During the first years of my field research among the Songhay people in the Republic of Niger, a Songhay elder taught me an important lesson.
We had been treating a man suffering from what seemed to be a deadly illness. The elder said that the man’s soul had been stolen from his body and that if we didn’t find it, the patient would die.
I accompanied him to the outskirts of the village. When we came upon mounds of discarded millet husks, he sifted through the debris in search of the sick man’s soul. Suddenly, he jumped up and proclaimed that the man’s soul had been liberated. He asked me about the man’s soul:
Did you see it?
Did you feel it?
Did you hear it?
He looked at me, shook his head, and said: "You look but you don’t see. You touch but you don’t feel. You listen but you don’t hear. It will take many years for you to learn how to see, feel, and hear the world."
In the contemporary culture of speed, how many of us have developed the sensory capacity to hear the world, or for that matter, to truly hear what others are saying to us?
According to scholars like Sherry Turkle (2016), face-to-face conversation is the social glue that shapes human relationships. The stories we tell one another are the foundation of what the late Jerome Bruner (1991) called the “narrative construction of reality.”
There are many elements to Bruner’s approach. One central element—at least for me—is that narratives can underscore our human vulnerabilities. In my experience, they can bring to the surface deep fears about how we confront misfortune, illness, uncertainty, and death—themes central to human beings and to finding comfort in our skins.
And yet, when we listen to people telling us a story, do we take the time to hear them? How can we develop the skills to hear our loved ones, our friends, our colleagues? How can men hear women? How can women hear men? How can black people and white people hear one another? Can people from diverse ethnic groups listen to and hear one another? How can public officials listen and hear one another in domestic and international public spheres?
These are questions that have a bearing on matters of health and illness, life and death, and peace and war. In times of profound social alienation, the practice of deep sensuous listening may represent a step toward better human connection and enhanced well-being. The distinguished South African anthropologist Rose Boswell has long considered the sensuous dimensions of deep listening. In a brilliant essay on “Sensuous Stories in the Indian Ocean Islands,” Boswell (2017: 193) wrote:
"…the narrative imperative is also a sensuous imperative; that is, while story-telling is (obviously) a form of 'verbal communication', it just as fundamentally involves 'nonverbal communication' (e.g. looks, gestures, smells). In practice, listening to a story entails attending to the 'interconnection' of the senses, no less than experiencing the 'interconnections' between storyteller and audience (Finnegan 2014 ). Put another way, story-telling is at once a social activity and 'sense-making activity' (Vannini et al. 2012 ), which calls for sense -work… Stories are (potentially) addressed to all the senses, even taste (e.g. savoring the “sweetness” of a tale), not just the ears, particularly in the context of face-to-face story-telling…"
In that essay, Boswell stated:
“…one might observe the storyteller 'settling in' to relate his story, become more animated in conveying his account, sustaining eye contact, eyes tearing up, touching or gripping the listener to make a point. Attending to the sensuality of story-telling/listening deepens the listener’s analytical capabilities enabling him or her access to the non-aural dimensions of stories." (Boswell 2017: 198)
Boswell goes on to show how the sensuous give-and-take of storytelling and deep listening caresses the textures of the past, secretes the bitterness of oppression, and tastes the sourness of dispossession, especially in contexts of social inequality that characterize relations between men and women, between the colonizer and the colonized, and between the powerful and the dispossessed.
These divides create spaces that make it easy for us to misunderstand and be misunderstood. They produce contexts of silencing and silence. They can isolate us in hermetically sealed universes of meaning. Writing about her highly nuanced and personally implicated encounters with Indian Ocean Island peoples, Boswell described the evolution of her own practice of deep listening:
“Thus, as I did, they may eat to taste the past, reinstate a stance of authority in order to maintain dignity in the story-listening process, recoil to eschew public vulnerability, and allow themselves to feel euphoria." (2017:206)
Following Boswell's example, the slowly developed practice of deep listening to hear others is a process that we can use to bridge the gulf that creates painful and potentially dangerous human disconnection. In our troubled times, the practice of deep listening is a much-needed tonic that can enhance our well-being in the world.
Boswell, Rosabelle (2017) Sensuous stories in the Indian Ocean islands, The Senses and Society, 12:2, 193-208,
Bruner, Jerome (1991). The Narrative Construction of Reality. Critical Inquiry 18(1): 1-21.
Turkle, Sherry (2015) Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. New York: Penguin Books