The ear and the monkey mind

To carry on from my previous post where I described Critical Pedagogy as being essentially about the space in the teacher’s head, another tough question for me this year has been our listening culture. Brad Patterson and I had a conversation some months ago about taming “the monkey mind” as he called it. I recently downloaded a writing software called OmmWriter that helps me concentrate. It only works in full screen and has a much nicer interface than the usual Word, Pages etc.. but one slightly quirky thing it does is each time you quit the program, i.e. stop writing, there’s a little pop up window that tries to encourage you to reconnect. Among the wise pop-up messages are:”your mind, a wild monkey”. Surely two monkey metaphors merit a post. 

 I fully admit to having a monkey-patterned mind. On my not-so-good days when it takes me far too long to achieve anything online and I click between windows at the same rhythm at which my grandmother knits and purls. Spot the more productive of the duo.

 In his 2006 Reith Lecture Daniel Barenboim speaks a lot about our loss of listening, where visual culture is given so much importance and the ability to stop, block out everything else (tame the monkey,) and just listen is given less and less validity. I notice this in our conference culture as well, specifically the idea of substituting the experience of listening in the room with choosing to catch it online, or listening with the parallel activity of transforming the information into tweets. Or the all-too-widely-known syndrome of speakers who hide behind densely worded Powerpoints and handouts without respecting the fact that the people in the room are there to listen.

 A colleague recently said rather frankly that he chose not to attend a (3-hour) workshop as he’d seen a 15 minute video of the same theme on YouTube. This made me wonder how many of us would admit to cutting and pasting the way he did. And how the author of that workshop material would evolve in a system where 15 minutes could, in a sense, substitute 3 hours. Of course there may have just been a lack of further interest. Or a sense of ‘been there, done that’.

 I’m often puzzled by requests to send my (very sparse) slides to participants because the culture of a conference talk for me is listening/speaking, not reading/writing. 

 All this makes me wonder if there isn’t an unfortunate turn in our listening culture and whether the openness of access online, and the visual culture that goes with it, isn’t making us less generous in what we allow ourselves to listen to. Not ‘discipline’ but ‘allow’. And if the monkey mindedness that comes with home being “where the wifi connects immediately” (that was a fabulous quote, Eduardo) is something that we can make more efficient with the simple tool of ‘discipline’?

 Please don’t worry, this post isn’t going to moan about the plagues of modern society and the tech-invasion of academic practice. I’m not one of those academics who believe that we are losing discipline as students. Those of you who know me know that my students have their mobiles on their desks in class and I don’t bat an eyelid over the pathos of tormented post-teenage lovers and their text-messaging.

 Listening is not a technique as much as it is a becoming. We are slightly different when we only do one thing. Our energy is channelled (and I suppose challenged) towards achieving a task, and in listening the task is shaped through the powerful conduit of the ear, which arrests our thoughts quite differently to how the eyes do. I’m interested in exploring how we transform into listeners as opposed to adopt tools or strategies for listening. Adopting a tool to do something makes it feel like it’s happening outside ourselves. Listening is perhaps too porous an experience to carry the metaphor of  ‘tool’.

 Barenboim suggests that the ears are the organs of instruction (after quoting Aristotle on the eyes being the organs of temptation) and specifically mentions the intelligence of the ear. He says “the ear does not only take sound or noise in, but in sending it directly to the brain it sets into motion the whole creative process of thought that the human being is capable of”. 

 The ear is intelligent.

 Listening is a creative process all its own. 

6 thoughts on “The ear and the monkey mind

  1. ” I’m often puzzled by requests to send my (very sparse) slides to participants because the culture of a conference talk for me is listening/speaking, not reading/writing.”

    I often wonder myself about this incessant request and its practicality for those who attended or did not attend my workshops/webinars. Slides, at least for a growing number of presenters, are merely visual accompaniments to the ideas discussed, and without having that listening component added, seem quite useless. However, requests prevail and I continue to share for the sake of sharing.


    1. Great to hear from you Tyson, I couldn’t agree more re: uselessness but I too admit to having politely shared many times and wondered why I was doing it


  2. hi diya,

    thought provoking post which made me think that modality maybe less important than attitude, e.g. a presentation that just used one image which was contemplated in the rest of the talk?

    though i do agree that listening is less prone to distraction then using the eyes hence its strength.



  3. Fun spacious read, Divya… and been way too long since I’ve stopped by your blog!

    Oooh… the monkey mind. A lot to be said these days for developing the habit of mono-tasking online or just in modern life in general. The monkey mind is always drawn towards new, hot, elsewhere whereas a mono-tasker knows that creativity is often more easily found in space and silence.


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