Feeling the Sound: Listening with the Whole Body

Talking Drum (Wikipedia)

I heard Evelyn Glennie’s TED talk “How to Truly Listen” when I did a google search for deafness. In 2013, five years after my husband’s death, my already impaired hearing took a nose dive. A new kind of grief. Glennie’s voice which I could still hear then was confident and vibrant, full of rich tones and cadence. Her speech didn’t hint at deafness, but she had been profoundly deaf since age 12.

When Glennie performed, she was usually barefoot. She talked about feeling rhythm through the soles of her feet and throughout her body.

In 2006, before hearing of Evelyn Glennie or knowing how deaf I would become, I began putting awareness in the soles of my feet as a grounding and calming exercise.  It began with a dream after we learned my husband had incurable cancer. In the dream, I walk down wooden steps in the dark, slowly, one foot at a time, feeling the smooth wood beneath me, not knowing where I was going in the dark, but trusting that my feet knew the way.

While Vic went through chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant, I sat in a chair next to him and placed the soles of my bare feet on his thigh. He knew the dream and understood what I was doing. I was grounding both of us in this hard world of cancer therapy. Many years later, when Meniere’s vertigo became a frequent visitor or when I felt anxiety or fear, I focused on the soles of my feet and took a deep breath. Sometimes many deep breaths.

Before hearing Evelyn Glennie, I hadn’t focused on feeling rhythm in my feet or hearing vibrations with my body. I do now.

Evelyn Glennie (Wikipedia)

Glennie (Dame Glennie since 2007) is a world famous percussionist, Scottish born with a gorgeous lilt. She laughs as she plays and speaks about sound. Her audience listens, captivated. Here’s the base drum sound. Here’s the triangle. Here’s the kettle drum. In our bodies. Vibrating in our feet. Vibrating everywhere

I watched her talk again recently. I need inspiration as I struggle with an increasingly silent world and prepare for a big change after a cochlear implant. The receiver won’t be turned on until mid March, so I have time and changes in hearing can go on for a year after implant . I’ll need to let sound in again after holding it at a self-protective distance for years. I need to let it vibrate throughout my body.

Does it “hear” my pulse?

I don’t expect “natural” hearing or what I used to have. It will always be bionic, even if I can discern words and enjoy music.  Still, I long to know where I am in space. To know where to look when someone calls my name. To hear a person’s words without missing so much and asking for repetition or staring at their mouth. 

It helps to know that no matter what hearing I develop after surgery, I can rely on vibrations. It’s one of the few things I have in common with a Monarch butterfly. They have no hearing organ or ears but feel “sound” vibration through wings and antenna.

Glennie hears with her whole body. She says, “I think of my whole body as an ear.” I think we all do if we notice. The thud when I load the wood stove or the screen door slams.  The vibration as my dog barks to come in. The rhythm of sleet hitting the window.

On the TED talk stage, Glennie was in her element with symbols and sticks and many drums. She didn’t have to decipher human voices there, but I felt she could. She heard through watching eyes, vibrations in her body, sensation on the skin, and through her heart. She heard through her bare feet.

Because I don’t know sign language and neither do my friends, I choose a cochlear implant instead of staying with deafness, but I’ll need help and patient speakers to make this transition. Glennie helps me trust I’ll find a new and rich way to feel the sound.


Do you feel hearing in ways other than your ears? Or other senses such as vision through the fingers (Braille, for example)? Do you think of hearing as an amazing privilege?  I think of Helen Keller learning to listen and speak through feeling the movement of her teacher’s mouth. For other articles about the grief of hearing loss, see I Want to Understand You or Dizzy, Deaf, and Determined

  1. Good vibrations all around here. Love this post of preparation and anticipation.

    Today in my Pilates class, I listened to my body breathe. Because of you, Elaine, and the message of this post, I will focus on the soles of my feet, something I’ve never paid attention to before. Florida is warm right now though in a day or two we’ll have a cool spell. I must experiment with sole power!

    I remember Glennie’s Ted talk, so encouraging for those with hearing loss – or not. Yes, I think of hearing as an amazing privilege, and I do believe I hear in ways other than my ears. I can “feel” suffering in others and am blessed with intuition to discern someone or something evil (or good) approaching me. A gift too! Prayers for the success of your procedure in early February. 🙂

    • You can walk barefoot, Marian! On the beach? It’s a great way for me to feel myself held together by the earth when life feels shaky. I’m here, planted, held up from below. Yes to sole power!

