I’ve recently been trying to adjust to my new hearing aids. If you’ve never had to do this, allow me to share with you that in the first few months of adjustment it’s as if life itself has suddenly shifted into a roaring rock concert. It can be intense as your body tries to adjust from a rather serene, still and quiet place to an abrupt bombardment of previously undetectable sounds.
I was particularly struck by this when I went to a restaurant recently with a friend. The noises were overwhelming: the squeaking of chairs, the fat spitting at the grill, lights buzzing, the layered sounds of people speaking and laughing.
I decided to try an experiment. I handed my friend the hearing aid. “Please tell me what you hear,” I said.
After a few moments, he gave it back, shaking his head. “It seems totally normal,” he said. “I can’t tell the difference.”
“Wait… this sounds normal to you?” My jaw nearly hit the table.
When you use a hearing aid over time, of course, the brain learns to synthesize the incoming information and filters out what it believes to be unimportant. But this experience got me thinking.
Police officers know that if five people witness a crime they will recount five very different versions of the event. Yet we tend to assume that our way of experiencing the world – its feel, tastes, sights and sounds – is identical to everyone else’s. We’re simply recounting the facts. Right?
One of my favorite herding exercises with horses goes to this point. You set up the arena with different obstacles, then try to encourage the horse towards the obstacle you have in mind – say a hallway of orange cones – using non-verbal communication.
What usually happens is that as the horse approaches the cones, the signals we’re sending suddenly change. We become excited. Our heart rate increases and we hold our breath which is transmitted to the horse as anxiety. In response, the horse sensibly moves away from the object that seems to be causing stress.
The horse’s truth in that moment is that the cones could be dangerous and should be avoided, while our truth is that we are excited and filled with anticipation as we gesture wildly: “Yes! Yes! The cones should be approached.”
Truth is relational
Every being has an individual truth, and yet truth is also a place where we form connections. I’ve come to understand that truth itself is actually relational.
Where individual truths differ, it can cause feelings of rejection and confusion, as it might for you when the horse avoids the cones. But those same differences are also an opportunity to reach out to each other through space and form a relational field of connection.
The horse begins to recognize your enthusiasm for the orange cones at the same moment you begin to recognize the horse’s need for calm, safe energy. You both maintain your personal truths. Yet, an open-hearted awareness allows each of you to shift towards each other. A relationship begins to form as mutual understanding is held with the same value as your individual truth. In this moment a third truth is formed, one that encompasses and contains both perspectives. This time, you gently send out your idea as the horse trots enthusiastically through the hallway of cones in the center of the arena. You’ve made a connection!
Megaphones and hearing aids
I think that when we assume our experience is identical to others’, we communicate in absolutes. We make definitive statements that are like shouting into a megaphone… when really, we can only ever add our own note – our own truth – to the greater symphony.
When we acknowledge the subjectivity of our truth, we are more inclined to connect from an open heart and genuinely listen. We’re more likely to form a relationship, to say, “this is my experience of what’s unfolding; what’s yours?”
When we open up dialog like this with our fellow creatures, you could say that the megaphone gives way to a hearing aid. We open ourselves to listening closely. We become aware that there is no absolute truth, but rather a symphony of relational truths within our environment.
Sure, the symphony in a given moment may sound a lot like an onslaught of noise in a busy restaurant, but every note has its place and exists in relation to all the others. If you give yourself a little time to adjust your awareness, you may have a much deeper and fulfilling experience of genuine connection to the world around you.