6 05, 2011

The games we play in our voices

May 6th, 2011|beauty, freedom, Intimacy, love, relationships|Comments Off on The games we play in our voices

I was listening to a speaker once, some time ago, in a community room at the top floor of a hospital. He spoke passionately and vehemently about mental health, about meditation, about positive thinking, and above all about community. I could hear his thoughts: I know the solution for you. I have overcome all you can dream of. I can be your guide.

His voice entranced, and I found myself wanting to believe. Surely there must be a simple solution to discontentment, to anxiety, to feeling isolated – these are with me still. The heartaches inside were in that moment were no longer beautiful, but the enemy, a cloud of terrorism sniping at me. And yet, after 10 minutes of a guided meditation, I found myself less peaceful. Feelings gathered: Resentment. Feeling manipulated. You don’t listen. Voices of my childhood, compounded with interest. Gathering myself later, I realised that this reaction wasn’t a problem, but a reflection of the actual dynamic, to the timbre of his voice and how things were said.

The voice is the primary means of relation we have. It’s how we make connections. It’s the impetus for learning how to truly listen to others, to be loving. It’s also how we influence and try to find a sense of power in this world. As such, everyone has tactics and communication styles they use when they’ve been disempowered, to try to find a sense of power again. It’s the double horns of a defence that can also be manipulation and control. Some do this unconsciously, some consciously. In response to others, we then have our own reactions to these games, or at least unconscious until we see what’s actually going on.

One of my favourite skills I’ve learned from acting is in the studying of people. What is someone’s goal when communicating? What’s the subtext of what they are saying? Sometimes 7% of communication is through the words; the rest is nuances in the voice and body language. Being conscious of the other 93% is the best tool I have for understanding dynamics and people at their essence.

The times I love both in watching others and in being with others are when things seem real. Conversation flows at its flowing, unmodified pace, without a seeming effort of anyone to appear to be someone else. The pace, tone, and intonation changes in sync with the emotion and what’s being communicated. There is a dynamism, flexibility and fluidity involved. When there’s anxiety, the voice is shaky and unprotected, perhaps quicker. When there’s disappointment, there’s that sense in the voice of having tripped, of falling down. When there’s joy, there’s a sunlight beaming in the voice.

It’s that sense of unprotectedness, ingenuous honesty and transparency of whatever’s there that makes me feel connected. Seeing another’s despair communicated makes me appreciate rapture even more. It’s the beauty of the human condition, a connection to a raw state. It’s not the forced connection of someone moulding themselves so as to relate, but the manifestation that it’s our bare humanness, as we are, that connects.

And yet, most of the time, we limit what we communicate. We put on masks. We have styles where we’re trying to protect ourselves or get something.



I want to identify some protection mechanisms I’ve noticed in the voice. These are ways of manipulation and control, the ways we aren’t natural. I find identifying them helps me let go of my own tactics and be gentle with myself in my reactions to others. (A gracious thanks to the theatrical vocal teacher Patsy Rodenburg for many of these concepts) Being aware of protection mechanisms can help one see “oh, I’m doing this, so maybe now I can let go – or at least laugh at myself for keeping doing it.”

Not all tactics are aggressive. In fact, most people in western culture have learned ways to defend themselves by non-aggressive or even withdrawing mannerisms. We have been taught suspicion of the used car salesmen, yet often have little awareness of how most subtler strategies can affect us strongly. Perhaps you can recognise yourself or someone you know in these.

I’ll start with the easiest one to recognise:

The Aggressive, Overbearing Speaker

This is the prototypical drill sergeant. The voice is usually deep and resonant, but always with confrontation at least implied. The chest is puffed up and the body leans forward, as if the person requires another to push back to keep their balance. While resonant and full, there’s little gentleness, nor room for warmth or sadness.

While this is the prototype for strength in military fashion, it also makes sure the environment is too unsafe for vulnerability. There is little room for compromise or friendship, but certainly room for fellow soldiers. Often it is a cover for emotions never felt and constantly kept at bay by the image of toughness and pushing others around through the voice.

