Living Out Loud
Standing with who you are and offering the song of your life is a sacred act.
This article appeared in the Summer 2000 issue of Spirituality & Health.
Although I, like many people, never liked the sound of my voice and had been told repeatedly not to sing for fear of causing others to topple off key, I always thought my voice was my voice. To me it was a steady companion like my skin, eyes, ears, lips, and other exposed parts. Only through a serendipitous series of events did I discover that the voice I took so much for granted was probably not my natural one. Instead, I now believe it is a surrogate for the one that was my birthright — the one my abusive and alcoholic family of origin had stolen decades earlier.
Like many “ahas,” this one blindsided me. It happened in 1991, when I was asked to write a magazine piece about vocalist Susan Osborn. For ten years, Osborn was the premier soloist for the renowned Paul Winter Consort. When I listened to her recordings, her penetrating voice and lyrics laden with mythic images always spoke to something deep inside me. The thought of being on assignment at her five-day “Sacred Sound of the Body” workshop was thrilling.
A month before I was scheduled to leave for her workshop at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, I telephoned Osborn. She told me that the workshop was for anyone — singers and non-singers — open to believing that a truly beautiful sound is not produced through technique. “I believe that there are no ugly voices, only those which are strained or constrained. I’ve never met anyone who was truly a monotone, only those who have yet to learn to listen deeply and honestly.” Singing, she said, is a basic human act. The joy it can bring is not extracurricular, but a way to honor the experience and wisdom of our bodies.
My own spirits soared with her words. But then, days later, my editor called and canceled my assignment. Now, I wouldn’t be working. I might have to pay. I felt caught in enormous tension of whether to still go to Omega for myself or stay at home. Finally, I decided on home.
“Sounds like you’re rationalizing, justifying, and explaining,” said my husband. “You’ve been looking forward to this. What’s really stopping you?”
Speechless, I went to my office to ponder the question. Moments later, I was jolted by the realization that the assignment, like most before it, was protective armor. If I wasn’t wearing it and spoke only for myself, I risked being naked — exposed. I began to sob, and as tears pooled on my desk, pictures of a seven-year-old me penning epic stories and telling everyone I met that I would be a writer someday zoomed by. And as a stream of those images flowed into consciousness, the more I felt as though something was trying to break through a trapdoor in my throat.
The voice, wrote Carl G. Jung, is “the ring of fear,” and in those moments I felt my wise body acknowledging that. The somatic sensation in my throat seemed a dormant truth awakening me to the fact that from the time I could string words together, my pens, typewriters, and computers had been proxies for my stolen voice. In those moment. I knew in my gut that Osborn’s workshop was a key to permanently opening that trapdoor. I started calling around, paying attention.
Finding I Wasn’t Alone
Voices get lost or stolen usually in childhood — not consciously, but for survival. One day the natural voice vanishes, and you’re not even aware it’s gone. For example, a child who unabashedly goes along saying what she thinks, feels, and believes to those whom she loves may suddenly feel it’s risky to do that. So she stops, despite not knowing why she no longer feels safe speaking her truth. In other cases, a child may no longer brave singing in public — either his song or another’s — and so melodies that once flowed boldly past his lips circle silently in his head, instead. Eventually, a pattern sets in, and children who once used their natural voices to disclose their deepest truths, sorrows, joys, and place in this world stop living out loud.
According to Michele George, a Canadian singer and voice therapist, when children become silent of necessity the patterns become fixed. “That’s why I say the voice is stolen. Stolen because it’s never the individual’s fault. It’s the result of a story that occurs in childhood that the child makes his or her ‘fault.’ When that happens, the child shuts down to survive.”
According to veteran voice specialist Arthur Samuel Joseph, our voice represents us in a society where perception is everything. Infants make sound to express not only what they want but also their aliveness. When they cry, their chests and bellies expand with the breath and a powerful natural sound follows. However, by the time most infants become adults, they’ve adopted behaviors that say, “I need to present who I am,” observes Joseph, the creator of a process for reclaiming one’s natural voice called Vocal Awareness. He finds that no matter what our backgrounds or circumstances are, most of us can recall experiences that moved us from the “being state” to the “presentational state” — perhaps when a parent or teacher shouted “Shut up,” or called you “Stupid,” or said, “Don’t sing.” Earlier, a parent might have muffled your voice with a “Shhhh,” or cupped a hand over your mouth when you got too noisy in public.
In my case, all the above applied. As children, my siblings and I were yelled at, not spoken to. Verbal abuse “muffled” us. “Loud,” which to Arthur is about volume and not a judgment, always translated into anger, rage, and doom. Play, accompanied by raucous laughter or silly giggles, was verboten. So were tears. And questions were best answered with whatever response protected us from further outbursts. Eventually, we learned that silence was definitely golden.
In George’s “Re: Sound” workshops, she says that silence is a by-product of hiding the voice — an extraordinary presence within us — in a dark corner of our inner world. There, it’s protected by a strategic defense system designed to hold survival patterns in place. George names these entrenched patterns entities, because, she says, “They possess us.”
