Hearing is easy; listening is hard.
Hearing is something we do whether we want to or not. If the vibrations are out there, and assuming our hearing is normal, when that wave reaches our eardrum, sound is created. In fact, we have no control over that. We can't "shut" our ears the way we can shut our eyes. Imagine what an assault that must be on a newborn! But as we develop, we begin to discern among all the noise and learn to ignore sounds that aren't necessary or essential to our safety and well-being.
For example, I can hear a TV on but I don't know what's being said unless I listen. I can hear the hum of tires on the highway that is less than a mile from my house but I don't hear it unless I listen. I can hear the birds tapping and swishing and taking seed out of my birdfeeder--I can even hear them fly in and land on the rim and fly off--but I don't hear it unless I listen. I can hear the wind rustle the leaves of my oak trees but I don't hear it unless I listen. I can hear my own pulse sometimes, but rarely ever listen to it. So, we do have the ability to shut out sound. We don't hear the conversations of passers-by, the beeps and clicks of a cash register, the hum of the computer and printer motors. We hear the phone ring, the door open, the footstep of a colleague at the door, the cry of a baby, the squeak of the mailbox hinge. We hear what we want to hear. We hear when we listen.
Even in conversation, when we are face-to-face with someone, sometimes we act as if we are listening to the words being spoken to us but we are not. Sometimes we act as if we are listening to the words WE are speaking, but we are not. We are experts at going through the motions. If the pattern isn't disrupted, we know what's coming so we just carry on. Listening requires engagement. It means being attentive and present. Listening is a choice.
Practice listening for a day. Sit quietly outdoors for 20 minutes and listen. Once you have listened to the first sounds that come to your ears, keep listening. Listen for the second "layer" of sounds. And keep listening to the next layer and the next. Breathe deeply and listen. Then go and remember during your day to take the time to look a person in the eyes and really listen to what they say to you. Listen to their words. Then pause, breathe in and out, and listen to the next layer--the meaning beneath the words--and be present with that. Then, respond thoughtfully, mindfully. Rinse and repeat.
You might be surprised at what you hear.