It’s too bad that more Americans don’t have the skills of a woodsman.
When I was a kid, I aspired to be Natty Bumppo, the famous long hunter in the novels of James Fenimore Cooper. Never mind that the wilderness was gone. That’s no obstacle to a child’s imagination.
At any rate, I devoured all the books I could find on woodcraft and studied the woodsman’s skills – careful observation, silence and careful listening. In the 1700s, such skills could mean the difference between life and death in the great, green wilderness contested by the Indians and the American pathfinders. To see the faint signs of someone passing or to hear the slight crack of a twig could save a man from walking into an ambush.
Oddly enough, I found those skills extremely useful even in 20th-century life. There is a trick to it, and it’s one of those tricks that seems obvious and easy but is actually difficult and requires practice.
The trick is not to think. So many people these days do not hear what others are saying because they are planning what they are going to say next while the other person is talking. Many people look but don’t see because, while their eyes are looking, their minds are off somewhere else.
To use the blunt language of Zen, when you look, look; when you listen, listen. Don’t do anything else. Don’t think. Don’t remember. Don’t imagine. Simply focus your mind and your ears or your mind and your eyes. Our senses of sight and sound are wired directly into the brain, and it’s important for brain and senses to be focused on the same object.
Artists can “see” better than most nonartists because they have cultivated the art of actually looking.
Musicians can hear better than most because they have cultivated the art of listening.
I found as a young reporter that by careful listening, I needed to make only the smallest note now and then to reproduce what I had heard. I learned to listen nonjudgmentally. I never argued in my mind with the speaker to whom I was listening. As a reporter, it didn’t matter whether I agreed or didn’t agree, approved or disapproved. My job was simply to reproduce accurately what was being said. And to do that, I first had to understand perfectly what was being said.
The hardest thing to do is to get rid of the ego. So many people are so full of themselves, so enamored of their own thoughts, so mindful of their own feelings, so conscious of their place in the scheme of things that they can spare barely a glance or a cursory listen to anyone else.
To see and to hear, you must be selfless, but our minds are like nervous monkeys chattering and climbing around in the trees. It takes a lot of practice to control the mind – to learn to think when it’s time to think and to simply receive when it’s time to receive information.
That’s the whole of Zen practice, by the way – trying to control the mind so that you can shut it down and connect to the world around you. It’s no accident that Zen became the religion of the warriors in old Japan. A blank-but-alert mind acutely sensitive to your opponent’s slightest move was essential to surviving a fight.
We don’t need to practice Zen or to track people in the woods, but if we would all learn to shut up and listen and to really see what is around us, I believe we’d have a better society. For sure, we could all fill out a ballot correctly and quite probably see through the empty glitter of most politicians’ speeches.