Plugged into the Cosmos
If you put an oscilloscope on the sounds of Gregorian Chant, you see that they all come within the bandwidth for charging the ear.
Dr. Alfred Tomatis
Looking back, it doesn’t seem strange that I should have been one of the first people in the country to find my way to a sound therapist’s door, as most of my life has been lived off the beaten track. For example, you can read about my experiment in allowing my children to educate themselves at home (as distinct from ‘educating’ them at home) if you care to see my book, And the Children Played, reprinted by Tundra Books, Montreal, Spring, ’84.
One of these children, Rafaele (formerly Melanie), having graduated from college (her first experience of school) was continuing her self-education and spending the year 1977 in Paris to perfect her French. There, by chance as they call it, she met a French-Canadian doctor who was studying Sound Therapy with Dr. Tomatis. Rafaele spoke to him about her mother’s hearing problem, a matter of great inconvenience to the family, though they were always very nice about it.
An anti-social hearing problem
My problem was this: I couldn’t carry on a conversation if there were other people talking in the room. If I had to talk against the voice background, or listen to someone speaking to me, the cross vibrations of sound simply broke up my focus. At home I was constantly calling for silence and then trying to get a single conversation going while everybody else held their tongues. It was socially debilitating, to say the least, and it was getting worse. At a publisher’s party for one of my books I had to sneak out after a few minutes and go home. Luckily there was lots to drink and I never did hear that anybody noticed.
I had mentioned this malady to a number of people who told me they had it too. So of course the Canadian doctor recognized it at once from the description. He told my daughter that it could be cured with Sound Therapy. She asked him what Sound Therapy was, and considering the explanation that found its way back to me, it’s a good thing I go on faith.
Accordingly, when he returned to Montreal to set up practice the following spring, I was right there. We had a nice talk, (no-one else was speaking in the room) and a few days later my treatment commenced.
The listening test
All was mystery from the word go, and the word was not “Go,” it was “Beep.” Connected by headphones to an unearthly looking machine, on which the therapist produced high-pitched sounds by twirling a handle, I had to state when I heard what, and where. During all this he was drawing a graph with coloured pencils. I felt strangely elated by these high tones and attributed it to the total yogic concentration necessary to decide whether they came from right, left or centre. I was also asked whether a sequence of sounds was getting higher or lower. They were all sky high and sometimes I just didn’t know. I gave answers, then took them back. It was like sitting for an examination that I didn’t want to fail.
The headphones were changed for another pair that didn’t go on my ears at all. They fitted over the mastoid bone and the bone at my temple. I was amazed to find that I could hear through my bones as well as through my ears. It was the first I knew of the fact that we hear with our whole body. This was downtown Montreal and the traffic sounds outside were like an artillery attack. They had devastated me previously and were now made harmless by these eloquent little electronic bleeps. I could hardly believe my ears — or my ears could scarcely believe the soothing yet stimulating sound that promised an end to abuse.
When the listening test was completed, the therapist was able to view the precise nature of my trouble. He saw another one that I hadn’t thought to mention for how could it relate to sound? It was my complete helplessness at all things technical. Like a clairvoyant he read this from the graph. It was absolutely true. I could barely change a light bulb, couldn’t possibly replace a fuse, and always had to get some small child to put in my typewriter ribbon. On the day the stereo system was delivered and the kids were showing me how to use it, I am quoted as saying: “Oh, I have to press Stop? I’ll never be able to work that.” The family was still laughing. (But the last laugh would be mine.)
Next, the therapy was explained to me — in simple words, with respect to my deficiencies in the technical field. As it is quite impossible to really put across the principles of Sound Therapy in simple words, I again had to take it on faith. It seemed that a specific listening program would be designed for me.
- My listening program would consist largely of the music of Mozart, and I would sit and listen to it for three hours every week-day during the next six weeks.
“That’s all?” I asked. “There’s nothing more to it?”
- “Yes. Bring some sewing or embroidery to work on.
It’s better to absorb the sound subconsciously, with the attention fixed on something else.”
It turned out that women patients did needlework and men did jigsaw puzzles. I was gladder than ever to be a female.
Game for anything, I settled into the routine, driving the sixty miles from my farm at St. Agnes de Dundee and sitting for three hours daily, comfortably settled in an armchair in a little room, with my headphones, my sewing and my thermos of tea. The music was recognizably Mozart, though Mozart would have had a fit. The violin concertos, symphonies and chamber pieces all started out normally, except for occasional soft hissing sounds. Then, imperceptibly, the lower sounds began giving way to the strings. After a time even the strings were clinging to the rafters. It was strange, eerie, and perversely pleasing. Yet I wondered. It just didn’t seem possible that sitting here listening to squeaky music for three hours was going to relieve me of anything but thirty-six dollars. (By now the fee is considerably higher, all low prices having been filtered out everywhere!)
