Have you heard it, felt it? In the sound of a human voice there may come a wave of healing. Of course, it could also be a scarring knife edge or shriek of pain that can hurt or terrify, but here I want to talk about the power of voice to restore lost harmony. Let’s put it as a question: in your experience can the human voice help move a depressed, disordered being closer to wellness?
The voice, after all, comes from deep sources. It finely carries the emotions, reflects the slightest change of feeling, broadcasts the intention of a speaker and can load the simplest words with complicated meanings. It is a big part of all the nonverbal bonds we form with people that are the real basis of relationships
Once I heard a speaker of the Dine (Navajo) Nation give a prayer and blessing to a conference room packed with almost one thousand people. He sent his prayer out slowly at first, the English words and separate phrases clear, much as you would hear in any invocation, but then he picked up the pace, building to a chant in the rapid rhythm and intonation of a ceremonial singer.
The single words and phrases blended into a stream of stirring sound. It was mesmerizing, transforming something palpable inside me. I felt a kind of vibration in my bones that seemed to come through this speaker’s voice from a source far more ancient than anything his suit-and-tie appearance would suggest. The resonant voice flowed in waves, awakening hidden awareness in me that responded, unwilled, with its own silent reverberations and matched the harmonic of the incoming prayer. In a surprising conversion of experience, I felt this blessing and entered a timeless spiritual moment in the midst of the most ordinary of conference rooms within a vast and sterile convention center.
I had heard, before that moment, the prayers and songs of medicine men performing ceremonies in the high, arid plateaus of the Dine Nation in northern Arizona. But that was the Dine culture in its own setting with ceremonies performed for people in need of their curative powers. I had been a witness, not a participant, focused on the new experience, feeling self-conscious about my different culture. Here the sound and form of Dine chanting had been put into my own language and shifted to a setting I was used to but one completely unlike a place or time of spiritual insight. Caught off guard, I could finally get a sense of what such healing was all about – and this was only from a brief invocation, not the days-long ceremonies where, surrounded by family, friends and many reminders of the harmony of the Dine world, a deep restoration and curing can take place.
The scholars of Dine culture and ceremonies, like Witherspoon and McNeley, have tried to explain Dine beliefs in a metaphysical way, drawing a core set of beliefs from the specific practices they have observed. I can’t do justice to their ideas, but roughly in the beliefs of the Dine, wind is the great creating force of life that has instilled and structured the inner forms and souls of all things. Air is a bearer of knowledge, and the healing songs, in their repetitive patterns, physically order the air and through that medium touch and move the inner life of a troubled person. The songs and chants help reorder and restore the soul to a harmonious beauty that complements the order of the world and Dine society. There are many other dimensions to these ceremonies, but the role of the voice and songs is central to the healing process.
Years ago, I knew many Dine activists who would succumb to the stress of dealing with the Anglo world. They would disappear for a time, then come back, restored and able to work again. What had happened to them in the interval? While never going into detail, they had referred to ceremonies and traditional cures. Doubtless, they had spent time in ceremonies specifically designed to remove the influence of living and working in the alien culture of the Anglo world and restore them to their place in Dine life.
What news does your own voice convey about the state of your feelings and soul? Can we feel a greater inner harmony by using our voices more fully, letting them flow from greater depths? Can we find a way to learn and benefit from the healing uses of voice from other cultures?
I only ask these questions because I have felt the power of the human voice to move me, purely by its rhythms, patterns, intonations even more than by the meaning of the words it carried.
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