Listening Shells: A Story within A Story


Listening: A Story within Story

In 1983 I was on retreat in the Canadian wilderness on 500 beautiful acres of land, part of a small group of people doing yoga, enjoying meditative walks, and participating in a variety of workshops.  A sweat-lodge  had also been arranged by two First Nations men, Native elders who would run the ceremony. I was interested in attending, it would be my first. I was a little nervous, and also unsure because of an injury.

I hesitated was because my arm was in a cast. I’d broken my elbow after a fall from my bike just days prior to the retreat. I expressed my concern, wondering if it would be better to wait until a time when my arm was fully healed and out of the cast. — I was assured I would be safe in the sweat-lodge. I was told the ceremony might even help speed the healing process. I gathered my courage and decided to enter when it was time to begin.


While preparations were underway our group gathered together for discussion and story-telling. I noticed that one of the facilitators was an earring made from seashells and that he had also placed a large shell on the ground by the sweat-lodge door. I asked about the shells. He told us this story. 


Listening Specialist

There once was a time when the counselor-healers of a tribe would hang a seashell outside their lodge door. The shell served as an invitation in the same way the Open for Business sign indicates when a store is open. The seashell signaled that the ‘listening doctor’ was available. Anyone with a concern could speak in private with the listener day or night, as long as the shell was visible.


I loved the story and the way it represents a symbol of listening, a compassionate way for people to express themselves. In my own work I witness the transformative power of deep listening many time. 







The seashell is an archetypal symbol for listening. Think about the familiar image of holding a seashell close to the ear to hear the sounds of the ocean.


If held just slightly above the ear the shell captures noise, the size and shape of the shell has some effect on the sound heard with different shells amplifying different frequencies. The large spiral conch shells are the best for producing the sound called the ocean sound. These same shells have also been used as a horn to produce a trumpet sound, a call to alert people when there is a need, and used in ceremony too..





To speak about personal problems in a safe atmosphere, without fear of judgment from the listener, is a form of medicine that can ease distress and support healing.

For example military vets who talk about war trauma and combat experiences in groups report that it is helpful to them. When a person is allowed to safely share their story with a receptive listener, whatever their experience might be — of shame, trauma, sorrow, or regret — healing can occur.


Heart-to-heart listening is medicine for the soul.


Broken Arm in a Sweat-lodge

 I did participate in the sweat lodge. My experience in the ceremony was memorable to this day. Inside the lodge with its intense heat and utter darkness I felt something powerful around me and inside of me. Despite the darkness I felt as if I had encounters with images, sounds, and sensations. I came out of the experience with greater clarity and direction about what to do with my life.

It was the beginning of a long cycle of remarkable experiences. More ceremonies followed, years of study, cross-cultural teachings, travel adventures, and integral developments that enhanced my personal and professional life.


As far as my broken arm, an interesting happened. It had only been about 10-days since my initial emergency visit to the hospital when I returned to see the doctor to check on my arm. The doctor needed to remove the cast to examine my elbow he said. While removing the coverings he was saying I would need a few more weeks in a cast and he was sorry to say I would never be able to open my arm fully…  

The expression on his face was priceless when my arm floated out into full extension. “This is a curious mystery, I don’t understand how this can be possible.”  He said.  I don’t for sure what did it, but I do know I had just come from the healing retreat and the sweat-lodge and they seemed to have helped. Plus, I had worked with natural remedies, nutrients known to speed bone and tissue repair.


Healing is all too often a mystery. Why is it that for some people results come quickly, while for others it is more of a challenge?

No matter the speed or success of healing, what remains constant is the power of compassionate listening as a foundational source of soothing comfort.







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