A boombox. A pile of tapes and CDs. A comfortable chair, a car or airplane seat, a beach hammock. Hardly, it might seem, the ingredients for so serious an endeavor as "soulmaking." Yet many seekers today are finding that spoken-word audios are just what they need on their spiritual journeys.

Many of us grew up listening to the radio or hearing stories read aloud. In community rituals and worship services, spoken words are still central to the experience — whether in the form of readings from sacred texts, poetry, meditations, sermons, or prayers. Spoken words can be intimate and personal. They are also surprisingly communal, linking us to others who have heard the same words in this and earlier times. Spoken words stir the senses and fuel our dreams. They can be invaluable spiritual teachers in that process of inner and outer work called soulmaking.

Today an incredible array of spoken words are available on CD and audiocassette. We can listen to the sacred texts of all religious traditions. We can groom our spirits with seminars by today's most gifted writers and workshop leaders. We can dwell inside the texts of best-selling books and ride the rollercoaster of our imagination as we are energized by poets, novelists, essayists, and short story writers.

Best of all, this bounty is readily accessible. Spoken word audios have become a staple in the publishing industry.

The Oral Tradition

"What we are doing," says Michael Toms of New Dimensions Radio, "is carrying on the oral tradition which humanity has learned from for millennia." Toms is the host of a series of radio interviews, available on tape and CD, with today's innovative thinkers, creative artists, spiritual teachers, and visionaries. "Instead of sitting around the campfire telling stories," Toms continues, "we are sitting around a spray of microphones telling stories."

The oral transmission of ideas is not the same as the written word, according to Jacob Needleman, another pioneer in the spoken-word field who has put out tapes of spiritual classics. He observes: "To hear someone read a sacred text is not the same as to read it. When you hear a piece, it goes right into your heart because you give it attention in a way that is not your usual approach. The voice of a person has a different quality that can make something much more humanly resonant."

Listening to an author read his or her work adds a personal dimension to the experience; often you hear an emphasis from the writer that you would not have considered. The drama of many other audio books is heightened by the fact that so many accomplished actors are now narrating them. Every genre is available in this format — novels, short stories, essays, biographies, dramatizations, poetry, nonfiction, and self-help manuals. Interview, seminar, and workshop tapes recorded live have an aura of their own: they bring listeners into a communal experience while also encouraging them to embark on an interior journey.

Is is perhaps this last aspect of CDs and tapes that is the most exciting. By their very nature, they take us inward. "To listen with an ear turned inward to your experience is a form of prayer," notes Tami Simon, publisher of the Sounds True catalog, in a recent edition. "It is a celebration of inner life. The true value [of recordings] lies in their ability to activate your imagination, to elicit new thoughts, new perspectives, new ways of being. Real discovery takes place when you listen between the words — when you listen to yourself." This activity is also the essence of soulmaking.

Setting Up an Audio Soul School

Spoken-word CDs and tapes can become the core curriculum for your soulmaking efforts — call it a "soul school." You can learn from teachers of many eras and disciplines. The subject, invariably, will be your own life but spoken words will give the exploration a wide-ranging and thought-provoking context. Here are some things to keep in mind as you set up your soul school.

Creating a Space

Audios are enjoyed in a variety of settings. People listen to them while gardening, cleaning, sewing, walking the dog, or driving to work. But as Francis Bacon observed about books, "Some are to be tasted, others are to be swallowed, and some few are to be chewed and digested." This is also true of spoken-word audios. Some cannot be fully digested as you are riding your exercise bike or doing the dishes. Although some readers and speakers will seem like friends you can invite into your kitchen while you are making dinner, others will require your undivided attention if you are really to hear their messages.

The audio experience often needs its own space. Some of your richest sessions will take place on plane, train, or bus trips where you can listen with your eyes closed. Keep a mask with your player for such occasions.

Finding Audios

Build your own personal listening library. Organize CDs and tapes into categories so that you can find them easily when you want to hear them again.

Audios can be purchased in most bookstores, ordered through catalogue companies, obtained from the publishers, or ordered online. Some companies now carry unabridged recorded books, and due to the length of these performances, offer the option of rental as well as purchase.

If your budget is limited, check out the public library and the libraries of local organizations, colleges, and churches. Many have fine audio collections. Friends may also be a good source of CDs and tapes.

Enhancing the Audio Experience

The impact of words is often influenced by our approach to them. Listen to a story expecting to be amused, and you will hear the funny parts. Attend the same story with the intent to discover meaning, and you may have an entirely different sense of it. Try these suggestions to enhance your audio experiences:

• Create a regular oasis in time to listen to audios. Eliminate distractions and regard the experience as contemplation.

• Press the play button on the player and feel the listening space within you grow. Relax and go with the rhythm of the spoken words.

• Listen with a lover's ear, leaning to hear each phrase, treasuring every moment, holding on to all the significances.

• Harvest what you hear. Some spoken-word audios are excellent teaching texts, so be prepared in case you want to take notes while you listen.

• Consider soulmaking via audio as a sacred activity, beginning and ending with prayer.

• Keep a list of audio soul friends in your journal, along with brief reflections on their words. Visit them again when you need inspiration.

• Keep the gift moving. Pass on some of your most cherished spoken-word audios to friends or family members.

Choosing a Path

There are many different "courses" to take at your audio soul school. Here are some we recommend:

• Study today's spiritual renaissance by keeping up with new developments in culture and consciousness.

• Become a scholar of ancient spiritual wisdom. Track down texts and transport yourself to the past.

• Familiarize yourself with spiritual works from the world's great religions. Try to delineate core messages.

• Spend an evening listening to poetry. Turn out all the lights and let the words and images dwell in you.

• Host a salon each weekend featuring audio lectures by your favorite authors.

• Do some personal soul-searching with audios on the past, feelings, and the shadow.

• Share an audio on relationships with your mate or significant other.

• Listen to all the works on audio by your favorite writer.

• Savor the nuances of novels by hearing them read to you by the authors.

• Learn more about how you can be a caretaker in the world from speakers with an affinity for a place.

• Notice examples of everyday spirituality as you listen to essays read by spiritual writers.

• Check out audios by men and women who have positive things to say about aging and spiritual eldering.

• Spark your idealism by listening to audios on social problems or ones that emphasize service to others.

• Cultivate hospitality by selecting seminars on audios which might not initially interest you.

• Study the saints by hearing accounts of how they handled mission, challenge, and devotion.

• Exercise your imagination with audios on creativity and intuition.

• Stimulate your spirit with tapes about how to deepen and enrich your spiritual practice.

• Find moral mentors who can stir your soul and move you to do the right thing.