Listening: By Charles Upton
From The Book of Nature ed. Camille Helminski
When trying to tell the difference between things by naming them, we tend to rely on our eyes: we attach a particular name to a particular object we see. But to get a sense of the original Unity that exists before we start naming things, one thing we can do is pay more attention to what we hear than what we see. When we name things, we merely attach words to them; when God names things, He brings them into existence. If we stop speaking and talking to ourselves for once, and listen instead to the sounds of the world, it is as if we were listening to the sound of God’s original act of creation.
Listening softens the gaze. And if we listen deeply enough- if, that is, we stop talking to ourselves completely enough- then the Eye of the Heart may open, and let us see into the heart of things.
The world is God’s first Book, in which every form is a letter or sentence. But the world is also an echo of God’s spoken Word, in which every sound is a reverberation of the original word Kun, “Be!”, by which He brings all things into existence. THe sense of sight is related to our ability to tell things apart by naming them. The visual forms of objects appear as established facts; they seem to exist in their own right. In the face of their matter-of-fact existence, we tend to forget that, in reality, all things are signs of God.
The sense of hearing is different. It is related more to God’s continuous act of creating the universe than to the catalogue of what He has already created. This is why, in Islam, the written and spoken word is emphasized over the image, and why making images of the natural world is discouraged, and why making an image of God is forbidden: because an image is always in danger of turning into an idol.
Whenever we take something literally, as if it existed in its own right rather than being an act of God, we have made an idol out of it. If we see the universe as made up of things, we are tempted to identify with those things, to desire and possess them; and the first step toward possessing something is to define it, to give it a name. That which you serve, apart from Him, is nothing but names yourselves have named [12:40].
But if we see the universe as made up of acts of God, acts which we can no more predict, or control, or grasp with our greedy hands than the next gust of wind or the next cry of a bird, then this kind of idolatry becomes impossible to us. All we can do is wait, in attentive silence, for God’s next gift. His next warning. His next command.
Instead of always trying to name and define things, why not keep silent, and listen to how God is pleased to name and define things? Why not let Him teach us their shapes and definitions? He taught Adam the names, all of them [2:31]. After all, it is He, not us, who creates them.
Sound is bigger than us; it surrounds us and washes over us. We can deliberately look in a particular direction, but we can’t deliberately listen in a particular direction. Sounds simply come to us, unpredictably, uncontrollably, from beyond what we know. This is why hearing is related to obedience— instead of judging and discriminating we simply “hear and obey” [2:285]. To hear is to heed. With our eyes we investigate, we spy things out– but the knowledge that flows into our ears is something that is impressed upon us, not something we can grasp or locate on our own initiative.
The will of God comes into our experience through the dimensions of time. We become sensitive to the will of God by paying attention to the changes that are always going on- and one of the best ways to do this is simply by listening instead of looking. If we listen deeply enough, we can hear the subtle changes in the quality of passing time, like changes in the weather, or the quality of light or the mood we and our friends are in. If we listen deeply enough to the sounds of the world, we may almost hear the silent pressure of God’s creative power- the word Kun— by which He brings all things into existence. When He decrees a thing, He says to it “Be,” and it is. [19:35]
In listening to the sounds of the world, you simply sit and attend to all the sounds within your range– birds, wind in the trees, flowing water, traffic sounds, human voices– and hear them as the voice of Allah, the vibration of the primal creative Source of the Universe, finally reaching your ears.
When you listen to the sounds of the world, you begin to see yourself as part of the world around you, a universe created by God before you were born, immensely bigger than you in space, immensely older than you in time. And you also come to understand that God’s act of creating the world never ended; it is still going on. If He were to stop saying Kun! (Be!) for one instant, the universe and everything in it would fall into oblivion. This is one way of coming to a deeper understanding of what it means that God is Creator, Producer, Fashioner, Lord of all Worlds (1)
The practice of paying attention to the natural world is a discipline in itself; it requires us to suppress our formless agitation, our obsessive strategizing, as well as the images produced in our mind by fear and desire. We must never forget that heedlessness is only cured by discipline; we must also never forget that Paradise is a Garden, of which the natural world is the clearest of signs. As for those who have attained to righteousness– what of those who have attained to righteousness? They, too, will find themselves amidst fruit-laden trees, and acacias flower-clad, and shade extended, and waters gushing and fruit abounding, never failing and never out of reach. [56:27-33]
When we go out into the natural world, into that part of the planet which is neither destroyed nor cultivated by human action– the part that “arises of itself”, not by our own efforts and plans and agendas, but by the will of God– we meet a different part of ourselves. When you are in a natural, living environment, an environment that possesses life, like you do, but does not possess serious heavy ego, then you can begin to feel how your body is a part of nature, part of God’s creation, one more living organism among the bugs and plants and birds… there is no beast that walks on earth and no bird that flies on its two wings which is not [God’s] creature like yourselves: no single thing have We neglected in Our decree [6:38].
(1) Note: Although this kind of deep listening can be practiced anywhere, among the best places to do it, are by a stream or waterfall, or on the shore of the ocean, or in a wooded area, during a gentle wind. (Or if at night, the frogs and the crickets.) ~C. Upton