The Need To Be Heard

Featured imageWe live in a society that demands we be fair, honest and sensitive to the “needs” of others. There is the claim that we want every voice to be heard. We sometimes, albeit rarely, make the distinction between “hearing” and “listening.” An executive was once told by her Personnel Department, “People just want to be heard. You don’t have to do anything or say anything.” If this is true, then what was the point of the “conversation”? In catering to someone’s personal agendas, individual schemes and idiosyncratic motivations as if they represented the common or greater good is harmful to both the individual and the greater community. It is just plain dishonest and dishonorable. Sometimes the speaker does have something valid to say, at other times it is just a matter of someone trying to get what they want. We have to listen mindfully if we are going to understand which it is.

In Buddhist practice we all take the first five precepts or guidelines, pañca-sila (in Pali). Essentially, we are to be harmless: to avoid taking things that are not freely given to us, to be faithful in our relationships, to be honest, to be rational in our thought. This is not the conventional wording but it is an essential meaning. When we pretend to listen but only let the sound of the words pass through our brain then we are breaking all five of the precepts. We are harming the individual by allowing them to believe in the value of their feelings. We are taking from them their sense of worth by devaluating their feelings, we are not faithful in that relationship because the speaker had a reasonable expectation to be listened to. The dishonesty is twofold: the pretense of being attentive and our support of an untruth. We are not engaging in rational thinking because we are intoxicated with the idea that we don’t have to participate in a conversation with someone who feels in obvious need. More than that though, we are feeding the intoxication of that person by nurturing their sense of the value of their thought. They might really believe you care and will be supportive of them and their plans.

Plans come in a wide variety of shapes and forms but generally can fall into three categories: 1) plans that are personal and benefit the promoter of the plan; 2) plans that promote the common welfare of the community but not necessarily the personal interests of the promoter; and, 3) plans that promote the welfare of both the promoter and the community-at-large.

The idea of promoting the welfare of the community at large is sacrosanct in many societies. It can be defined as the greater good of the common good of the community-at-large as opposed to the good of an individual or a special interest group. The greater good benefits every part of the community and not just an few individuals. Let’s focus on the personal agenda part of the equation we’ve presented. The promotion of a personal agenda over the common good is a bit tyrannical, slightly irrational, and extraordinarily selfish. 

The perceived need to be heard is fostered in Samsara. Samsara literally means “the Wandering” through the six realms: heaven, human, animal, hungry ghost, hell, and Titan. These are often thought to relate to actual dimensional realms accessible to all living beings. In a very real sense they relate to six varieties of human experience: joy, humanity, immediate gratification, addiction and craving, anger and emotional pain, and bullying. Even heaven and hell, along with their supposed creator, are necessarily within the bounds of Samsara.

The forces that drive us through the Samsaric realms are basic. They arise out of ignorance, termed avijja in the Pali, which literally means “not-seeing” or “unseeing.” This is not about stupidity, although that does seem to be a manifestation, it is about “ignoring” what is really there, the way reality works. Out of ignorance arises all attachments and cravings on one hand, and all aversions and ill will on the other. Because of ignorance we attach to our cravings for the things we do not have but want to have. We have to create a façade that we can understand and to which we can immediately relate even if what we are relating to is not really there — we cannot see what is there. All we really look at is our to desire for gratification and our aversion to pain. What else is there to see? We can see how our attachments and aversions are distorting our experience of the world in which we live.

Attachment to craving is precisely the same process that occurs when we attach to things we have and feel pleasure from. If we have attachments we must also have aversions. We not only attach to the things we think will bring us pleasure but we also attach to the idea that something else will diminish our sense of pleasure. This idea leads to foster aversions. With our attachment to a craving for something we want but do not have arises instantly an aversion to something we have but do not want or hope we don not get.

A simple example of this is, when we feel the “need” to be heard it is because we feel we are not being heard, that is listened to and recognized. This feeling of not being heard comes from the perception that we are being ignored, undervalued, and not seen as important. We have an aversion to this perception because of the underlying feeling of “not being pleasant.” Because we feel this aversion we now form an attachment to something we perceive is “pleasant”; and that becomes manifested as being heard, valued and have some importance. A “feeling” or emotion is a process of papañca, a proliferation of a complex of thoughts supported by the feeling of pleasant or unpleasant. The process we call “emotion” or “feeling” does not care if the thought complex is rational or irrational, it just keeps producing thoughts as long as the underlying pleasantness or unpleasantness persists. During this process the ego undergoes a subtle change, it ceases to be one thing and becomes another. During this metamorphosis, an ego that perceives the world as friendly and compassionate may alter to become an ego that experiences the world as hostile and cold. We might perceive or “feel” that the world is a friendly place as long as we perceive that someone is attentive to us, but in the next moment when we perceive or “feel” we are being ignored, invisible and irrelevant, the same person has an altered ego that perceives the world as a cold and uncaring environment.

The ego perceives the “craving” to be heard as the “need” to be heard, as if they would die if they are unrecognized, that is, unattended. Society plays into this farce by supporting and nurturing this feeling. Craving is a desire that arises from the feeling we lack something fairly important to us. A need, on the other hand, a need is something that is necessary for an individual  to live a healthy life. We have to distinguish a “need” from a “want.” A deficiency of a “need” would cause a clear negative outcome, such as dysfunction or death. Even on a psychological level, it is debatable if there is a universal need to be recognized, that is, heard. Still, a person who does not have his or her perceived needs fulfilled is, by definition, a “needy” person and will be one who functions poorly in society. This neediness is a function of the craving ego.

