Healing Power in a Human Voice

Sound Wave

Have you heard or felt a wave of healing power in a human voice? Voices can carry many influences. They can scar like a knife edge or terrify with a scream, 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 is finely tuned by the emotions and conveys the slightest change of feeling. It 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.

“Finding your voice” is one way of describing becoming your own person. You can finally set aside the voices you grew up that helped shape your closest relationships. There is a confident resonance in the sound you draw from deep inside when you feel you are no longer fighting yourself but clear about who you are. I feel it as the sound of inner life that reveals depression or well-being as quickly as the light or dimness of the eyes and face.

Once I heard a speaker of the Dine (Navajo) Nation chant a 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. That familiarized us with the words and sentiment, but he soon picked up the pace. His voice gradually swelled to a resonant chant in the rapid rhythm and intonation of a ceremonial singer.

The single words and phrases blended into a stream of healing 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 suggested.

The 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. The full ceremonies last for days.

The scholars of Dine culture and ceremonies, like James McNeley in Holy Wind in Navajo Philosophy, have tried to explain Dine beliefs in a metaphysical way, drawing a core set of insights from the specific practices they have observed. I can’t do justice to their ideas, but, roughly speaking, wind is the great creating force of life in the beliefs of the Dine that has instilled and structured the inner forms and souls of all things.

Air is a bearer of knowledge. 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, often lost in depression or alcoholism, 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.

I have often felt the peaceful energy of great singing displace depression and quiet a storm of feelings. I’ve been led into states of mindfulness by the calming power of a speaker’s voice, and I think the sound of concern in a therapist’s voice is one reason the relationship can be healing.

The human voice has a power to move me much more by its rhythms, patterns and intonations than by the bare meaning of the words it might carry. It is the voice that gives the intended meaning to the words as well as the power to heal or harm.

What news does your own voice convey about the state of your feelings and level of wellness? Do you think we can feel a greater inner harmony by using our voices more fully, letting them flow from greater depths?

5 Responses to “Healing Power in a Human Voice”

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  1. Kimberly says:

    Hi John. I am delighted to have come across this blog. I would absolutely agree that sound and the human voice have immense capacity for healing, both mental and physical. I love when you say, “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.” Yes! Science is showing that certain sounds (such as chanting or a caring human voice), have an organizing affect on matter. When I am struggling with dark, depressive thoughts, it helps me immensely to simply tone for a few minutes. I just sing the same note in a comfortable range, on an easy vowel (A, ee, ah, oh), holding it out as long as comfortable, and then singing it again and again. It calms me almost immediately.

    According to sound healing pioneer Jonathan Goldman, when we tone:
    Our stress levels go down
    More oxygen fills up cells
    Our blood pressure and heart rate lowers
    Higher levels of melatonin are released (connected with our cycles of sleep and time. Incidentally, are beginning to use it as an antidepressant)
    Higher levels of oxytocin are released, known as the trust, love, or cuddle hormone. Which is so interesting, because I’ve noticed again and again that when toning or singing with a group, people very quickly feel this deep level of connection and trust, probably largely created by the extra oxytocin that’s being released through using our voices together.

    So yes, singing can be incredibly powerful when done by a “professional,” such as this Dine speaker. It’s also incredibly powerful when, as you and Judy mention, we make the sounds ourselves. And we definitely don’t have to be great singers either, to experience these benefits.

    Thanks for this blog 🙂

  2. Evan says:

    I’m very content focused. It would need to be in my language to get me hooked I think. Then I could let myself disappear into the experience I think. I would love the opportunity to try it and see!

  3. Judy says:

    John, I certainly understand what you are saying. It reminds me of how fortunate I am to belong to a singing group where I get to experience this quite often. Going to practice every week especially helps when I’m feeling upset about something. I also have experienced the healing of caring voices. Thanks for reminding me about these treasures!

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Judy –

      The other side of this is using one’s own voice expressively and fully, as you do in singing. I believe there is a lot of healing in letting the voice flow from the deepest part of you – it’s the sort of sound that occasionally comes to me in a powerful dream, a great wake-up call. I only hear it but know that in some way it’s from me.


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