      My feelings are a reliable source of information and I usually trust them. I don’t trust intuition the same way, but then, in Jungian typology, I’m an extroverted feeling type, not an intuitive. It’s challenging to be a deaf extrovert, but I’ve learned to navigate an introverted world by staying extroverted through writing. This cochlear implant experience is a long process. I’ll be glad to have successful surgery behind me, but then a 6 week wait before I’m flooded with odd sound I’ll need to learn to interpret. During that wait, I’ll think about something besides hearing. I promise. I have a few things in mind such as my May workshop in Ohio which I’m already preparing.

  2. This is so beautiful Elaine thank you… walking barefoot on the soil or the ground or the beach is so special, knowing that your feet feel the ground beneath them and that they are there for grounding – and those vibrations from the earth beneath our feet reach us too. I will try to be more aware as I walk.

    Using those self same soles to transmit as you did to Vic’s soul is very moving. Having one’s feet up against another person is very comforting to both giver and receiver.

    I will try to be more aware of my whole body as I go about my day. And to be more aware of the power of vibration … and the sounds, both obvious and silent ..

    I will listen to Evelyn Glennie’s TED talk just now .. thank you for this and special good wishes for your re-introduction to sound –

    • I agree, Susan. I spend more time with bare feet in the summer. Definitely not now. Brrr…. There’s nothing like walking barefoot on a warm sandy beach. That simple act of grounding myself and Vic through my feet calmed us down and made everything easier.

      I often don’t wear my hearing aid because sound is uncomfortable and unpleasant (I may have a second cochlear implant before long), but my dog breaks through the silence with a bark. I have a doorbell that rings but also flashes light. With my hearing aid, I have good and bad days. I never drive or take a walk or leave the house without a hearing aid.

      Evelyn Glennie is inspiring whether we can hear or not. Her FB page is interesting, too. She focuses on percussion for the deaf with incredible enthusiasm and a large following–probably a mix of deaf and hearing.

  3. This is a powerful post, Elaine. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

    Three days ago I visited a dear friend fourteen hours before she died. She was heavily sedated for the pain but the nurse said she could still hear me. As I held her hand with one hand and put the other on her head, my body was filled with all kinds of movement, ebbing and flowing surges of energy everywhere, some very powerful, some more subtle. Some muscles spasmed involuntarily, especially around my mid-section. Other places throbbed and tingled. It was as if my body was processing all the grief and love and gratitude and sorrow it was feeling, while my mind and heart were mostly calm and still. I’ve never experienced that before and still wonder about it.

    Was this simply nature, or was there more going on? Was my body expressing its own unique response to grief and death? Was it sending messages to hers? Was her body sending messages to mine? Were we communing body to body? We we, in effect, hearing and speaking to each other in a way that my brain can’t translate into cognitive meaning? I don’t have any answers. I didn’t notice anything like this when I laid next to my mother as I watched her take her last breaths ten years ago. Or if I did, I don’t remember. Was I less aware of my body then? Or had my mother and I already said all that needed to be said?

    Thank you for widening my awareness of the way my body hears and processes life. It’s a beautiful mystery.

    Blessings on your upcoming surgery.


    • Wow, Jeanie. That’s fascinating. I know hearing is the last sense to leave in most people and that was obvious in Vic. When I whispered that our son had arrived after he’d been unresponsive for more than 24 hours, he opened his eyes and gave Anthony a penetrating gaze–like a transmission–and a hand squeeze. His letting go of life was palpable at that moment. I don’t remember what my body felt except a need to step back a bit and let my son has his time with his dad. I’d had days of holding him. Your experience feels like a potent dream of the Underworld with the body alert to everything. Have you worked with it as a dream? It may be something to wonder about for a long time. Vic’s death was very physical for me, especially in the heart, but more after his death than during his last hours. At that time, I was all hands and listening to the sound of his struggling breath with long pauses. A meditation on breath.

      I can’t answer your questions, of course (and I know yo don’t expect me to). This isn’t an experience I’ve heard about before. So much to imagine and explore. Were you feeling the convulsions of soul leaving body and the body’s response to that? In Tibetan Buddhism, they’re exact about what happens to the body of the dying one and how the energy leaves in the whole body and the senses, but I haven’t read about the body response from someone touching and loving the one who’s dying. Yes, it’s a beautiful mystery. Thank you for your blessings. I think it will be a slow wonderful transition back to my primary function of extroverted feeling. And, as always, we will see.