The Hesitator

While someone who hesitates and stammers may seem to be powerless, there is a hook – that the listener is left hanging, waiting for the next word, dangling onto a potential completed idea. In the pause that follows, the hesitator can gauge the audience and draw others in the direction they desire, albeit unconsciously. Even though there is discomfort in the hesitator, there is a power in making others feel they need to tread lightly for fear of blocking the next phrase. If a room is feeled with kind, gentle people the hesitator can steer a conversation in a manner that a clear, fluent speaker never could.

The manipulation is that we are made to think that words and thoughts are being created organically before our eyes and ears. We excuse the habit in order to be generous and because we think the person is naturally shy or reserved. Yet this hesitation can constructed carefully over years – even if unconsciously – in order to learn about others without revealing one’s self. It is useful in that it leads others to vulnerability and openness without having to reciprocate. One sided vulnerability is also an imbalance of power.

The Whisperer

Otherwise known as the “de-voicer”, this is someone who goes quiet, either via a quiet voice or by simply not speaking. This is often used by guru-figures as a way of drawing people in.

It may not seem apparent as a way to manipulate others until you observe your own body in response to when you are trying to actively listen. By withdrawing and speaking more silently, the whisperer forces listeners to strain, to lean forward and to figuratively bow at his or her feet. It is de-centering to be around for a long time.

It can indeed be a hypnotic technique and is often used by executives, politicians, or theatre directors. Because it is more subtle (quiet voices are rarely perceived as dangerous) it can be more effective than being overbearing.

The Waffler

This kind of vocal manipulation involves abandoning clear and succinct language in favor of rambling thoughts. Buzz words obfuscating real meaning are often the norm. The language used can be learned and embellished, giving the impression of education and erudition, yet leaving the listener with no clear idea to latch on to.

Even more so, the listener can easily feel that they are at fault for not deciphering the message, and so can try to argue using the same language form which they are not nearly as comfortable with as the waffler. It can be a useful defensive habit to avoid answering direct questions or avoid unpleasantness, or even to convince others of something using impassioned, yet unclear words. This is a habit often cultivated by politicians, so-called experts in talk shows and doctors trying to avoid telling the whole truth.

The Role Player

The role player communicates as if everyone around them was the same. They have chosen a role –  e.g., mother, helper, or coach, to use positive roles – and infuse their voice with this at all times.

Imagine the feminine presence of someone who addresses everyone around them as if they were a prepubescent child. The automatic reaction is either subservience or rebellion, both dis-empowering states. Or the counsellor who, through a lifetime of practice, has learned to infuse their voice as someone who truly loves and accepts all others, who contains nothing but love and compassion, irrespective of what they are feeling. I am not talking about a natural voice infused with compassion, but rather a constructed voice, an artifice. This creates a pied piper, hypnotic effect where the listener reacts as if it were true, that the speaker is indeed showing love at this moment and can be trusted.

Not all roles appear “positive”, but they all have one thing in common; it is an attempt to control how others react to you by inviting them strongly to jump into the role that matches what is played.

Deeper Connection Through the Natural Voice


All of these styles of communication are at the same time both weaknesses and sources of power. They enable us to make an impact of source, but also limit that impact to a vastly restricted playing field. They have usually developed over a lifetime, and as such they are not let go of easily, especially if there are rewards.

The problem is that in each of these, there is learned helplessness. There are always times where a soul-driven cry to speak is heard – and at these times, if our habits are too entrenched and opposite from the silent voice inside made vocal, we will be helpless. They atrophy our range and full humanness of expression. When we surrender to the monotonous use of a single habit in communication, we surrender many of our vocal rights and abilities to connect with others and be an active member of a community or family.

Again, it is through being ourselves, as fully as is humanly possibly, that we discover basic truths: We are connected at a deep, visceral level not through doing anything, but through being true and natural. Feeling loved grows from a foundation of being genuine. Warmth comes naturally when we’re being simply human, showing that there is basic goodness in however we are.

