Gordon Hempton

To Become a Better Listener

May 7, 2012

Excerpt from "The Last Quiet Places," an On Being conversation with Gordon Hempton, May 10, 2012: 

I grew up thinking that I was a listener except on my way to graduate school one time, I simply pulled over making the long drive from Seattle, Washington, to Madison, Wisconsin, pulled over in a field to get some rest and a thunderstorm rolled over me. While I lay there and the thunder echoed through the valley and I could hear the crickets, I just simply took it all in. And it's then I realized that I had a whole wrong impression of what it meant to actually listen. I thought that listening meant focusing my attention on what was important even before I had heard it and screening out everything that was unimportant even before I had heard it.

In other words, I had been paying a lot of attention to people, but I really hadn't been paying a lot of attention to what is all around me. It was on that day that I really discovered what it means to be alive as another animal in a natural place. That changed my life. I had one question and that was how could I be 27 years old and have never truly listened before? I knew, for me, I was living life incredibly wrong, so I abandoned all my plans, I dropped out of graduate school, I moved to Seattle, took my day job as a bike messenger and only had one goal, and that was to become a better listener.


Sounds of Silence

Through the sounds of the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park, acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton guides us to One Square Inch of Silence — with the chirping twitter of the Western wren and the haunting call of the Roosevelt elk. Take this aural hike [download] and be sure to listen with a pair of headphones or earbuds. You’ll discover quieting sounds you might miss without them. 

Thinking in Feelings Instead of Words

Crab Apple Tree, by Susan Lirakis

Excerpts from “Quiet, Please: Gordon Hempton on the Search for Silence in a Noisy World,” by Leslie Goodman, The Sun Magazine, September 2010:

Leslie Goodman: You’ve written that, before entering nature, you go through a process to clear your mind and make it more receptive to silence. You might spend a night in the forest so that, by morning, your ears will be “relaxed” enough and your mind clear enough to hear the river valley “singing.” Are most of us oblivious to the sounds of nature because we’re constantly bombarded with our own mental chatter?

Gordon Hempton: Our mental condition reflects our external environment. Most of us live in cities, which are noisy, chaotic places. As a result we tend to have a lot of mental chatter, not all of it coherent. When you go to a naturally quiet place, you’ll notice first how physically loud you are — voice, footsteps, food wrappers, Velcro, zippers — but then you’ll notice internal noise as well. After a day or a week you’ll experience an internal shift: your to-do list will fall away, your body will find its rhythm, your ears will attune themselves to your new surroundings, and your mental chatter will quiet. You will recognize unnecessary thoughts as just that — unnecessary — and become acquainted with the place you’re in rather than staying inside your head.

Goodman: You blame “mental chatter” on modern life, but people have been trying to escape their thoughts for centuries.

Hempton: Some people, yes. It’s related to the pace of life, which has not always been as fast as it is now. Go to a quiet place in nature, and after a few hours you will notice that your thoughts have slowed; you are no longer thinking in words but in feelings. The mind is capable of taking in enormous amounts of information when we let go of our mental filtering system and open ourselves to pure perception.

Read the rest of this interview…