The equipment from which all this originated was stacked in the next room and operated by an assistant. It looked pretty spooky with its blinking lights and turning reels, and I always hurried past it, while noting that wires snaked under several doors to other patients in their comfy little dens. It was good to know that others were willing to take a chance, though when I stopped to think of it, I never saw them. I pondered about what their personalized listening programs might be like while I imbibed the one specifically designed to sort out the crossed wires in my head — or whatever it was that so inhibited the social life I didn’t much want. I was really doing this from a fear that my hearing quirk might lead to deafness. I had seen my mother gradually lose her hearing and become isolated from human company and, almost worse, from music. Nietzche put his finger on it when he said: “Without music life would be a mistake.”
I stuck this out week after week, trying lamely to explain at home the purpose of the daily trek. They surmised that Sound Therapy was some kind of faith healing. If that’s what it was it wouldn’t work, because I was starting to lose faith. Also, there was no sign of healing. I observed my reactions with mounting anxiety, like a hypochondriac taking her own pulse every few minutes. I was neither better nor worse. I began to resent the time that was going into this. And the car was eating up a lot of gas.
The fourth week offered a little variety in the form of a vocalizing technique. A microphone was set up on the table in my little room and a new tape relayed through the headphones. A female voice gave instructions, then spoke sibilant words at high frequency, leaving a gap between each. In the gap I was to repeat the word into the microphone. As I did this, my own voice, also filtered to very high pitch, came back into my ears. Due to past experience as a radio actress I felt quite at home with the mike, though I never expected to be presented with a script like this.
Next, a monk with a beautiful voice came on singing phrases of Gregorian chant, with cathedral echo backup. He too waited for my repetition, and I was glad he couldn’t hear it, for I never could carry a tune.
It was all terribly wearing. A deep exhaustion settled over me. My therapist had warned that I might get a little tired: it would mean that the therapy was working, the effect beginning to be felt in the muscle of the middle ear, the brain patterns rearranging themselves. He explained it again. I couldn’t follow any of it. I hadn’t the strength. The exhaustion that had seeped into me could only be compared with the depleted feeling that follows childbirth — or finishing a novel. Arriving home at night after the sixty-mile drive, I could hardly drag myself out of the car. I detested driving anyway; cars were technical and I hated them.
A calm sense of energy
How did it begin? I first noticed it at the wheel, while stopped in the rush-hour traffic. It was a kind of gentle vibration in my head, a sense of something about to take off. I began singing, using the humming technique I had learned in my sessions. I sang my way out of Montreal and hummed as I spun along the highway. When I got home I noted with surprise that I was not tired. Far from it. I stayed up late doing things around the house, and rose early the next morning, deeply rested and refreshed. The effect was subtle — not a high-powered charge but a sure, calm sense of energy. It was energy formerly untapped, now available, ready to be drawn upon as needed. The feeling of well-being increased day by day, peaking at moments — usually in the evening when I would ordinarily be flaked out — and sending a dynamism sparking along my veins as though I were electrically connected. I told my therapist: “I feel as though I’ve been plugged into the cosmos.”
He only smiled. He knew about this. For one thing he had taken the therapy himself in France as part of his training. His serenity was one of the characteristic results. Yet I saw him excited too — on the day when he opened the door of another listening room and pointed to a child wearing headphones and stretched out on a sofa.
- “That child,” he told me softly, “was so hyper that his parents were going to have to institutionalize him. Now he lies still for three hours every day listening to Mozart.” Later the boy’s mother also came for treatment, and the family found harmony.
Within a week I was going around in a perpetual state of exultation. Before my therapy began I’d been working on a novel. It had struck a roadblock and stopped. Suddenly the words began flowing again. I sat scribbling all through my sessions and was still working at home at midnight, though ordinarily I wasn’t able to write beyond noon. (That book was The Selena Tree, published by McClelland and Stewart, now in a New Canadian Library paperback edition. You might note the dedication.)
I seemed to feel no need for sleep. When I went to bed it was not because I was tired, but because the next day had rolled around and I thought I ought to. For years I had had difficulty sleeping and had made a huge point of going to bed at nine, to read for an hour and toss around for another two, so as to be asleep by midnight and get the eight hours I needed for a good morning’s work. This meant I had no evenings and neither did the others in the house, who had to tiptoe around and keep their talk to a whisper. Now I was seeing them off to bed while I charged around the house, typing, cooking, cleaning, catching up on correspondence and all those things which drag at the mind. When I lay down to sleep — miraculously, I slept.
My problem cured
On an afternoon in my sixth and final week, as I sat listening in my little room, the therapist came strolling in. I tensed up, in mortal fear that he was going to say something. Not only did I have to keep silent when there were voices in the background, but also when music was playing.
He began to speak. I went into my act, waving my hands frantically and objecting: “I’ve got the music on! I can’t talk when there’s music on, I never could!”
He smiled and said calmly: “You can now.”
I stopped short and listened to him. I ventured to answer. We chatted about many things and the music played on, and he was right: I had been cured.
I went out into the stores and talked to salespeople, with the babble of voices all around me. No problem. I couldn’t believe it. Neither could my family when I got home that night. I walked into the house and all talk stopped, as usual.
