The sounds of silence
It is a conversation of deep silence. If silence can have a sound, it is here, in the bowls, rhapsodises Shameem Akthar, on the magic of singing bowls
I have been collecting singing bowls since I first stumbled upon one at a Goan flea market a decade ago. I picked it up then, naively, for its black polish and its etching of om mani padme hum (the Buddhist mantra in Pali). It was an inexpensive piece. Then, I bought a more stolid and plain one at a Nepali shop in South Mumbai. The morose owner was kind enough to show me how to stroke the bowl, and create a humming sound. Then again, at the Lemon Grass restaurant in Bandra, I came across the bowls – kept more as showpieces and ethnic holders of your bill. But the waiter there showed me how to hold the bowl and stroke it to coax a deep hum.
Since then I have been fascinated with the sound that comes from the bowls. Each bowl has a different timbre, but whatever its tone, the mood is one of meditation – an elongated om that rolls on and on. Its sound depends entirely on the confidence of your hands – how you hold them, a delicate balance between gentle and strong – and how meditative and involved you can be as you strike it.
So when I decided to go to Nepal, I planned it around learning to play the bowl. I was lucky to be able to locate a centre (The Kathmandu Healing Center, Nepal), contact: Sabin Thapa, firstname.lastname@example.org), which was organising classes with the internationally well-known teacher Shree Krishna Shahi.
There are different techniques and different approaches to bowl playing. I learnt, fortunately, to play the seven bowls to harmonize the chakra. So, that is the experience I will be discussing below.
I was my teacher’s sole student so I was still not sure how it would impact those receiving this “chakra massage”. The most amazing thing, I realised, was that by the time I was into a few rounds of the bowl playing, which is to say a few minutes into a 20- or 30-minute ‘massage’, many of the receivers had gone into a deep state of relaxation. So deep that some were actually snoring. This despite the depth and rumble of the bowls. Something about the vibration was tuning the brain’s nervous activity and creating a deep, deep state of relaxation as with healing meditation or actual physical massages like the Shiatsu, Thai Yoga, or Reflexology.
If the person had an ailment or an emotional problem, the relaxation was even more intense. You did not need any external gauge to see it: some were actually snoring, some began to breathe rather deeply from the belly, and the breath just became more deep. Also, at the end of the session, many had so relaxed that you had to tap them lightly at the feet, to indicate that the session was over. They‘woke’ from that, as if from a very deep sleep. This was exciting, because as a yoga instructor, I have also noticed that yoga nidra can have a similar impact on those who are highly stressed, emotionally disturbed, or suffering a chronic physical problem.
The ‘massage’ was done by striking the bowls in traditional sequence that harmonised the chakra. I have since collected several books on the topic, and realise that there are many schools with many sequences. To add to this potpourri, since the ‘60s hippie culture and the corresponding transfer of Eastern techniques in the West, the West has been more excited about the singing bowls, and has added its own musical and meditation experiences to the techniques. So, the practice seems to be growing, where once it was stagnant and relegated to a few tribal traditions of the South-East part of the Asian continent. Plus, each country has its own type of bowls, different materials (for instance crystal bowls are more popular in Japan) and gongs and cymbals that all add more to the learning experience. As far as traditions go, there is not much information on the topic, except that it possibly pre-dates Buddhist culture, which later adopted it vigorously.
The sound of the void
I sit every day with my bowls. For me the pure soulful sound that comes from them, is deeply meditative. As is famously described, the bowls contain the sound of the void. Each of the bowls has a dominant note (which, today, is notified by the seven Western notes). They are said to contain the seven metals (including gold and mercury). The sound shimmers and dances also between different notes, depending on where you strike it. But the fascination for the experienced meditator with the bowls lies in immersing one’s attention in the overtones that roll out. In fact, if your ears are tuned to this well enough, you can easily locate the bowls by the overtones, which are soft sounds that glimmer like shy brides behind teasing veils. When the mind settles into these overtones and chases them, the meditative impact becomes deeper and more exciting. It is a complete meditation. The movement of the mind has to be observed first, then stopped, to be able to stay with these overtones. That is when the altered state of consciousness happens, as in any deep meditation. Here, because the senses are totally alert, yet rested and relaxed, the brain wave pattern shifts from the beta (normal, nervous movement of the brainwave) to the alpha state (relaxed, alert meditative state). This is the special aspect of the singing bowl meditation.
However, for one receiving the massage, this aspect may work or not, depending on whether the person is a meditator. However, whether it does or not is irrelevant. The vibration of the bowls –placed close and so as to align with each chakra – actually triggers a synchronising vibration in the corresponding chakra and the body part/gland, initiating a deep healing relaxation. This is what makes the bowls healing tools. Though science is still trying to decipher this, vibrational medicine will tell you that since our body is mostly water, it can react to vibration around (which explains why a polluted or a negative environmental condition can make us ill, however strong and robust we are otherwise) and synchronise to what is immediately next to it. Furthermore, at the quantum level, where we are all interconnected, it is no surprise that the bowls’ vibration can affect us so deeply.
But when my teacher, Shree Krishna Shahi, discusses the bowls, he does not need to explain their impact scientifically. He talks of the bowls lyrically, and that is the only way perhaps to approach the magic of this beautiful tradition. The bowls have to connect with the one who strikes them. You must allow the bowls to talk, as Shree would say.
There are two aspects of the bowl. In the first instance, they are healing vibrational massage tools, that cleanse the aura and balance the chakras. However, it is their second aspect that will captivate you, and draw you back repeatedly: in the magical sounds, shimmers the sound of the void. When you relate to them, they are more than healing. They are intimate meditative tools. It is a conversation of deep silence. If silence can have a sound, it is here, in the bowls.
I find that if I do not play the bowls for a while, they will not respond with an immediate leap of vibration, when the gong strokes them. They are live, for me. They contain the sound and timbre and vibration of the void. They can lead the mind to this, and remove the fear that the void has for many of us.