The Sound of Your Own Voice- Kim Rosen
The sound of your voice is the sound of the life you have led, which brought you to this moment. All your accrued experience—the losses, the joys, the successes, the agonies—are inscribed in your voice. When who you are merges with a communication you feel passionate about, a new creation occurs. You don’t need to work to make it happen. You don’t need to practice. It cannot be otherwise.
There is an old saying, “She loves to listen to the sound of her own voice.” Usually it is meant derogatorily. Yet most people never really listen, intimately and meticulously, to the sound of their own voices. You may listen avidly to the words you are saying and the ideas you are trying to convey, but have you really heard the flood of sound you utter? Try reading a poem or other material you love aloud, as if you were sending your voice directly into your own ears. Imagine that the sound of your voice is like a viscous liquid, a vibrational medicine pouring back into you. Perhaps it is exactly the sound that can best heal and nourish you out of all the sounds of creation. Notice the texture, timbre, tone, and music of your voice. Feel how the sound coming out of and back into you is quenching some thirst you may not have noticed before. Let yourself develop a love of listening to this sound. It is a well you can drink from endlessly.
When you speak, the resonance of your being meets the resonance of the material you want to communicate. The words “resonance” and “being” can seem like disincarnate ideas, but I mean them graphically: Your voice, which emerges from the interaction of breath with the shapes, tensions, and textures inside your body, has a particular tone and timbre. Your body, as actors often say, is an instrument. Just as a note vibrating within the particular hollow shape of a cello sounds different from the same note emerging from the contours of a violin, so too the voice that emerges from your interior sounds different from the one that emerges from mine. The metal body of a flute sings one song, the olivewood recorder another, and the Aborigine’s termite-bored eucalyptus didgeridoo sings in yet a different voice.
Sometimes your real voice is cloaked by defenses or tensions that you’ve unconsciously built into your body. Listen to the voices of people around you. You’ll hear some that only resonate in the head while the rest of the body seems to be “off limits.” You’ll hear some that have resonant chambers from the waist up, but the pelvis is locked out of sounding range. You’ll hear voices that come from the gut but will not permit the vulnerable flutter of a breast full of feelings. Perhaps you’ll hear a voice that is dressed in happy tones and hides all traces of sorrow. Just today I heard a newscaster reporting on a heartbreaking surge of tribal violence in Kenya using a bouncy voice that sounded like she was announcing the winner of Pin the Tail on the Donkey at a children’s party. Or perhaps you’ll notice a voice that wears a cloak of gentleness and will not reveal the power that comes with rage or conflict. Leonard Cohen sings, “I smile when I’m angry / I cheat and I lie / I do what I have to do to get by.”
A child often subtly and unconsciously costumes her voice to do exactly that: “get by.” Whether you have the most caring of parents or grow up in circumstances of negligence and abuse, you mold yourself in whatever form seems necessary to survive. You learn to adjust the tone of your voice (“Talk like a big girl!”), hide your feelings (“Boys don’t cry!”), force your impulses into submission (“Keep your voice down!”), and sublimate your needs (“Children should be seen and not heard!”). The very neurological firings that underlie the movements of your vocal cords, inhales, and exhales are patterned in ways that seem necessary to your survival. Over time, the possibilities of expression available to the infant turn into the narrower repertoire of the adult.
The first time I fell in love, I remember making the disturbing discovery that everything I said to my lover sounded like a lawyer dictating a corporate contract. I had modeled my tone on the intellectual distance of my father, an attorney. My vocabulary was restricted to the language of reason. This was not only because of the proclivity for imitation that I share with all primates. I could have imitated the voice of my mother, who gave passionate expression to her feelings. But I didn’t. A voice shrouded in the muted tones of intelligence and devoid of the wild colors of emotion seemed to me like the key to survival in my childhood. For many years, my voice felt dressed in a suit and tie. I found the only way I could be true to my heart’s language was to give up on words and communicate through silence and touch. I began working as a masseuse and a healer. For a while, I lived largely in a world of physical contact, breath, and music. It wasn’t until years later that I was able to open myself to the feelings that I’d fled as a child. As I did, my voice shed its tight business suit and began to recover an earthy vulnerability.
