The Art of Listening 3: The Pain of Listening

In the two previous installments we established that most people don’t listen to anyone. We talked about the three categories of non-listening: the Conversational Dictator, the Serial Monologist and the Judge.

In this post we will talk about the art of actually listening. If you are like me and most other people, there is one surefire sign that you are listening to someone: it is a feeling of discomfort, a feeling almost of pain.

This is because most of us are chiefly ego-driven. As mentioned in the first installment of this series, the ego is all about identity. In fact the ego is a collection of ideas about who you are.

The consequence of being ego-driven is that most of us seek to reduce the universe to fit into our story about ourselves. It is common human behaviour to reference everything to ourselves.

How can this influence the way we act in the world? Well, if you want to accomplish something big, something that might take a lot of time, effort and patience, then you probably won’t succeed if you take every little setback personally.

This can range from “I got a rejection from a literary agent. I’m obviously not meant to be a writer” to “My favourite TV show just came on. So the universe wants me to stay here on the couch instead of working on my novel.”

On the surface the first one is hard and the second one is soft. But essentially they are the same: a lack of belief in oneself paradoxically combined with an exaggerated feeling of self-importance.

The fallacy here is that a literary agent’s taste or your favourite TV show coming on has nothing to do with your decision to succeed at writing. This is obvious if you think about it – and yet it is common human behaviour to reference unrelated events to ourselves.

There is a clear parallel to that in conversations: someone says something, and our ego immediately creates a story about what that means about who we are.

The problem with this approach is that it was someone else who said something. We are used to our own thoughts being self-directed, so it is natural to assume that when someone else says something they are also talking about you.

Wrong. They were probably not talking about you; most likely they were talking about themselves, directly or indirectly, since at the end of the day they too are self-directed. Most people’s favourite subject is themselves.

So not only does listening entail listening to someone else; it also entails listening to a story that has little if any connection with you.

This is painful because the ego habit of referencing everything to ourselves has carved very deep pathways in our brain. It is a situation very close to addiction: staying in the comfort zone of ego chatter is like a cigarette or a safety blanket, because it protects us from being present to the moment.

Your brain is programmed to keep you alive and sane. You survived up till now and you are relatively well-functioning. So the way your brain sees it, if it ain’t broken why fix it? If you try to leave your comfort zone and open your eyes to a wider reality, your brain will tell you to stop. The way it does this is by feeding you negative emotions.

This is why you see people fidgeting, looking at their phones or getting distracted  by a host of unrelated thoughts when put in a situation where they are expected to listen. It takes energy, positivity and courage to make that leap of faith and to begin to form new neural pathways. Not everyone has this.

When I say that not everybody has this, I don’t mean that either you were born with this ability or not; I mean that you may or may not have it in this moment. Everyone can build up the energy, positivity and courage to make a change. It depends on your habits, and habit can be changed and honed.

But that is for a future post.



Journal of a Literary Traveller 5: The Creative Signs of Romania

For the past week, hundreds of thousands of people have been demonstrating on the streets of Bucharest and other Romanian cities against a government decree that would have shielded many politicians from prosecution for abuse of power. As an eyewitness I was impressed by the large number of people showing up at sub-zero temperatures, as well as the peacefulness of the protests. One more thing stood out: the creativity and individuality of the protesters’ signs. 

If there is something my years of experience in Romania has taught me, it is that in this country there is a personal touch to everything.

One of the many ways in which this manifests itself is in signs. Whereas in many other parts of Europe, signs are mostly impersonal and uniform, in Romania even a no-parking sign or a park sign will have some element of personality in it that displays the personality or exasperation of the writer.

The other day I went to one of the demonstrations against the government decree that would have shielded many politicians from prosecution for abuse of power. The demonstration took place on Piața Victoriei (Victory Square), which is a huge square in front of the government headquarters.

Despite the size of the square, it was so full of people that it was often very hard to move about. Apparently 300,000 people showed up for the demonstration. I was very impressed by how such a crowded protest managed to stay so peaceful. I think part of it was due to the humour and personal touch that is a trademark of Romanians.

The following is a very small selection of the many signs that have been seen in Romanian protests. Since most of my own photos came out blurry, I have taken most of the following pictures from the social media storm that is simmering at the moment through the Romanian part of the web. I have attempted to give credit to the photographers, but have not always been able to find their names. If you find any error or omission that you would like me to rectify, then please let me know.


“Today at the protest, tomorrow at the exam” (Photo credit: Robin Wildt Hansen).


“Your dead can vote, but they can’t demonstrate!”


“It makes me want to HOWL!”


“You might have taken us out for coffee before f**king us”


In front of the New York consulate: “Dragnea (leader of the ruling Social Democrat Party), Dracula has been asking about you” (Dracula was famous for his zero-tolerance policy towards thieves). (Photo credit: Ana Ilinca).


