Embodied Listening


A couple of years ago, I heard a story on the radio about a lady whose husband had voiced the announcements for the London Underground. Since her husband had passed away, this woman had visited her local underground station daily to hear his voice. One day, she arrived to find her husband’s voice had been replaced by a newer, more modern, recording. Her whole being was prepared for the comfort and relief of hearing his voice; when the voice wasn’t there to greet her, she felt bereaved all over again. The radio story ended with her local underground station, after hearing of her grief, reinstating the old recording so that she could once again hear the voice of her husband when she visited.

What stayed with me after hearing the story was an awareness of all of the voices I hear every day and feel nothing in response. We are surrounded everyday by words: written and recorded, spoken, sung, shouted or chanted. There is a constant stream of voices: radio playing in the background, television adverts we try to block out, announcements over loudspeakers, conversations overheard. The story of the underground announcer is a reminder that all of these words and voices have a story, a body, behind them

I imagine what this woman must have experienced as she listened to the announcement and felt the real physical presence of her husband. Those words contained the echoes of his entire life. Imagine the muscle memory that hearing that voice would have provoked: the resonance of another body. It must have felt for a moment as though he was there; as if by magic his words were recreating him for an instant. The words were alive to her because they were alive in her – they activated an emotional response, a physical movement in the cells of her body.

Perhaps, if we can allow that magic to move through us more often when we listen or read, it will help us to reconnect to our own emotions and our own embodied experience  of connection.

We often aim to stream words into our minds, process their meaning and then formulate our reasoned responses. When we are stressed, we clamp down tightly on the words we hear, interrogate them for meaning, keep them locked in our minds. We squeeze tighter and tighter and don’t allow the words to land and settle in the body.

Buddhism teaches that we should learn to listen with the eyes and see with the ears: that listening is a whole body experience. When we are mindful, we are practicing allowing all sounds, words, thoughts and sensations to simple be present without grasping on to them. As we release the need to find answers, we can watch with open curiosity as words we’ve heard seep into the body. We may notice what it feels like as the impressions that we’ve taken in gradually unfold and release a felt sense of meaning that can’t be hurried or forced. We are mindful of the way in which our own emotions are stirred by words we have heard;  we soften and allow whatever is present to simply ‘be’, with gentle, loving acceptance.

Virginia Woolf said,

“words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations — naturally. They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries”.

The challenge, as we move through a busy world, is to allow ourselves to really taste the words we hear and speak. We can start by acknowledging that, just like the voice of the underground announcer, words – all words – arise from a body and land in a body. As we give ourselves permission to loosen, soften and relax, we will notice that all of our senses are stimulated by the voice of another person, whether written, recorded or spoken. We may gently feel into the sense of connection that this brings.


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