Listen, like a Sage

(Prof. Leah Kalmanson at Drake University creates a blog called “Des Moines Confucianism,” and assigned students in her course on Asian Philosophy in 2018 Fall to write blog posts there. The idea is to contextualize Ru philosophy and make it a practical Way of Life, following the example of “Boston Confucianism”: Drake University is in the city of Des Moines at Iowa. This blog input, entitled “Listen, Like a Sage” here, was originally titled as “Engage in: Listening without Crafting a Response,” and authored by Ms. Madeline Nelson: After I read and commented this original post, I would like to repost it, with my appreciation and admiration of the sincerity and ingenuity of Leah’s and her student’s.)

Engage in: Listening without Crafting a Response

How kind and mindful of a listener do you truly think you are? When you are in a conversation with someone, be it a friend, teacher, or family member, we may find ourselves thinking of a response in our head while our friend speaks. We may focus on ourselves more than we realize.

Let’s look at the Confucian ideal of Sagehood, pronounced as sheng-ren, 聖人. The Chinese character for ear, 耳, is seen in the Chinese word for Sagehood. To listen well and have an attuned ear is to be like a sage, and that is my small goal to achieve in these next weeks. Sagehood, in early Confucianism, was considered to be the human incarnation of the operations or behavior of Heaven. Someone who has qualities of a sage is able to spontaneously respond to many different situations so as to continually create conditions of dynamic harmony throughout his or her entire life (Song 2016). I was raised Catholic, so I am reminded of sayings like, “If you can see like Jesus, then you can act like Jesus.” So, if you can try to see the world from a reasonable and calm point of view, then you will be closer to Heaven. One cannot be sagely if they are not striving to be like the one they look up to. Striving, but not perfect. Bin song agrees with the idea that human life can have sagely moments but cannot exactly be a perfect sage. We can become well-ritualized, or into a habit, of listening well (Song 2016). How would that not be sagely?

I will sometimes be alone in the basement kitchen in my sorority house where I live, hear footsteps of someone coming down the stairs, and begin to wonder who it is and how I will greet them and what I have to talk about. It’s exhausting! It also causes stress, which is something we want to minimize (or totally get rid of) as Des Moines Confucians. People are simply people- what is there to be so worried about? When we as humans get anxious or nervous, our minds tend to get out of order, and then we panic or rush time. I can relate heavily to this.

My sorority had a retreat as an entire chapter a few months ago. For an activity, we paired up with another woman, and then we were prompted with a few thoughtful questions, like, “How does someone earn your trust back?” First, one woman got to express her thoughts organically for two minutes. We were told to not think of our monologue or what we were going to say. We got two minutes all to ourselves to talk our mind, while the other woman was there to listen, not interrupt, not think of how we want to respond to their statements, and LISTEN! And, we were not responding to their thoughts once their time was up. It was just our time to really hear them and hopefully have them hear us in return.

I loved that activity. I was so shocked at how I was extremely in the moment I felt with the sister I was listening to, and then I also felt so heard back. This was a huge inspiration for my blog practice and posts. After struggling for a long time with social anxiety and worrying in conversations, I thought that practicing complete listening and being in the moment would challenge me to be more naturally myself. Having an attuned ear like a sage will make one more mindful and at peace.


Song, Bin. “A Catechism of Confucianism: Sagehood (聖人).” The Huffington Post,, 7 Dec. 2017,