Ego arises because it wants to become or be something and, at the same time, does not want to be something — attachment and aversion. The craving to be heard can be as simple as a perceived “need” to be thought of as “worthy.” The illogic of this craving is the fact that we seek to establish and verify our own sense of self worth by demanding validation from someone who doesn’t actually know us — they only know what they think of us and that is based on some pretty flimsy and biased evidence.

Once we have established this view we then cling to this view, craving its reality, as if the view were reality. The Buddha tells us that this craving is the Second Noble Truth, the origin of dukkha.

And this, monks is the noble truth of the origination of dukkha: the craving that makes for further becoming — accompanied by passion & delight, relishing now here & now there — i.e., craving for sensual pleasure, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming.

— Samyutta Nikaya 56.11

The craving to be heard is the craving to become “one who is recognized” but it is also the craving to non-becoming “the one who is unrecognized.” Dukkha is most often and traditionally translated as “suffering.” It’s meaning is closer to “contemptible emptiness.” The word describes that uneasy feeling that our life is missing something and if we had what was missing we would be happy. The “craving to be heard” is just that kind of craving that leads to dukkha. “If I am heard then I will be happy” is an idea that doesn’t even sound reasonable on its face, but we believe it nonetheless.

The craving is related to the ego, in fact, it becomes the ego’s identity. Underlying this craving is the secondary craving to be someone of worth, listened to. The aversion is to being one who is unheard. There is the dukkha, the lack of that hearing, the recognition as someone who has something meaningful to say.

What does it may mean to be unheard is a difficult topic depending on one’s kamma, conditioning through experience. That implies that there are several varieties of not being heard. Not being agreed with is a kind of “not hearing.” Non-consensus may indicate to us that the listener is either not listening at all or not bright enough to get our point. This perception of the listener may come about because we feel a sense of entitlement, that we are wiser and deserve to be heard. This is an inappropriate sense of self reflecting an inflated ego that claims it is better than anyone else’s ego. Many feel this is a simple overcompensation for a consistent kamma of low self-esteem. That’s why I am jumping up and down screaming, “Look at me I want to be heard.” The problem with this attitude is that it leads to bullying, verbal and psychological.

The dukkha is compounded if the listener is someone perceived as being in a position of authority. Let’s call this listener a “leader.” Leaders fall into two broad camps and are often a mixture of both. There is the “good leader” who tends to yield to the common or greater good. This person’s perspective is different from ours because they see a larger picture, not the whole picture but a larger one then we are privy to. The other camp is the “bad leader” who seems to yield to our whims in order to maintain the image of being a good guy and create a façade of peace. The peace isn’t real, it just looks like they are nurturing it.

Who our audience is determines our response if we feel as if we haven’t been heard. If the audience is a leader and they fail to agree with us then they are just wrong, after all, they are in a position of authority for a reason. We expect them to pay attention to us. They are smart, but if they can’t see our point of view clearly then they are just not listening or, worse, they are not nearly as smart as people think they are. Then we can complain to their boss. Surely their boss will agree with us. This is how many of us exercise our desire to control others. “Listen to me or I’ll whine to a higher up!” The craving to be heard is, at the end of the day, the desire to control others if not our perceived circumstance. It is as if we are demanding that others not only pay attention to us but that they also fix whatever real or imagined boo boo we have.

If the audience is our friend then that is even better. Our friends have to let us unload, whine and give our point of view. We expect them to listen every bit, if not more, than we expect authority to listen to us. When they don’t agree with us we often feel betrayed and abused. Well, they weren’t very good friends any way and we never liked them that much. A small voice goes off in our head, “I’ll unfriend them and not speak to them for three months. Then they’ll know what it is like to suffer like I have suffered.”

Sometimes we unload on a stranger. They don’t have to listen, but they will immediately recognize our need and superiority and see our point. We think they are probably rational people and so have to agree with us. If they don’t find our view meaningful then they are just insensitive, ignorant and some sort of fundamentalist — not worth knowing in the first place.

How long do we have to listen to someone’s distorted view of reality? If we wholeheartedly agree with the distortion then we are participating in it. Supporting the delusion, even fostering it, is not a wise thing to do, nor is it compassionate. If we are honest and point out the flaws in the thinking then we are open to the charge of being insensitive, ignorant or even a fundamentalist. I’ve never seen or heard of a “Dharma fundamentalist” but I have been accused of being one by disagreeing with distorted views.

“I want to be heard” is a demand to be allowed to give a monologue. When we are demanding attention we are not giving attention. If we are talking we are not listening. “We need to talk” is an invitation to a conversation where there is give and take, openness and authenticity — we hope.

A monologue — yours, mine, or ours (special interest group) — supports the three engines of Samsara, ignorance, attachment and aversion. In Samsara it’s all bullshit and probably bad for you.

If this sticky, uncouth craving

overcomes you in the world,

your sorrows grow like wild grass

          after rain.

If, in the world, you overcome

this uncouth craving, hard to escape,

sorrows roll off you,

          like water beads off

          a lotus.

— Dhammapada 335-336

If its root remains

undamaged & strong,

a tree, even if cut,

will grow back.

So too if latent craving

is not rooted out,

this suffering returns




— Dhammapada 338

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About Sensei Mui

Sensei Mui is a Buddhist monk who took formal refuge and bhikkhu ordination as a Theravada monk in Thailand during the early 1970s. Since those days he has both studied and was ordained in multiple Mahayana lineages. Today the main focus of his practice and teaching is from the Pure Land perspective. He currently acts as the Director and Administrator for Hongaku Jodo, an educational and practice oriented organization of Buddhist teachers of Dharma, pure and simple.
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