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The Wisdom of Deep Listening; A Personal Reflection

This article is written in relation to a workshop, which I will be facilitating with my colleague
Susan Nares as part of the Autumn programme at The Abbey Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire,
in October of this year.

I have developed my own understanding of what it is to listen deeply and used this as a tool
in my work as a Music Therapist and Body worker, as well as in my own spiritual practice,
for over twenty years. For me its meaning is very simple. It is about what happens when
we listen with directed attention to that which is within us as well as the dynamics of our
interaction with others.
In preparing to write, however, I became aware of the term “Deep Listening” as one that is
used by certain practitioners as a specific discipline both in music teaching and in meditation.
I would like at this point to acknowledge two of these in particular, which I feel have some
interesting parallels with my own approach.
Firstly, the work of American composer Pauline Oliveros, who founded the “Deep Listening
Institute” and whose Sonic Meditations were written to embody her own concepts of
Deep Listening. They include non-judgmental listening and the use of intuitive forms of
awareness. Oliveros believes creativity to be fundamental to human dignity and her teachings
include exercises based on Yoga and TaiChi as well as breathing and dream work. Deep
Listening retreats and workshops are now held world-wide.
Secondly, the great Zen master and teacher Tich Nat Hahn, who talks of the importance of
Deep Listening and Mindfulness in everything that we do and are. He regards this as a form
of compassion both towards ourselves and towards all sentient beings. If we travel alongside
another person in this spirit and without judging or interrupting them, both healing and inner
transformation can take place.
As my awareness of the value of listening deeply has grown over the years it has also become
integral to my approach to life. I may access it through meditation, when I am sitting quietly
with my body composed as I tune into the stillness that is all around me. My attention is
on my breathing and as my concerns about everyday life begin to recede I am aware of
contacting a different space – one which is impersonal and which seems to be both timeless
and, in some way, complete.
Because I can sink down into this space, I need no agenda. Neither my thinking mind
nor my emotions have to be involved and I can simply rest. At first I find emptiness and
silence. Then, as I stay there, I begin to be aware of something more. I perceive in a different
way which I still choose to call “listening”, although it is now not only my ears which are
Wherever there is sound or music there is also a relationship to silence. Sometimes music will
lead us into silence and at other times silence acts as the doorway through which we walk to
access sound. When I surrender myself to the stillness of meditation it can be as though I hear
a deep, distant music within myself, music that is playing me or which I can simply observe
as a presence.
Sound out
The sacred silence far within,
enfolder of all things,
informer of our every breath.
Into the void of vulnerability
and, certain of nothing,
summon the echoing music that calls us home.
SO, where do we “go” when we listen more deeply? Even though we may wish to stay
with more superficial thoughts our bodies will often show us that something different is happening. First, then, one has to allow oneself to become still.
Like Oliveros, I often use exercises to help to reach a point of bodily stillness which may
involve movement, touch or breathing. Deep listening has its own wisdom and trusting this
process will bring our minds and hearts to a place of restfulness and peace. Music also offers
access to this place, whether one is an active participant or taking a role that is more passive.
Susan and I often begin our Retreats by offering a Sound Bath in which we harness carefully
chosen musical sounds to enhance the meditative state of those for whom we are playing.
Listeners can give themselves over to the pure sounds being created, to the vibrations and
overtones of the instruments which may range from gongs to crystal bowls or from drumming
to the human voice, because each carries a different sound world and vibratory sequence.
They may also choose to let their voices sound with us and allow this to become part of a
wider experience of the group resonating together.
Working as a music therapist I have for years employed the techniques of “clinical
improvisation”. As my client and I make live music together we may interact at many
different levels. I observed this with a young woman who came to me for one-to-one therapy
as a student. In the silence of the listening space I sensed in her a deep longing for expressive
freedom and found myself afterwards writing a poem, “The Heart’s Song”:

……..Open yourselves
and shout out what must come
up, up from the deep,
from the fecund darkness.
Roll in it
naked and abandoned.
Let it echo, rebound and fade
to resurge another time.
For to disappear is to arrive……..