Most voice specialists agree that once such patterns become rooted in the body, psyche, and soul, they can make singing “Happy Birthday'” or saying a few words before an audience frightening, if not impossible. Typically, voice therapy sessions include exercises that help students overcome their longstanding fear of speaking or singing. It takes tremendous courage to do this work, reports Joseph, who has watched students, including famous actors and actresses, gag, vomit, cry, or display other signs of anxiety and physical trauma while attempting to reclaim their natural voices. However, he adds, it’s also common for students to be healed of chronic backaches, headaches: TMJ, stomach ailments, depression, and other physical and emotional conditions in the process.
Indigenous people worldwide continue to use sound in healing. According to Jill Puree, a British pioneer in the field of helping people rediscover their voices as a tool for deep meditation and personal transformation, “Sound is often considered an intermediary for the translation of spirit into matter and then for matter into spirit through the agency of human beings. If spirit can become matter through sound, then matter can become spirit again through sound.” Puree, who spent years studying Mongolian overtone chanting with a Tibetan master, explains that Tibetans talk of human beings in terms of body, of voice, and of mind. These have three locations. The “body” is in the head, the “voice” is in the throat, and the “mind” is in the heart. Tibetans don’t differentiate between the mind and brain. For them, the voice acts as an intermediary between the subtle realm of mind and the more physical realm of body. So it is seen as a bridge between the material and the immaterial. Speech, voice, sound, and subtle breath, or prana, are all connected. “Through working with the voice we can learn to enter the state the Tibetans know, as rigpa — the awareness which combines emptiness with clarity. This leads ultimately to illumination.”
I Still Like to Listen
Despite my resolve to go to Osborn’s workshop actively not on assignment, my most vivid memories are of a fellow seeker who came to embody what Puree had told me about healing.
The woman had a disfiguring scar from a harelip, and throughout the week she never spoke. Each day, as our group of about forty-five gathered in a large barn to sing the sacred song of our bodies — a process of inhaling deeply and then releasing sonorous sounds as we exhaled — she sat, silently. That is, until the last session. To everyone’s surprise, just a half hour before the workshop ended, she stepped into the center of the circle and began rhythmically inhaling and exhaling deep breaths. The breaths expanded her thin body and colored her pale face, and with each cycle her mouth opened wider until it could open no more. Then magically, celestial sounds began floating everywhere. Twenty minutes later she looked radiant — illuminated. Her courage to give voice to her soul was stunning. It transformed the barn into sacred space, and I felt honored to be there. Later, as we walked to the dining hall, she confessed that she had never sung before. “I tried once in the shower a long time ago,” she said. “But I got so scared, I never tried again.”
In my case, I couldn’t stand alone in that circle. My fear of being “exposed” still overpowered me. I left knowing that if I were to wholly embody my voice, Osborn’s workshop would be just the first stop on a lifelong journey.
Looking back I see that practice has resulted in progress. Today, I can scream just for the joy of screaming on a roller coaster or a mountaintop without getting hoarse, dizzy, or fearing someone will get angry. I can also sing all the stanzas of “Amazing Grace” loudly and on pitch in public. Although I had always spoken in public and even acted in plays, today I’m more self-assured when I stand before an audience. Additionally, at times when I’m about to say yes to another person but hear my body, mind, and spirit saying no, I listen to those wise inner voices and risk speaking my truth. And, finally, when I feel that trapdoor in my throat closing, I do all I can to keep it open. I swallow hard and focus on my breathing so that my natural voice can surface and not be forced back down by people in the present or held hostage to past patterns. Today, I choose not just to write my truth, but also to live it out loud.
Vocal specialists agree that when people can "sing their song," bottled-up voices are set free. Naturally, this form of singing is not about memorizing words, preparing for a performance, or having a "good" voice. "Standing with who you are and offering the song of your life is a sacred act," says noted vocalist and workshop leader Susan Osborn. "If a person stands relaxed and centered and then allows the sound to emerge on the exhale and follows it wherever it leads, an amazingly direct experience of human essence can be felt and heard. All the emotions that arise can be used to fuel the song, and the whole body will sing and listen."
Osborn recommends that as you read this, breathe in through your nose...and exhale through your mouth...and again...and this time make a sigh on the exhale and feel your body begin to relax. Now follow that sigh with sound and know that this is the beginning of song, and listen.
Healing Yourself With Your Own Voice by Don G. Campbell (audiotape #A105), Sounds True Audio, 800-333-9185.
The Roar of Silence: Healing Powers of Breath, Tone and Music by Michele George, Quest Books 1994.
For information about Re: Sound and workshops: [email protected] George's audiotapes, Drink From the Well (#A196) and River of Song, River of Life (#A259) are available from Sounds True Audio.
Arthur Samuel Joseph's Vocal Awareness audiotapes and a videotape are available from Sounds True Audio. Information about Vocal Awareness workshops and copies of Joseph's book Sound of the Soul are available through The Vocal Awareness Institute, PO Box 261021, Encino, CA 91426-1021; www.vocalawareness.com.
The Healing Voice by Paul Newham, Element Books, 1999.
The Singing Cure by Paul Newham, 8 audio cassettes from Sounds True Audio; www.voicework.com.
For information about Jill Puree's upcoming workshops, worldwide, and audiotapes write Inner Sound, 246 Colney Hatch Lane, London N10 1BD or call 011-44 (020) 84444-4855; www.healingvoice.com.
Silence is a by-product of hiding the voice in a dark corner of our inner world, creating patterns that become rooted in the body, psyche, and soul.
All the emotions that arise can be used to fuel the song, and the whole body will sing and listen.