18 02, 2008

I love you, you’re perfect, now change. Happy Valentines day!

February 18th, 2008|freedom, love, relationships, transformation|2 Comments

Happy (belated) Valentine’s day all! Sorry for the lack of posts, but I am going through my own transformations and there are times for silence as well. (I actually wrote this on Valentine’s day, but got around to posting it now)

For this writing, I’m going to focus on a particular dichotomy that is pretty universal amongst our relationships and in ourselves. This is the conflict apparent in the following two statements.

  • I love you fully and completely.
  • I really don’t accept ___ about you.

(one example for the latter might be “I don’t accept that you want to back away from any issue that may cause pain or conflict”)

Again, this is very common – in fact it’s the stereotypical ‘I love you, you’re perfect, now change!‘ motto. This isn’t a symptom of a neurotic mind; it is part of being human. The question is, how do we work with this instead of trying to be a romantic Jesus by denying what truly goes on?

As Walt Whitman wrote in ‘Song of Myself’ : “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes. ” Most of us recognize this in ourselves to some extent. Part of us wants to relax under the sun, and another part wants to fix up the home and do ‘valuable work’. So how to bring this unity into our lives?

Paradoxically, both within ourselves and in relationships, we always move towards a more loving direction when this contradiction and lack of acceptance is allowed and not resisted. It is by loving that we aren’t all-loving beings that creates the room for it. We’ve all heard that you cannot love another more than you love yourself. What I’m saying is you cannot love anything more than the permission that exists to not love it. This sounds complicated, but isn’t if you think of love as total and unconditional acceptance. It is a totality that includes its opposite.

In relationships, when there is no freedom to not accept parts of the other, then when this occurs (and it will occur, for we are not Buddha yet), it will remain silent and denied. This denial, like all denials, shows up as tension, lack of trust, maintaining an image of what loving behavior is, and so on. That disowned part of Self atrophies. It thinks: ‘If she really saw me for who I am, she’d see I don’t love her for who she is, and therefore she wouldn’t love me because what I profess to be is different from what I am.’

The above two statements occurred for me recently, and I voiced them. The effect was very freeing. By saying ‘I don’t accept ____ about you’, I was in effect saying I don’t love all of you yet, but I want to. Oh, how I did want to – but I wasn’t there yet. It created a space for both of us to be human, warts and all. The paradox again is that without that space, there’s no love anyway.

The problem with romance in our culture is that it is rarely a true and deep connection based on reality and the present moment. It’s a pie in the sky dream. We learn romance from Hollywood movies and high schools, where the ideal of love is more important than any real emotions occurring. It’s more important to strive for that ivory pedestal of an ideal relationship than to bring every bit of one’s Self forward to the relationship.

Unfortunately, there simply is no shortcut to truly loving with our whole being. And yet the paradox is that the love is already there. All the relationships I’ve been in, extremely dysfunctional ones included, have always had that deep love at the core of my being, connecting to their own deep love within them. We all already know about Love if we go deep enough inside ourselves; we’re only learning to bring it up through all the surface personality layers so we can live it.

Love in the sunset It’s even more essential to give ourselves this inner space and freedom. We can think in terms of the law of attraction if we want; we can use affirmations; we can proclaim that we love ourselves unconditionally. But unless there is room for not loving ourselves â???? for the hate, non acceptance and harsh desires to be someone else â???? then there will not be love, for there is no room for it. This is of mindfulness – a space of simply watching what arises naturally, without any attempt for control or change. The essence of mindfulness is spaciousness.

I wrote this on Valentine’s day and it’s traditionally a time for romance. Let’s make it a time for love as well. Welcome all of your Self, and welcome all of whomever you interact with. It’s only when you welcome hatred â???? not to cultivate or flame, but simply in giving it mindful space â???? that we make room for love to work its magic on it. There’s always room for that.