What is it?
This emptiness we dread to find
which is our deepest belonging?
This place of yearning,
where nothing is everything
and our vulnerability becomes our true protection?....

As soon as we begin to make live music together I am aware of moving into a different
perceptual space. My experience is that when I am in this state my main “listening” takes
place from the area of my neck, behind and below my ears. In the Chinese meridian
system the acupuncture points at this place on the body have names such as “Window to
Heaven” and “Heavenly Appearance”, which I find wonderfully appropriate as they point so
beautifully to that which lies beyond our everyday awareness.
Working alongside my client I perceive her, myself and the interaction between us in an
enhanced way. All that we need to know can be heard in the music we are making and
I am tuning in to our joint world of information and discovery. In this listening space
we can choose together the music that we play, moment by moment, trusting that it both
accompanies and informs the creative process. We may be travelling alongside one another
as two separate people but through our mutual music-making we also find ourselves
interconnected, held in an active and deeply listening reality. It is within this apparent
paradox that profound healing can take place.
So often, when we are afraid, we look for every possible excuse to stay closed and in control.
But when we do surrender to the deeper listening space it is usually with a great sense of
relief, because this is what we have really been longing for all along. The twin themes of
coming home and of recognition recur again and again in my working life. Both will arise out of the deep energetic change that can occur when we access an altered state of consciousness.
It is intuitive music improvisation that leads us there. Clients speak afterwards of the
experience of a profound sense of Love and also, often for the first time, of an understanding
of their own potential for Wholeness.
Towards the end of a weekend workshop, a woman in her mid forties started to cry
helplessly. When able to speak she explained that she had “been heard” in a way that
she had never knowingly experienced in her life before. I asked if she meant that the
Group had heard her and she replied “No, I heard myself!” She had perceived herself as a
separate being but no longer in isolation and knew herself to be held in a loving embrace.
Here the principles of Deep listening and Mindfulness as espoused by Tich Nat Hahn are
beautifully illustrated. When we make music in this way we are living in the present moment.
Past and future are suspended and “Now” is our reality.
I would like to end with the story of one of my recent clients: Jack was a member of a day
centre for elderly people with Dementia where I ran a music group over a period of 10 weeks
in the summer of 2009. He was 91 and no longer spoke, although he would smile at the
music-making and sometimes prodded me with a drumstick when my back was turned. I had
noticed his foot tapping to the music and Jack had once or twice agreed to beat a drum. He
was particularly responsive to hymns and folksongs which I presume he remembered from
his youth. In Dementia it is the short-term memory that is lost and clients often have clear
memories of music from their earlier years, which can be very helpful to them.
On this particular occasion one of the group had been taken into hospital with a terminal
illness and was not expected to return. I anticipated, correctly, that the group would be
grieving and subdued. With this in mind I had brought with me a large metal singing bowl,
made in Tibet according to ancient vibrational principles, which I often use for healing and
for meditation. When played gently it emits a low and powerful note. Some people find
this both grounding and soothing, while others have told me that the sound leads them into
a deeper state of consciousness. I went round the group, playing for each member in turn.
They all listened in silence, some smiling, others quite still. Jack was last. I played to him and
he listened intently. As the sound died away he looked at me very directly and, in a low clear
voice he said: “Absolutely!”
I had no doubt in that moment that Jack had been listening deeply to the sound of the bowl
and in so doing had recognised that truth that lies in a place too profound for words but
which music can touch again and again, always afresh and always with compassion.
In the words of Isaiah: “Hear. And your soul shall live”

Sarah Verney Caird, Oxford, September 2010

Posted: 01 Oct 2010 By: Jenni Roditi Jenni Roditi

Thank you Sarah. Lovely to read your wisdom words - always a balm, always a generator of more real life.
Jenni x

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