“Yes, Mum, I dressed warmly!” (photo credit: Julius Constantinescu)


“Mummy taught me that it isn’t nice to steal. Didn’t yours?” (Photo credit:

Journal of a Literary Traveller 4: Alejandro Jodorowsky in Málaga, Spain


I told myself that part of the research for my novel The World that I am currently writing had to be to see Alejandro Jodorowsky in person, because his book The Way of Tarot has influenced and widened my perception of the cards. This quest brought me to Café Le Téméraire in Paris a couple of months ago, and last night it saw me walking through the doors of the Teatro Cervantes in Málaga, where I finally caught up with the man at his “Cabaret místico” show, described in the programme as an exercise in collective therapy.

I arrived at the last moment and found the theatre packed. I located my seat, exchanged a few words with the person beside me, and a few moments later, Jodorowsky appeared on the stage. He was alone, holding a microphone, yet he took up all the space. Something about the setup made me think of Woland’s show in The Master and Margarita.

Jodorowsky addressed the audience and I couldn’t help thinking how healthy and agile he looked and sounded, and that I wonder if I will be able to achieve that at 84 if I eat my vegetables and keep following my dream.

He made us interlock little fingers with the people beside us for a few minutes. This and other exercises quickly lifted the energy in the theatre.

The first thing I remember him telling us was that our goal in life is always what our parents would not allow us to do. Then he addressed someone in the first row, pointed the microphone at her and asked her what her goal in life was. She was taken by surprise and asked for a few moments to think. Then he went round to other people and asked them to express their goal in life in one word. Someone said “disfrutar”, enjoy, and Jodorowsky asked him if his parents had allowed him to enjoy. The answer was no. Another person said “ser útil a los demás”, be useful to others, and he asked her if she had been allowed to be useful at home. She said no. I thought that having only one word to express your life’s goal was pretty limiting, but I said to myself that this was first and foremost a show, and that I had come here to see him live, and that I could read the deeper, more differentiated thoughts in his books.

After having asked a few people, he said while approaching me that finally he wanted to ask “este señor de rojo” what my goal in life was. The microphone was in front of my mouth and I said “crear”, to create, thinking of my novel and if only I can pull myself together to finish it soon. He asked me if my parents had allowed me to create. I was expecting that question, and I knew the answer that was expected of me. However I didn’t feel I had a proper answer, definitely not a quick one. Yes and no, I suppose I would say now, depending on what I wanted to create and the time of day. At the time I was desperately trying to find the Spanish words for “that’s a leading question” but I couldn’t. I felt that all eyes and ears were on me. The woman beside me was repeatedly whispering his question to me in English, because she knew I was a foreigner. I was doing all I could to focus, and naturally I felt I was put on the spot. I didn’t want to spoil the show. “Vale, no,” All right, no, I said. “Si o no?” he asked. “No,” I replied. He asked me why not, and his question was repeated in English in my left ear. I had no idea what to say, and I was rapidly forgetting my Spanish. Some very long seconds of silence and false starts followed. He said something like “take your time.” The show would not go on without me.

“Because there was no space,” I finally said.

“That‘s it,” he answered, putting his hand on my arm with so much concentrated sympathy in his gesture that all the tension was released. Even if the ideas were simplified and the words limited to the point where they didn’t make much sense in themselves, the buildup of tension and the gesture of sympathy that released it, felt like it came from the heart and was done with one hundred percent presence if only for a second. This was the work of a master. I was quite shocked as he released me from the spotlight:


The show was mostly that, a show. But I took one concept from it, which I hope will stay with me. It is something I also read about in The Way of Tarot: the idea that we function from four bodily centres, which correspond to the four elements and the four suits in the Tarot. These centres are:

The head – intellect – Swords
The heart – emotion – Cups
The genitals – desire and creation – Wands
The feet – the material level – Pentacles

This too is a simple concept. However, concepts are of the intellect, which is only one of the four centres. The utility and the wealth of understanding comes when the concept is used and comprehended with all four centres. And that was probably the didactic utility of the show, namely that he was there live and was able to demonstrate this in person. He guided us through a meditation and made us intone all four centres in the corresponding timbre. I felt it strongly. I hope I will keep the feelings with me and remember and be able to tune into them when I need to. Perhaps that can be a boon of writing this little piece about the show: I had actually forgotten about that part of the show until I sat down to write.

I think this was the strength of the show: that it happened on several levels simultaneously. Each level could only be touched lightly during the couple of hours that the show lasted, but it did succeed in showing how the different levels can work together.

By this time, Jodorowsky had made us utterly de-stifled and open. He proceeded to ask all the men go to one side of the middle aisle and all the women to the other. People moved and made way for each other. So many seats were empty next to me, I kept wondering why many men didn’t sit down, and where they were. Then I saw that the female side was overcrowded with many women standing up. Of course! There were far more women in the audience than men.

Jodorowsky then made the two groups get up and face each other. He told the women to shout out their anger at men. I didn’t understand everything they shouted, but mostly it was “Machistas!”, male chauvanists. We stood silently smiling and faced the music.

Then he made us shout at the women. I thought the male side was a bit less enthusiastic, and I for one couldn’t think of anything to shout. But then I heard a man behind me shout “Víctimas!” and I liked that, so I repeated it pretty loud.

Next, we were asked to embrace and forgive each other. I felt a bit shy about that, so I soon sat down.