5 08, 2007

seeing suffering in India

August 5th, 2007|emotions, freedom, pain, Travel and Places|Comments Off on seeing suffering in India

I’ve recently had talk with a few people about India and my experiences of being there. It’s been over 10 years ago now since I was there for about 6 months. I arrived without friends, guides or plans – simply bringing a large (but mostly empty) backpack and a guidebook. I saw ancient ruins, ashrams, monasteries, beach resorts, sky-touching mountains and parched deserts. I treked in the Himalayan mountains and river rafted and kayaked down mountain rivers. I saw the extremes of India’s culture, from the poverty, to the spiritual traditions, to the Hindu-Muslim clashes. The experiences from that trip expanded my mind and helped shape my mind to be able to see outside the cultural assumptions we take for granted.

Now one of the most common questions I’ve received over the years has been about the poverty in India. “It must have been so hard to see all the poverty and suffering there!” is something I’ve heard over 100 times.

The answer is of course, paradoxical. The truth is that it felt like an extreme relief. It was a profoundly freeing experience to actually see the suffering that was actually there. Here we avoid this. In the North American culture most of us are in, we do all we can to remove all sights, sounds and impressions that suffering exists. We try to hide homelessness, ignore poverty, and even amongst friends there’s usually a tacit agreement to filter our emotions and sufferings. Showing these in a corporate office is usually taboo. We’re uncomfortable with the emotions that seeing direct pain can bring up. In India, on the other hand, it’s all visible. The leprosy on the street is visible; the millions of people living in shacks with unclean water and no toilets are visible. The simmering rage between Hindus and Muslims is also visible.

(This kind of sight, by the way, is not that uncommon. Leprosy is quite common and visible in many streets)

It’s hard to convey why this is such a relief. But perhaps an analogy is in order. Say two people are in an exclusive relationship and one person cheats. The other person knows (as they usually do), but it hasn’t been brought out in the open. There will be a great tension in all interactions between them, because there is a great pain waiting to come up that they resist. So until it does, there will be a feeling of walking on eggshells, and if it continues, there will often be an entire routine built around avoiding the truth that a broken agreement has taken place. Misery will appear. When and if it actually does become visible, and both parties put all their emotions on the table, there will be a palpable sense of relief; the need for pretense is gone. Both sides can actually reveal their emotions instead of living within emotional castles of thick stone walls.

The truth is that suffering exists. Buddhism starts with this simple statement as the first noble Truth. Our society intellectually knows this, but we push it away emotionally. We say “yes, I know about suffering, I know it’s there, but I don’t want to touch it or be confronted with it”. And yet, when we do actually touch it, our heart opens. We simply can’t act compassionately until we actually touch another’s sufferings. We can’t understand others until we fully listen, and listening means fully allowing them to touch you. This touch involves more than the hospital rubber gloves of analysis; it involves an openness that has the possibility of being overwhelmed for a while. Yet being overwhelmed, as I was in India for some time, develops the heart. Emotional muscles need to work, or they atrophy. Allowing ourselves to be touched, and yes, sometimes hurt, by others’ sufferings lets the full range of the heart come forward.

It was actually more of a shock for me to arrive back in Canada than it was arriving in India. I was presented with all my family patterns of hiding real emotions (similar to most families here), and realized I simply could not go back to the way I was acting before. So over the next few years, I did my best to be visible with what was going on. This caused many upsets in my family, but has immeasurably helped me. My parents may not always feel comfortable with me, but their reaction is based on who I actually am, not a game we play.

I generally recommend being immersed in a similar culture for anyone wishing to see other ways of living. It’s not just India of course; there are many, many other cultures that don’t have the emotional straightjackets we do. An example closer to home might be Italians; in general, they tend to be much more visible with emotions, and if fights break out, so what? It doesn’t mean a lack of love. It can easily be part of it.

5 06, 2007

True Power.

June 5th, 2007|bigness, freedom, positivity, power|1 Comment

If there’s anything that seems to create both longing and repulsion in our society, it’s power. People see it, and are both drawn to it and repulsed by its misuse. Even if we try to avoid power, we cannot avoid it completely. Power is a need as much as breathing and connections are. Without power, we would have no energy, and would only be a husk instead of dynamic beings.