  4. Dear Elaine, Your words are the music I love to listen too! Thank you for sharing a link for Evelyn’s TED talk, it was so inspiring to listen to her. “To teach the world to listen” what an astonishing vocation in life! And what a heroic journey you’re on with your own listening … hmm, now I know why you resonate with those beautiful Monarch butterflies so much!

    To go barefoot is to be in touch with one’s rhythms! Of course, it’s so obvious, but I’ve never understood why I prefer to walk barefoot until reading your words. I remember spending many months barefoot aged eighteen and reluctantly only putting shoes on when winter came … an odd but true tale! I love walking barefoot on grass too, I feel instantly calmed.

    It sounds as though you’re working with your body and soul in many healing ways for the big change that’s coming next month. I’m in awe of Evelyn’s insight about letting our whole body become that giant ear … it reminds me that when I listen with my heart, I’m filled with joy! I’m going to reflect on this for many days my dear friend. Love and blessings, Deborah.

    • Evelyn Glennie made a big impression on me a few years back, Deborah, and on you, too. She works with deaf people teaching them to feel vibrations and enjoy music and she also plays solos with big international symphony orchestras. What a courageous and directed wild woman. Watching her move is a lesson unto itself. Have your wife show you her Facebook page.

      I love walking barefoot, but my feet are tender from too many years of shoes. It’s easy on a smooth beach or lawn or inside when it’s warm. It’s easy in parts of the yard, but when a friend visited this last summer, I realized how tender the soles of my feet have become. They need more practice.

      I’m prepared for surgery, but there’s a six week wait until the audio receiver goes on to make sure there is no inflammation. That happens March 18 and it’s when the hard work of learning to hear and living a more extroverted life begins. I need lots of patience now because I’m ready to go. Meanwhile, I use the waiting weeks to prepare for the workshop in May on Aging, Grief, and Mythology. I’m revisiting wonderful writing about Hecate from James Hillman (The Dream and the Underworld) and also Demetra George (Mysteries of the Dark Moon). My major work now is weaving together the pieces and I know how to do it and have plenty of time. With that together, I can focus on hearing practice in March. If my hearing is not ready for primetime by May 17-18, I can use the hearing I have right now with a hearing aid in my R ear. Either way, I’ll be fine. Sending you love and light.

  5. Your words are very moving, thank you, Elaine. Since childhood I loved walking barefoot on grass, sand, and pebbles if they’re not too sharp. I treasure tactile contact with water, books, the bark trees, animal fur, textiles … hugs 🙂 even exchange of temperature, when I use my left hand to warm my right hand, which is always slightly colder. So much information is transmitted sans words through the body – our echo chamber.

    I wonder what you make of subtitles you find with some movies … indistinct chatter … wind howling … explaining what is already communicated through the images, which certainly evoke the imagination.

    • Thanks for reflections and good questions. It’s been a challenge to lose hearing, but somehow I get through it in those feeling and sensory ways–from massages to snuggling close to the wood stove to rubbing my dog’s warm furry body every morning (she insists) to reading lips and faces. I learn so much by watching for interesting images and beauty and being aware of body language. In many situations I give up trying to hear, unplug, and focus entirely on vision and touch.

      Subtitles would seem an obvious help, but I don’t like them unless it’s only talking heads. I’d rather read without the images or have images without words. Trying to do both doesn’t work well for me. If I watch a movie (rare for me now), I want to look at the images, not the printed captions (often hard to read or poorly done). If I leave sound on, the background noise feels chaotic. Part of cochlear implant therapy will be to watch more subtitled videos (I imagine watching all the Marion Woodman videos being released these days) and learn to translate the electronic signals into recognizable sounds and words–verified by positive feedback from captions. Apparently the brain catches on quickly and remembers who sound should be. I’ll know by doing. The process unfolds slowly and I won’t be listening with the implant until mid March.

      • It is amazing how our various senses compensate for one that fails. To ease yourself slowly into the use of the implant makes good sense, though it will challenge your patience Best success with the process.
        I understand that you enjoy Marion Woodman’s videos. I do. You were lucky to know her.

        • I imagine it will challenge my patience–and patience with myself is not my strength. The more the implant is used, the more the brain adapts, but adaptation continues for about a year. A bionic adventure. It was an incredible gift to know Marion and do workshops with her. She was a tremendous support during my husband’s illness and after his death. I know so many women who can say the same about her. How did she have time to write all those personal letters?

