to a grocery store where it is politely packaged for our convenience. These are only a few examples. We now suffer unprecedented levels of obesity, anxiety and depression. Some of the leading causes of death are heart disease, cancers and strokes, all of which in my opinion, can largely be prevented by changing our lifestyles and living in a more harmonious way with our surroundings. 

I lived in a big city for most of my life, so I am familiar with the phenomenon. I have in recent years, after longing for it for as long as I can remember, been able to live in the country with access to land. I have also been able to either grow some of my own food or know the person who did. I have made an effort to spend time outside every day, and when I do, I feel BETTER. My mind slows down, I get back into my body and I can appreciate the beauty of simple things like a passing butterfly or the beauty of a flower. And something else has happened. It has been a gradual reconnection to the way I believe we are all meant to be living to be our happiest, healthiest and most complete selves – a reconnection with myself that has been really lovely to experience. With all the excitement of things like technology and the advances we make as a species, it is easy to get caught up in the wonder those advances can create, but I will always try to balance that with the beauty and wonder that nature has always held and the knowing that we are all a part of the planet that enriches and sustains us.

The author, standing in a field of chives somewhere in the mountains of Panama. 

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