The inflections and textures learned in childhood are reinforced over and over by repetition. Your voice moves through your growing body like a river carving its path through earth. All of your musculature grows around these habits of sound. The 40 or so muscles of your face are meticulously trained to work with the muscles inside your mouth and throat. Together they mold the breath that emanates from your lungs into sound. Your body falls into habitual patterns of speaking, leaving behind many possibilities of sound and feeling.
I like to think of my voice as a hanging chime and whatever I’m communicating as the wind, which plays the notes it needs in order to sound itself into being. So I want all my notes available—the many tones of my body, my feelings, and any thoughts that may be needed for the communication to take place, with all of me fully engaged. If I fear or prohibit certain feelings, thoughts, or parts of my body, the range of my notes will be narrowed. For instance, if areas of my anatomy have been “out of bounds” since childhood—that is, if I was told directly or indirectly that it was forbidden or dangerous to experience them—these notes will be muffled or unavailable. How can a sound, carried on my breath, resonate within my pelvis if the musculature inside it is clenched against allowing some forbidden pleasure or sorrow?
The same is true of feelings. If the free flow of certain feelings has been inhibited, this can affect my voice. Perhaps you welcome the movement of your tears easily but you never let yourself express anger. Even if your communication is not an angry diatribe, certain moments may call for a powerful voice. In the process of retrieving that power, you may encounter your banished rage.
If I have been taught to avoid certain thoughts, this too can curtail the range of expression in my voice. Perhaps I revel in pure insight and clarity, but I won’t touch the messy corners where doubts and contradictions gather. Or the opposite may be true: I may identify myself as a person who is constantly confused and needy, so statements of wisdom and authority are a stretch for me.
The lost notes of your voice usually come knocking at your door as soon as you invite them back. When I acknowledged that I had never allowed myself to feel grief, suddenly the delicate edge of tears started creeping into my conversations at the most unexpected moments. Remembering to welcome them counteracted my autonomic habit of pushing them back down under my voice.
Rumi’s poem “The Guest House” has been a great friend to me in this practice of opening myself to feelings and thoughts that I have unconsciously pushed away. Its guidance on the subject has become known far and wide—an Internet search yields over 28,000 websites quoting its lines! The poem’s injunction is to open the door to every feeling or thought that knocks—whether it’s “a joy, a depression, a meanness” or “the dark thought, the shame, the malice.” Rumi goes on to enjoin the reader:
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture.
This practice can feel counterintuitive for many of us when our internal systems, both physical and psychological, have been calibrated to avoid certain emotions, sensations, and thoughts. Waltzing to the door and letting them all in when they knock can set off the internal fire alarm. Yet Rumi gives two really good reasons to reroute those systems and welcome the whole spectrum of feelings that comes with being human. First, there is the reminder that you are the Guest House, not the feelings that come and go, no matter how violently they sweep through you. Second, the promise that each “guest,” from the most troubling to the happiest, “has been sent / as a guide from beyond.”
I suggest that you take some time to reflect on the range of your own voice. You can simply begin by reading these words out loud and listening to the sound. From where in your body does your voice seem to emanate? Are there areas where your breath cannot penetrate? What are the primary feelings you hear in your voice? Is there any particular feeling that your voice wears most of the time, like a costume? Do you notice that there are tones and textures of feeling that you don’t allow into your expression? For instance, do you confine your voice within a boundary of “niceness” or “intelligence” or “toughness” or “softness”? Sometimes it can be helpful to ask a trusted friend to reflect on these questions with you.
Excerpted from Kim Rosen’s Saved by a Poem: The Transformative Power of Words (Hay House, 2009) and originally published in this form on Feminist.com
Kim Rosen, M.F.A., has awakened listeners around the world to the power of poetry to heal and transform individuals and communities. She is the author of Saved by a Poem: The Transformative Power of Words. Her work has been published in O Magazine, The Sun Magazine, Spirituality and Health Magazine, The Huffington Post, Feminist.com, HealYourLife.com and The Texas Review among others, and she was a recipient of the 2001 Robinson Jeffers Tor House Prize for Poetry. In 2010 she founded the Safe House Education (S.H.E.) Fund to give Maasai girls who have fled Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and Early Childhood Marriage an opportunity to go to college and transform the oppression of women in their families, their tribe and the world.