  6. I will admit to feeling a helplessness in the face of this challenge you have been facing, Elaine. Mainly because I know so little about it and what the possible “remedies” might entail. I am so relieved you have settled on a course, come what may. I love the idea that our whole body is an “ear” because it rings so very true. “Hearing” is only partially a function of audible sound; so much has to do with vibration and intention and yes, grounding. I send love and blessing for a successful endeavor and I will be thinking of you and cheering you on every (barefoot) step! xo

    • I admit to being helpless, too, Kara. No one in my family or close friends have had profound hearing loss much less all the inner ear balance chaos that comes with Meniere’s. It still amazes me that this is my body, my sturdy body going a little nuts. I’ve tried every alternative approach since the beginning of hearing loss in the 1990s and know that world well. There’s little risk with the implant because it’s in the completely deaf ear. I’m in contact with many people who’ve had implants and have yet to meet anyone who wasn’t glad they went for it. I would have done this earlier but didn’t qualify until I had 100% loss in one ear and that was in the last 6 months. I hope to remember all those grounding feet just before surgery. Maybe a mental image of a circle of women with bare feet, including me, feeling the healing vibrations through their soles/souls.

  7. I am now in the early stages of deafness, Elaine, and I truly treasure the hearing ability I still have. As a visual artist, I’ve always felt my sight would be the worst thing to lose, but hearing comes next. I’m glad you’re getting the implants and hope that they allow you to “hear” in all the ways you desire. In the meantime, why not through the soles of your feet?

    • I’m sorry you’re losing hearing, Lynne, but hearing loss is rarely as wild a ride as Meniere’s. I LOVED my hearing aids for many years and they worked well. Even though I’m not a visual artist, I agree sight would be the hardest. For one thing, I can completely take care of myself which isn’t true with blindness. I don’t know what the new hearing will be like, but people and doctors report that the brain adapts quickly. I know it’s more tiring than “normal” hearing, but the receiver can be turned on for rest. And again, we adapt. Meanwhile, the soles of my feet, but it’s too cold for barefoot even in the house. Even after I hear again, I’ll still bring focus to the soles of my feet–an odd centering practice, but it works for me. I’m grateful for the dream that showed the way.

  8. I remember seeing the documentary “Touch the Sound” a number of years ago and being spellbound. I just watched her TED talk, thanks to the link you posted, and felt the same way all over again.

    What you wrote about the inner ear balance chaos that comes with Meniere’s and that “it still amazes me that this is my body, my sturdy body going a little nuts” resonated with me and what it’s like to live with an illness that is so destabilizing. (Interesting that resonance relates to both inner and outer worlds.) Your practice of bringing focus to the soles of your feet is one I will begin. Just as I wrote that, I took my socks off and felt grateful for the grounding that is always available. Thank you, Elaine.

    • Evelyn Glennie is an inspiration, isn’t she? I wonder if she ever wakes up in the morning and says, “I can’t do this one more day.” I imagine she does.

      I had never heard of Meniere’s or vestibular disease, so all this came as a huge surprise. As you might imagine, I spent years looking for the psychological trigger(s), but never found them. It didn’t begin until 5 years after Vic’s death and I was creating a new life by then. So another challenge and another grief. I have good days and bad days. Is it the weather? Is it what I ate? Is it my bad attitude? When I first got a Meniere’s diagnosis, patients on various websites complained endlessly about how unpredictable it was. I understand now. Fortunately, with the help of small doses of 2 medications (I was able to eliminate a third recently), I’m doing well with balance issues and haven’t had to increase medication again. New challenges are coming soon. Feel those grounded feet beneath me. I hope you are well and grounded.

  9. I shudder when I hear of your struggles, Elaine, but heartened by the open way you face these frightening health issues. I hope the operation proves successful. I was touched also by the idea of hearing with your feet. In my martial arts practice, we practice barefoot. To center ourself, we grab the earth with our toes. You are coming to the same discovery. The act of gripping the earth with our toes or putting attention and pressure downwards, wakes up awareness. So, I hope your good days start to greatly out number the bad and you can hear the world. You bring so much to it.

    • Thank you, Ira. It’s been a rocky ride, but I’ve refused to give my life over to these symptoms. It’s needed a warrior spirit not long after I was deflated by Vic’s death. I’m grateful my dream helped me understand how to feel grounded in any situation and that I worked on it with a skilled dream therapist Robert Bosnak who focused on bringing the image into body rather than interpreting it. In the mid 1960s, I practiced judo. I imagine that was part of what I learned then, but I hadn’t remembered. I have high hopes for this implant. I talk to many people and the procedure transformed their life. I have yet to find someone who hates what happened. Effort will be needed, but I’m good at making effort if I know what’s needed. Here’s to hearing and balance and less communication stress.

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