A not very young man got up onto the stage and gave Jodorowsky two rings. He said that since he had always had problems with women, he had never married. However, tonight he wanted to ask a woman to marry him. He asked her to get onto the stage. People went wild. I thought that if I had felt put on the spot earlier, for her it must be infinitely more intense. She agreed to marry him, and Jodorowsky married them symbolically then and there.

He then asked us to get up and find someone we didn’t know and tell them our life story in five minutes, then the other way round. Then someone else for two and a half minutes, then someone for one minute.

The one minute one invited me to come for a drink with her and her friends after the show. We went for tapas and drinks, and this was my first quick look at Málaga by night and my first hinted discovery of the friendliness and culture of this part of Spain.

But that is for the next post.

Journal of a Literary Traveller 3: The Limitations of Chocolate Cake

All week I looked forward to today. In fact, last night, a Saturday, I stayed at home and turned in early so I could get up early today.

Today was my binge day. The day in which, from eight in the morning to eight in the evening, I eat anything I like. On this day, my primary concern is chocolate cake.


I recently commenced a very low-carb diet whose requirements made me wonder how in the world I would have the discipline to give up so many things. I came up with the binge day, and so far it has worked like a charm.

The binge day solution gives me satisfaction all week. Because every time a slice of chocolate cake beckons me from a cafe window, I make a mental note to eat it the coming Sunday. It’s as if this thought is as delicious for my mind as the cake itself.

My body, on the other hand, knows when Sunday morning is approaching.

So this morning I woke up brimming with energy. I catapulted from my bed like a toddler discovering that it’s his birthday. Before I had eaten a gram of sugar, I cleaned up the kitchen without a hint of my usual procrastination and bolted out on a merry quest of overeating and incidental discovery of the city where I currently find myself: Barcelona.


Of course, I knew exactly where to go, so it was not long before I was sitting down and holding my first plate of assorted chocolate cakes. This is a city where aesthetics combine with good food, coffee, wine and cake, so it was not surprising that pleasure ensued.

However, I noticed a certain bluntness in the experience.

After a week of strict low-carbing and disciplined working on my new book, sugar felt like an abrupt energetic onslaught. I had the sensation that several levers had been activated in my brain although I had done nothing to earn their activation. Simultaneous to the pleasure, I at first felt the desire to cry and many other mental and emotional activities, but for no reason or motive.

I continued to eat, to sight-see and to eat some more. In a moment of absolute culinary satiety, I entered the Picasso Museum, where I was able to enjoy the exhibition without feeling any desire for more provisions. I found Picasso’s depictions of the Infanta Margarita especially alive and eerie, and I couldn’t help laughing out loud at some of his later works depicting families and social gatherings. The paintings seemed executed in such an irreverent and tongue-in-cheek manor as to warrant laughter, however serious my European education would have me behave in the elevated setting of the Picasso Museum.

Well, maybe the sugar made me do it.

I left the museum and continued on my Gargantuan quest. I ate bread, tortilla de patata and especially cake accompanied by coffee. The pleasure kept streaming through me, and I found it increasingly easy to handle the extra mental and emotional charge. I ate without any inhibitions whatsoever, and the sugar continued to pump through my system. And there, on the road of excess, I discovered the limitations of chocolate cake, which I had believed confined to the realms of mythology.

The sugar gave me pleasure with each bite I ate, no matter how full I was. And yet there was a limit.

I have thought for a while about what this limit can be, and I have come to the conclusion that the limitation of chocolate cake – and any analogous substance – lies in the difference between pleasure and happiness.

On Sundays I give myself the day off from working on my novel and devote myself to pleasure. This pleasure, as wonderful as it is, is beginning, in the absence of restrictions, to reveal its emptiness.

Pleasure brought on from overeating comes from nothing and leads to nothing. But more than that, I am discovering that this pleasure is course.

I am convinced that I would not have discovered this if it were not for the work that I do from Monday to Saturday. While keeping a strict diet, I work on a novel that I feel is my most important mission at the moment. It demands discipline and effort of me, and it gives me some frustrations. But the chief feature of this activity, far subtler than chocolate cake, is happiness. Amid the discipline, effort and abstention, happiness always lurks in the background of my work in progress, as long as it continues to progress.

I believe that what I am describing is general for the human condition.

I do not feel qualified to draw a final conclusion on this topic. But I will draw a preliminary one: it seems that pleasure without effort is empty and therefore demands more and more to continue to supply the same good feeling. It is course and in your face. Contrasted to that is happiness, which is subtle yet far more powerful. It does not demand, but bestows its gift upon the person who follows his or her highest desire, no matter how many frustrations this pursuit may bring. It does not need to prop itself up; it simple is.

As I write these lines it occurs to me that happiness is available to everyone in every moment. It has to be, if it doesn’t need to prop itself up or feed on anything.

However the case may be, it seems to me that happiness may be the most effective tool to deal with the addictions brought on by course pleasure. If you have happiness in your life, you find yourself more independent of cravings.

But how may happiness be found? Does it come about exclusively through pursuing your higher desires or are there other ways? Is my ad hoc distinction between higher and lower desires even valid? And how would you pursue your higher desires to let happiness into your life?

Please comment below and let me know your thoughts.