However, the manifestation of power can vary greatly in its degree. Here’s some examples (those of you into Michael will recognize them) :

  • Power from obtaining blind unquestioning obedience from others.
  • Power from learning how to follow “the rules”.
  • Power obtained from positions in society.
  • Power from being an active member in a community and the support that means.
  • Power obtained from knowing yourself.

You can see a progression there. This comes in to what true power means to me:

You know when you have reached a state of true power when your power cannot be taken away.

If you look at the above list, only the last item cannot be taken away. Others can refuse to listen and obey you, rules change, positions can disappear, and communities can undergo upheaval. Jobs can be lost; friends can be offended. As Buddhism teaches : everything in this world is transient.


However, I’m discovering more and more in my life things which are not transient, but are simply intrinsically part of who I am. Here are some things that give me power.

I have the power to not resist.

Though this sounds paradoxical to power, it goes to the root of all suffering. We suffer when we resist whatever experience is happening to us in this moment. Creating division internally by resisting an experience is a form of violence to myself. The knowledge I can choose to not resist anything gives power.

[Note that this doesn’t invalidate or make wrong the choice to resist; sometimes it’s very practical and necessary to say “No” or “Not now.”]

I am open to support in all form

Support is absolutely necessary for power and well-being. No one can experience joy or power in an ivory tower. A baby is perhaps the best example of this, as I’ve mentioned before. They are profoundly open to others support; they attract attention and care through their trust and openness. It is their openness that attracts rather than any active behavior.

It is also powerful for me to be clear what “all forms” means. It means that I simply don’t know what form it will take, and I’m fine with not knowing. It can be from friends. It can be from guides. It can be from the earth under my feet. It can be from the simple sensation of brushing my fingertips against a couch, reminding myself of my aliveness. Being open to all forms requires flexibility, which brings me to the next itemâ???

I can adapt and change

Those who are rigid in their approach to life find themselves in constant battle. The world changes, as it’s designed to do, but they cannot. Therefore there is constant effort to make the world conform to their expectations. If a tragedy occurs, they are devastated. They will exhaust themselves in denial and in futile attempts to move the unmovable mountain.

Some martial arts can be good for learning this; they teach us to use the energy of the other person in an adaptive way, never making more effort than necessary. Some effort is always required, but by being flexible, we minimize it. The Tao Te Ching says it wonderfully :

A man is born gentle and weak.
At his death he is hard and stiff.
Green plants are tender and filled with sap.
At their death they are withered and dry.

Therefore the stiff and unbending is the disciple of death.
The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life.
Thus an army without flexibility never wins a battle.
A tree that is unbending is easily broken.
The hard and strong will fall.
The soft and weak will overcome.

This of course goes directly against the Hollywood ideal of power. Try it on for yourself and see if it works better for you than that!

I have detachment from results

Any attachment to an end result means there is something you want that can be taken away or not reached. This in itself provides fuel for fear. When we derive power from the process of living, instead of the results of our effort, there is nothing that can be taken away from us.

The best example of this is the greek concept of
aretÃ?. (see the link for a full definition) The person with aretÃ? simply lives to their utmost potential, even in the face of hardship and disaster. Their well-being is derived from this sense of excellence in their life. Their actions come not from a place of desiring results, but simply because excellence is who they are. It is a continual, self sustaining source of energy, filled with love of self.

I can speak out and exert influence

This is what most people would think of when it comes to power â???? but note that it came after all of the above. There is no power without the ability to make an influence. However, it is the ability, or potential, that makes the power. It there is a need to make an influence, there is of necessity an attachment and inflexibility. There is also a lack of Love in the behavior, and so it will always create a counter force. If you make influence from a place of complete acceptance and love, there is no additional resistance created. People start listening.

Others’ power adds to my power

This is the final clincher, because at the root of true power is Love. True power is in harmony with others; it rejoices when others gain more power in their own lives. There is no one to compete with, and therefore no fuel for conflict, either externally or internally.

By all means, share your own source of power!