- “Go right on,” I said airily. “Doesn’t bother me a bit.”
Now I became intensely curious as to what had happened. I had asked several times: “What does the sound do exactly?” and could never understand the answer. It couldn’t be told in a few sentences. (One would have to write a book!) It had to do with recharging the cortex of the brain and was accompanied by some sort of theory about a return to the womb and a rebirth through sound. This clarified the picture for me as much as seeing it through water.
“It works,” the therapist said. “That’s what counts.”
It was true. From that day to this I have never been troubled by cross-currents of voices — though my daughters were disappointed about the paper bags. You see, along with everything else, my hearing has always been very acute, and there was something about the resonating crackle of paper bags being folded that struck my eardrums like spears. On shopping day, therefore, as we unpacked the groceries, I was always warning: “Don’t fold the bags till I’m out.” I finally left the kitchen awash in open, empty paper bags!
So the girls had hoped my therapy would take care of this too. But the effect of the sound is to open the hearing — so it was worse with the bags. Nothing’s perfect.
As the day approached when my listening sessions were to end, I began to feel bereft. What if it all wore off? I asked my therapist — I begged him: “Isn’t there some way I could listen to this kind of music at home?”
He assured me there wasn’t. “You would have to buy all this.” He waved at the equipment. “It cost twenty thousand dollars.”
If I’d had the twenty thousand, I’d have spent it on that in a minute.
“Even then,” he went on, “you wouldn’t know how to use it.”
That was certainly true. And given the state of technological development at that time, he was right that there was no way. He wasn’t lying to me. He just didn’t know he was talking to someone at whom the eye of fate had just winked.
After the final session he gave me the listening test again, and showed me on the graph the changes that had taken place. I didn’t have to see the graph. A graph is only two- dimensional lines. I knew in all the complex dimensions of myself the transformation that had occurred. I hugged him wordlessly and left. I felt strangely alone, unconnected from the equipment.
As the weeks passed, I slowly became unconnected from the cosmos too. The radiant energy flickered and faded. At the end of the day I was tired like anybody else. Sleep eluded me again, although there was no sign of the malady which had driven me to Sound Therapy. The cure was effective, but I mourned the loss of the beneficial side effects. For that I would have traded the cure in a twinkling.
I tried to cheer myself by going to some parties, now being normal, audiometrically speaking. Though I could stand the sound of voices, I remembered that I couldn’t stand parties. I walked the fields, humming desperately. The humming technique I’d been taught was the one scrap of self-help possible. I hummed until the birds all fled from that part of Quebec! It helped a little, but without the high frequencies to back it up I was humming in the dark.
Writer’s block struck again, and I was devastated. But there was something I could do for this. I developed a pattern: whenever I was seriously stuck I would phone Montreal and make an appointment for one Sound Therapy session. The three hours of listening never failed to get my inspiration flowing.
Evidently I was tied for life to the Montreal area, or maybe Toronto, where I understood there was one other sound therapist practising.
Life is cruel, and circumstances conspired to move me two years later to the Saskatchewan prairie. Settled in a tiny, charming old farmhouse in the Minichinas Hills, I knew it was the perfect place for me to live and write. Yet the real place of writing was in my head, and I would cheerfully have camped at the intersection of Peel and Ste. Catherine Streets if I could have had again the limitless vitality, the calm and drugless high that brought my inspiration to me like Joan’s angel voices on the wind.
Two years passed, and ever my mind strained eastward. Running like an underground river through my thoughts were plans and schemes for getting more Sound Therapy. I was on the point more than once of applying as Writer-in-Residence at Montreal’s Concordia University, a mad idea as I scarcely take up residence even in my own house but have to be always in the fresh air, doing my writing under the sky.
Sound Therapy at St Peter’s Abbey, Muenster
Some people have a vivid, lifelong, shining memory of the moment when they were proposed to; or informed that they had won the Irish sweepstake; or received the inspiration for a great invention. I will carry a vivid, lifelong shining memory of the moment, one evening in my prairie farmhouse, when my dinner guest, Russ Powell, idly said:
- “Oh, you know St. Peter’s Abbey up at Muenster?” (I didn’t know it. I just knew Muenster on the map.) “I have a relative by marriage there,” he continued, “a monk named Father Lawrence —”
I stifled a yawn.
“— and he’s working with the same therapy you took in Montreal.”
“What?” I sprang up, toppling my chair. Russ looked a little alarmed. “Sound Therapy?”
“Yes,” he said. “I went up last week and he demonstrated the listening test for me. They’re using the therapy with the pre-vocation students at St. Peter’s College there.”
Muenster? Muenster? Could it be possible? Russ described the listening test and the electronic set-up. There was no doubt: it was the same. On the thousands of miles of prairie, I had landed blind, forty-eight miles from the kingdom. …
Follow this link to read the rest of Patricia’s fascinating book about how her life was transformed by Sound Therapy.