The Art of Deep Listening

by ISC President Kiran Singh Sirah

As we make our final preparations for the National Storytelling Festival, I’ve been thinking about listening. The late storyteller Kathryn Tucker Windham, one of the matriarchs of the Festival, liked to say that storytelling teaches us to listen. Stories can’t exist without at least one listener, after all. One of the things I enjoy most about the event is the sheer spectacle of an audience sitting in rapt attention as a single storyteller works. The modern world, with its constant demands on our attention, doesn’t offer many such opportunities these days.

Kiran Sirah and Daniel Kish
Kiran and Daniel, in Tennessee

I have learned so much about the art of listening from my friend Daniel Kish. Blind from early childhood, he’s a world expert on echolocation, the process that animals including bats, dolphins, and now humans can use to locate objects by sound. Daniel is famous for developing a technique that uses tongue clicks to produce sounds as a way to “see” and understand an environment. (One expert has described the technique as an “acoustic flashlight.”) Over the years, Daniel has trained both blind and seeing people on his methods.

In a sense, what Daniel is doing is helping people remove their fear of the dark, both literally and metaphorically. He once told me that he likes to begin the training process by “neutralizing fear of the dark unknown.” He wrote, “We essentially remove fear from ourselves and our lives. Life then becomes an intriguing tapestry of puzzles, adventures, and discoveries.”

Many of Daniel’s observations over the years have resonated with me, in part because I know that storytelling contains information that help us navigate and understand the world around us. It’s human nature to fear the unknown, and it can be helpful to have a guide. For blind people, of course, those fears are quite tangible, since the unknown can be present immediate physical danger. Daniel once described echolocation to me as “establishing the knowns within the unknowns, something like navigating by the stars. You chart your way by establishing points of reference, a bit like making it into a story.” Listening can help all of us navigate unfamiliar and even scary situations.

The parallels between Daniel’s work and storytelling have been even more clear to me when he has discussed other methods of navigating unfamiliar environments. Here’s Daniel again, on working with sighted guides during travel:

Blind people typically engage sighted guides to facilitate their safe, effective, and graceful navigation through, interaction with, and understanding of their environment. Insofar as the guiding process necessitates physically guiding the movements of a blind person, it also requires narrative descriptions. Much as a hearing interpreter helps a deaf person interact primarily with the social environment through the interpretation of spoken language, a sighted guide helps a blind person interact primarily with the physical environment by interpreting visual elements through narratives as well as physical guidance.

These narratives aren’t just expository verbiage landing on a blind person’s consciousness like some podcast or radio channel streaming. These narratives are actively captured and processed through what I call a “comprehension matrix,” and ultimately formed into images. In essence, they are coded in the brain as stories, or elements that comprise stories, and rich in substance, character, and information. For a blind person, these narrative stories and story elements help to establish a blind person’s mental construct of the world around them and their relationship to it. For a blind person, physical guidance is typically the key to their interaction with the world, but it’s the narratives and rich exchanges that are the key to a blind person’s understanding.

Though Daniel and I initially met a conference where he participated in a workshop I was leading (and I attended one of his talks), we have since become very good friends. He lives across the country, in Long Beach, California, and we occasionally use FaceTime to have long conversations. We were pandemic buddies, which paved the way for his special visit to the International Storytelling Center’s headquarters in Jonesborough last year. He stayed with me for a week, during which I got to introduce him to our region’s BBQ, my favorite walks and hikes, and my family. Daniel also met with my team and some invited colleagues to discuss his work and share his thoughts and ideas about storytelling.

When he was here, I shared with him the three different routes I take when I commute to work. There’s one that I use when I’m in a hurry, and one that’s good for when I have a bit more time. Finally, there’s the much longer one, my favorite, which winds along country rural roads with no traffic. Daniel encouraged me to try a sort of driving meditation, where I aim to notice something new or surprising on the route. It’s a way to develop focus and pay attention by using sight and sounds. This practice is something I’ve kept up. I know I’m not doing it when my mind is preoccupied or too busy, so the goal is always to get back to paying attention again and remain present in the moment.

Daniel also introduced me to the idea of soundscapes and how they change over time: the sounds of the wind, leaves falling from trees, and noises from humans or animals or cars. We can hear the subtle shifts when we pay close attention. When we went on one of my favorite hikes, along the Appalachian Trail beside Watauga Lake, Daniel helped me notice more of this audio input based on the natural amphitheater that our trail had beside this lake, in the Fall.

Via email, Daniel has shared with me some sound clips of various activities of real-time recordings of chirping birds that he made. I was amazed by how he could describe their movement and the physical location of houses by listening to the sounds that the birds were making.

One time, a bird made its way into his house on accident. He could hear the sound of the bird panicking because it didn’t know how to get out. As it flew back and forth across his living room, he could hear other birds outside, moving in parallel. Daniel said that, as he opened the back door to let the trapped bird out, he noticed a sound from a small flock, like a call and response to help guide the lost bird to the exit.  In another clip, he shared the sounds of some ravens, and described how they moved from tree to tree, how to distinguish between males and females, and the sizes of each. I started making my own recordings of soundscapes, like the bird noise near my dad’s house in England, the sound of coffee percolating, and the sizzle of onions and cumin seeds roasting in my cast iron pan. With thanks to Daniel, I have realized that is actually one of my favorite sounds.

Deep listening is not just a source of information, but also of wonder. Daniel once told me about a time he decided to climb a tree when he was a boy. No one had told him that the sky was far away, so he wanted to try to touch it. As he got further up, it dawned on him that the sky was out of reach. In the branches, listening to the sounds from the ground and across the fields, was when he discovered his love for soundscapes.

For everyone joining us at the National Storytelling Festival, I invite you to join me in practicing the art of these many types of listening: to feel informed, to light dark paths, and to inspire wonder and awe.