Reading used to be a social activity, not something we did silently to ourselves. For thousands of years, we shared the news of the day around a crowded dinner table or a bar, and stories were told aloud after tea and chores. Perhaps now is a good time to revive the art of reading aloud as a form of connection and community.
Interestingly, perhaps because of the vast span of historical time when reading also meant experiencing sound, even when we are reading silently to ourselves it turns out we’re still “hearing.” When we’re settled into our favorite book, or armed with our paper on the train (indeed, as you’re reading these words to yourself right now), auditory processing areas light up in our brains.
Today, it’s not unusual to attend a mindfulness retreat and hear someone read a passage aloud. Reading aloud and listening to someone read aloud can be a great way to tune in to the present moment and bring our mindfulness practice to life. And while there’s also evidence that reading aloud can improve comprehension and memory, it is simply a wonderful opportunity to be present with friends and family.
To use reading aloud as a kind of mindfulness practice, we should remember that mindfulness is about awakening to the moment.
Elaine Smookler, a performer, singer, psychotherapist, and mindfulness teacher (and regular Mindful columnist), suggests that to use reading aloud as a kind of mindfulness practice, we should remember that mindfulness is about awakening to the moment.
“Mindfulness is about engagement,” says Smookler. If we’re reading but not necessarily connecting with the other person, or we’re trying to make ourselves sound a certain way, we can easily slip into automatic pilot. “But, if we can courageously stand on the precipice of opening up a book, take a few breaths, and enter into sharing with another person—staying close to the intention of being present—reading aloud can be a powerful instrument of connection.”
How Reading Aloud Can Be a Mindfulness Practice
1. Start Small
Just as you start meditating in shorter bouts that became longer over time, give yourself permission here to do the same. Books of short fiction, poetry, and essays are great for reading aloud. You might start with a two-person reading practice, one-on-one with a partner. Depending on the person, it could be a lovely nighttime wind-down ritual. Take turns reading, so that you can spend time with the intimate experience of being read to as well as the way that reading the words out loud makes you feel and see images differently.
2. Surprise Yourself
Remember that the idea is to be engaged in the moment, to allow ourselves to be surprised and shaken out of the routine of our own habits of mind. “So, if we are engaged, we might read it one way today and another way tomorrow. If we’re reading the same way every day then we’ve already lost track of the intention of mindfulness, which is to be present in the moment,” says Smookler.
4. Play, Don’t Rush
The goal is not to get to the end of the story but to experience it fully. Feel the way your breath shapes the words. Don’t be afraid to laugh; don’t be afraid to weep; to stop and ask questions, and to say, “Again!” as a child would after their favorite story ends for yet another time, only a moment later to begin anew. Smookler suggests that no matter how you approach it, don’t let it be about falling in love with the sound of your voice, or negatively judging how you sound, even if it’s a “squeak.”
5. Encourage Others
In our modern book clubs, we all commit to reading the same book together—yet we do the reading part alone. If you’re already part of a book club, you might suggest reading the first few chapters of the next book together, even if you meet virtually. Encourage people to take notes about their favorite passages or ideas as someone reads, or to close their eyes and simply take it in. When the chapter is over, if you’ve found a particularly beautiful or insightful line, have someone repeat it and then have a silent meditation for two minutes to reflect. Then share.
6. Read Aloud Alone
Reading aloud can also be a way to spend some quality time alone connecting with the voice and mind of a beloved author, rather than scrolling through social media feeds. Pick a favorite book, a favorite speech, monologue, lesson, essay, or poem. Can you feel the voice of the author or character as you read aloud? Does it help you connect to them in a different way?
7. Memorize a Favorite Poem or Prose Passage
Embodying a piece of writing, out loud, without reading, offers a unique way to connect with the present moment. Once memorized, those words will always be with you, just like your breath is.