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It had been 15 years since I’d been to Nepal. As a result our buy-out of my former partner, our supply chain had broken down on so many fronts: malas, tingshaw, Ghanta & Dorje, gongs: we had run out of most of these items in the past year. And although I managed to find antique bowls, it always meant pulling a numerous reproductions into the net as well. So our supply chain had to be repaired. It was ambitious to the point of crazy, really. How was I to pack a three-week buying trip to Nepal into just nine days? That, in a country itself still in repair after the horrific earthquakes of April and May of this year. Still, nine days, plus the onerous travel time on either end, was all I could be away. So it had to work.
But as it turned out, the upheaval from the earthquakes was only the beginning. After a decade or longer of political infighting, On September 20th, Nepal formally adopted a constitution; its first, following a civil war that killed 13,000 people and ending 239 years of monarch rule. But it was not to be a unifying event that we had hoped. The Madhesi people of the southern plains, on Nepal’s border with India, complained of becoming “second class citizens”, and protested that the constitution diluted their vote. Almost everyone I talked to had a different understanding of the Madhesi situation, but protests became violent almost immediately gave rise to paralyzing strikes and 40 deaths. Violence broke out in Western Nepal, also for the charge of under-representation. The constitution created a second class citizenship level for children born of Nepalese mothers and foreign fathers. Some called the constitution a “conservative backlash”.
Then India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modri, spoke out against it, which created an uproar in Nepal and the great fuel crisis began. India, surrounding Nepal on three borders, closed their borders, and as Nepal was reliant for fuel from India, cars had no petrol; restaurants lacked cooking oil. The Nepali government rationed petrol to keep government and tourism vehicles running, but petrol sales to private vehicles slowed to a trickle. This created long lines of vehicles parked in the roads extending for blocks, some waiting for gas for two days. A competitor called me and asked it I was going to cancel my ticket. “Jimmy Carter canceled,” he said. “I’m not Jimmy Carter,” I observed. I had to go. Canceling my ticket wasn’t an option, so off I went on my first buying trip to Nepal in 15 years in the middle of an unprecedented fuel crisis.
But the Nepalese are an endlessly resourceful people. As there were no taxis, I hired a driver to get around who procured
gas from the black market. So much had changed in Kathmandu. The air was clogged with pollution. Where once platoons of bicycles were the Nepali middle class mode of transport, now armies of motorbikes choked the streets; entire families often sandwiched together on them. Nearly everyone wore masks, respiratory illness was rampant. In addition to the gas shortage, restaurants taped limited selections to their menus due to lack of cooking oil. Getting milk was a problem, so I never knew if Chai would be served. So this was not the Nepal I remembered.
In Thamel, the tourist section of Kathmandu, my perch at the Kathmandu Guest House was an oasis. The first hotel in Thamel, it had a huge, manicured garden trimmed with pots of bright marigolds and dotted with garlanded statues of the Buddha. My nine day visit coincided with Navarati; (meaning nine nights) a holiday commemorating the triumph of the Goddess Durga over the evil demon Mahishasura. The Autumnal Navaratri precedes Nepal’s biggest festival, Deshain (meaning 10th day), when the country sacrificed goats and went back to the villages to celebrate the festival with their families. My goal was to be out of the country before the bloodletting began. I booked full days with my singing bowl suppliers, while trying to carve out time to locate the vendors of incense and mala beads, and to hopefully connect with Seejan’s family, as well as do a little pilgrimage to Pashupatinath.
As I’d heard from my suppliers many of the small Tibetan dealers where we used to buy the findings for our malas were breaking early for the holidays due to the gas shortage. So on the day after I arrived, I set off with a Nepali friend to go to Boudhanath Stupa to try to find a Mala supplier I had not seen in 15 years. The Stoupa had suffered damage on its dome, and I was crestfallen to see the dome completely barren – its brick steeple and been removed, and the aerial array of prayer flags missing from the empty sky above.
The smooth, polished Bodhi seed malas we got from dealers 15 years ago were abundant – we used to sell them wholesale. Now shops and alleyways were overstuffed with garlands of malas with huge, course Bodhi seeds, and there was no evidence anywhere of our old quality. We spent the afternoon flitting from shop to shop with samples, until, until we found one shop with one, lone mala of the smallest, smoothest Bodhi seeds I had seen in years. The young man behind the counter wanted a ransom for it, and it took us a little while to put it together, but he was in fact the son of our former supplier – in a new location. Once we were reacquainted, he combed his displays and pulled out some beads of our old quality – the last in stock he had.
