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Physician for Times to Come
By Don Campbell
Theosophical Publishing HouseCopyright © 1991 Don Campbell
All rights reserved.
Chant: The Healing Power of Voice and Ear
An interview with ALFRED TOMATIS, M.D. by TIM WILSON with commentary
Listening, says the French physician, psychologist and ear specialist Dr. Alfred A. Tomatis, is nothing less than our "royal route" to the divine. It is also something very few of us do well. In the following interview, Tomatis blends clinical precision and theoretical élan into a profound and subtle meditation on this most vital of human faculties.
It is hard to believe how heretical, only a few decades ago, Alfred Tomatis must have appeared to the medical (and musical) establishment with the simple observation based on his clinical work with opera singers, that the voice can only produce what the ear hears. (The French Academies of Science and Medicine officially acknowledged the young ear specialist's illumination by naming it after him.) Tomatis showed that the two organs are part of the same neurological loop, such that changes in the response of one will show up immediately in the other.
Though most of us feel this to be intuitively sound, such unity of organic function has not impressed itself yet on, among others, audiologists and speech pathologists. In major hospitals, the two departments can still be found at opposite ends of the building. We have a lot invested in this sort of separation.
Tomatis is an unorthodox "nutritionist," too. A hidden but primary function of the ear, he says, is to charge the brain with electrical potential. Sounds, especially the ones we make ourselves as singers and speakers, are a fantastic energy food.
But the good doctor doesn't stop there. A pioneer in prenatal psychology, Tomatis was one of the first to demonstrate that listening, and consequently "dialogue" with the mother, begin in the womb long before we are born. "All our lives," he asserts, "we seek to recover the audition of the fetus." It is the ear which shapes our most intimate associations. More than that, it is our link with the Logos.
If they didn't seem to fit so coherently into his view of human potential, and to be born out in day-to-day clinical experience with everyone from dyslexic children to Benedictine monks, some of Tomatis' pronouncements might appear as if they could only be taken on faith. "The skin is really differentiated ear, not the other way around," or, "Gregorian is meant to train one to rise up out of the body." These are the sorts of things you'd have expected to hear from the communications philosopher Marshall McLuhan, who was, perhaps not co-incidentally, also a strong Catholic. Religious though the overtones may be, the probing of both men follows the same course, tracing ritual, belief, culture and dogma back to "effects" whose ground is in the body.
This may be what has made so many people ready to hear Alfred Tomatis: the growing realization that there might be a real, physical, perceivable basis to our "spiritual" sense. If we feel there is something "above," it is just possibly because our bones are telling us, through our ears. It is this circuit which is the "royal route" he speaks of.
Some points not crystal clear in the original interview (conducted in French), I have expanded on in the light of subsequent conversations. For any errors in this embellishment, I confess mea culpa, and trust that Dr. Tomatis' thought is reproduced here with the highest possible fidelity to all of its frequencies.
Tim Wilson: Is it possible to explain in reasonably precise, scientific terms, the effect of chanting on the well-being of an individual?
Alfred Tomatis: We can only ask why, for thousands of years, people have chanted, and why in our research on ascetic matters we have discovered songs called "sacred." They are sacred only insofar as they render this service to the singer. They are not sacred in themselves. But it is true that they have considerable neurophysiological effects. And there can be no such effect outside of the nervous system.
These people, over a long period of time, have come to the intuitive realization that there is probably something in the ear that it is possible to awaken, or at least to excite. And modern research has proved to us that there are two kinds of sound. There are sounds which for some time now I have termed "discharge" sounds (those which tire, fatigue the listener) and "charge" sounds (those which give tone, health). We have proven over the last twenty years that in order for the brain to remain dynamic, to think and operate with vitality, it must have sensory stimuli. A group of Americans has been able to demonstrate the number of such stimuli that are necessary. We know now that the brain needs three billion stimuli per second for at least four and a half hours per day, in order for a person to remain conscious, that is wide awake.
Let me tell you of a personal experience. It goes back several years. I had visited a monastery in France which had just been taken over by a new abbot, a young man. He had changed the internal rule of the abbey by modifying everything a little after the Second Vatican Council, and he was therefore something of a revolutionary.
When I arrived, there were those who wanted to retain the Latin, others who were for the existing rule, and still others who wanted to change and revolutionize everything. Finally everything was changed. They even eliminated chanting from the daily schedule. You know that Benedictines chant from six to eight hours a day, but this abbot succeeded in demonstrating that chant served no useful purpose, and that without it they could recapture that time for other things.
Well, in fact, these people had been chanting in order to "charge" themselves, but they hadn't realized what they were doing. And gradually, as the days passed, they started to get bogged down; they became more and more tired. Finally they got so tired that they held a meeting and frankly asked themselves what it was that was causing their fatigue. They looked at their schedule and saw that their night vigil and the rhythm of their work deviated excessively from the norm for other men. They seemed to live too differently from the rest of the world, and they seldom slept. They decided that they should go to bed early and wake up, like everybody else, only when they were no longer tired. Well, everyone knows from physiology that the more you sleep, the more tired you are, and so it was for the poor Benedictines—they were more tired than ever—so much so that they called in medical specialists to help them try to understand what was happening. They finally gave up on this after a procession of doctors had come through over a period of several months, and the monks were more tired than ever. Then they turned to specialists of the digestive system. One of the great French doctors arrived at the conclusion that they were in this state because they were undernourished. In fact, they were practically vegetarian—they ate a little fish from time to time—and he told them they were dying of starvation. I think my colleague's error was in forgetting that they had eaten as vegetarians ever since the 12th Century, which one would think might have engendered some sort of adaptation in them. Anyway, once they started eating meat and potatoes like the rest of the world, things only got worse.
I was called by the Abbot in February, and I found that 70 of the 90 monks were slumping in their cells like wet dishrags. Over the next several months I examined them, installed machines, and began the treatment of re-awakening their ears. I put the machines in in June, 1967, and I reintroduced their chanting immediately. By November, almost all of them had gone back to their normal activities, that is their prayer, their few hours of sleep, and the legendary Benedictine work schedule.
T.W.: And how exactly were you treating these people?
A.T.: With sound only. We know what sounds are stimulating and we also have the technology to be able, in fact, to recharge people with them. You have to realize that to meditate, to reach the plane of prayer, demands extraordinary cortical activity. Put yourself on your knees one day and try to pray, or try to meditate and you'll see how parasitic thoughts assail you—your vacation coming up, the friend who's displeased you, the letter you just received, the taxes you have to pay—thousands of things flood into the mind, to your subconscious, and you need to have an enormous cortical charge to overcome them. In the case of these monks, in giving them back their sounds, their stimuli, we succeeded in re-awakening them.
T.W.: Do the sounds do all of this by themselves?
A.T.: Not quite. It's a little complicated, but the human auditory apparatus is poorly understood, and every time you read a study on it, it's stupefying to see how little is known about it. There are several levels of misconception that persist. First, at the physiological level, people see the ear as a sense organ just like the others, even a little less important than the others. In fact it is more complex, and its role is primary. Next, everyone thinks he listens, but in fact hearing is probably our most deficient sense. We're not aware of how much of life we are missing. We are creatures of sound. We live in it, and it lives in us. But this is a fact we have forgotten just as the fish forgets that he lives in water. And just like the fish, we have to leave the water to realize it.
[Tomatis is speaking both literally and metaphorically here of birth—the crucial transition for the development of each human's audition from liquid-conducted to air-conducted sound. There is a pronounced idealization of the pre-natal environment in Tomatis" work, an image of the womb as an auditory paradise, a condition of "super hearing" to which we aspire throughout our lives to return.]
The ear has presented us with a scientific problem (let alone an aesthetic and spiritual one) of enormous proportions. The human ear has functions that have been completely ignored. We have known that one of those is to assure balance, but we haven't followed through the implications of this. The ancients who were less rich in technology had more time to reflect, and came to a more acute understanding of sound than we've been able to. They discovered the following: first of all, they realized that certain sounds released certain postural phenomena. In India there is a whole yoga of sound, Mantra yoga. In Mantra yoga, the posture has to be perfect for the mantra to work, which explains why some people have destroyed themselves in doing the mantra without knowing the key to proper listening. A mantra can damage a person much faster than it can restore him. So there's definitely a danger. In order to do a mantra well one should know well all the practice and the theory, and especially the way to listen.
What the ancients knew was that once one reaches perfect auditory posture, the body reaches out and literally incorporates all the sound that comes from outside. The subject identifies with himself, knows himself, touches himself both from outside and from within. Secondly, he assumes a posture that stresses verticality. It is impossible to arrive at good language without verticality, or to stimulate the brain to full consciousness. If the posture isn't perfect, it is very difficult to enter truly into real consciousness.
[Verticality, it could be argued, is the backbone of Tomatis' thinking. The image of upward ascension informs both his physiological researches and his metaphysical speculations. It is also a rich source of allusions, many of them biblical. For example, Tomatis terms the human struggle towards uprightness throughout eons of evolution "le combat de Jacob." It was not a casual observation that he found the aurally depleted monks "slumping" in their cells. Not only, he discovered, does a different posture change the way one hears, but the converse. When he altered the listening curve of certain subjects, their posture immediately changed. Tomatis is also a prodigious linguist. He observes that the word "malady" etymologically implies bad posture, and suggests that his listening "cure" is nothing more than the reversal of this.]
If you listen to music, especially if you're trying to listen carefully to classical music, you take on a special kind of posture. The head tilts forward a little, which actually raises its top-most point. It's a little like the image of the Buddha who is listening to what is called "the sound of the universe."
Alright, how does the ear function in all of this? Well, its real function is unconsciously to assure balance. But in saying balance we are saying a great deal, much more than just physical equilibrium. It also means the tonus of the body. And it means all the gestures, all of the non-verbal language the body has with its environment. It is the ear which first establishes in the brain a spatial dynamic, on which the visual system is later superimposed. So the first function of the ear is vestibular.
The ear's other role, the one we think we know well enough about, is its cochlear function, the analysis and de-coding of sounds from outside. We have largely overlooked, however, the sounds generated from inside the body, particularly the ear's relation to our own voice. This function I call self-listening, or auditory-vocal control.
There is a third function of the ear, the one involved in the story of the monks I told you about. Doctors totally ignore this function, but zoologists know it well, it being perhaps easier to see in the simplest of animals, particularly in the fish. This is that the ear, the vibration sensor, serves to charge the organism with electrical potential. It is thanks to the ear that external stimuli are able to charge the cortical battery. I say electrical because the only way we know of measuring the brain's activity is through an electroencephalogram, which gives an electrical answer. But of course it's not electricity that's inside. All modification of internal metabolism is translated by electricity—that is all we know how to see. The internal mechanisms which we call the neurological field are illuminated, charged, by stimuli. These stimuli come, we know, via the skin, the joints, the muscles, a thousand things leading into our bodies from the outside. But it is the ear which translates their potential to the brain. And so we've come to realize that the skin is only a piece of differentiated ear, and not the other way around!
Excerpted from Music by Don Campbell. Copyright © 1991 Don Campbell. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
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