Fifteen years ago, we had to go through rooms of antique bowls to find the good ones. Now, I had to go through a warehouse of singing bowl reproductions – tens of thousands of them – just to find the real antiques, good or bad. All of our suppliers had tons of this material – all of which, they insisted was “old”. Some of it was, but the great majority of it was new. It was remarkable how beautifully crafted so much of it was. Still, one supplier had been holding rare material for me for some months’ time. When I got into the room with the material, a reverential feeling came over me. I had never seen so much rare material in one place. My only limitations were time and budget, although I pushed the envelope on both. Then, The next push was to get it out before the city shut down. I had so much competent help from my supplier’s workers! I kept them working late until the Nepali equivalent of Christmas Eve.
On my one morning off, I paid a visit to Seejan in his village to see his Mother-in-law’s house and to meet his family. Although his wife was doing Puja at their temple for Navaratri, I was able to connect with his daughter Ritisha, (9), and his son Yunish (6), and bring his mother-in-law a coconut from Pashupatinath. The countryside was rebuilding, but Seejan’s mother-in-law’s house was cobbled together by stacked bricks on a dirt floor. They are still trying to amass enough funds to rebuild. To rebuild a home in Nepal takes $3,000 – $5,000; they still have $2,500 to raise. If you would like to help Seejan and his family rebuild, please donate to email@example.com and write “Seejan” in your notes.
Spring has come to Bodhisattva. Our patio is a walking tour of intoxicating scents. Upon entering our gate, one is flanked on one side by a flowering Meyer Lemon tree and on the other, an out of control Pink Jasmine vine; across the patio, an exuberant, white-blossomed Pittisporum tree – all blooming at once. Outside my office window at the rear of the building, there is a small, potted Ficus tree whose sole function is to add some green to the view. In it, my gardener discovered a nest with two baby Hummingbirds.
Their Ruby-throated mother is a frequent visitor to the Hummingbird feeder outside the office entrance. She swoops in to have a meal, and then lights upon a furled palm frond and seems to watch us from that perch. She feeds every hour or so every day, often buzzing me as I walk from the office across the patio to my house. I have often wondered if she’s the same Hummingbird that got caught in the peach tree net last Summer.
I have an old peach tree that despite its age, blesses us with quite a bit of fruit. We net it every Summer to keep the resident squirrels from plundering the lot. One afternoon, as I was leaving the house, I noticed that a hummingbird had penetrated the net but couldn’t find her way out. So I folded up some flaps in the net, and placed a red hibiscus flower near the gap, hoping to attract the bird to the opening. I left for a couple of hours, and when I returned, I didn’t see the her. Relieved, I assumed that she had found her way out – until on closer look about an hour later, I spotted her limp body laying motionless in the net. She had impaled her tiny head through one of the holes in the netting, the nylon tightly cutting into her neck. I took her in my hand, and she peeped piteously, barely moving. I could see her life ebbing from her quickly.
I had to free her from the net; then I could worry about how to free her head. She had exhausted all her energy trying to escape for those hours so she was dangerously depleted. I ran into the house and got scissors, and cut doing my best not to pull the netting tighter. It was awkward trying to hold the net steady, cutting, while still trying to support her. To my horror, as I cut the last strand of nylon, she slipped from my hand and fell to the ground. I was so disappointed and angry with my clumsiness. I scooped her up, resolving to save her if I could, and imagined myself a bird paramedic on one of those Animal Planet channel shows.
I would need an ultra-thin scissor to cut the netting from around her neck. I pulled my grandmother’s antique, Swan shaped eyebrow scissors from the bathroom cabinet for the job. Next, I plucked the jar of hummingbird nectar from the fridge, and dug through the company silverware drawer to find a dropper. Finally, I grabbed the hummingbird feeder, in case I could entice her to eat without force feeding her. I chose Bodhisattva’s shipping table to operate, rested her on some paper towels, and went to work.
By now, it was early evening. The Sun was dropping into the West behind the back house so the office was getting dark. I turned on the brightest lights I could, and strained to see if I could fit the base of the eyebrow scissors under the nylon strand. There was just enough room to coax the blade over her exposed, delicate skin where her feathers had shed from the abrasion of the net. It was surreal to see the Swan headed scissors cutting the Hummingbird’s head free. But her new found freedom did not seem to register with her; her little chest was heaving, her eyes half open, her heart pounding. It would be a race against time to get some food into her. I spoke to her all the while, using the sound healing tool of a soft, calming voice to reassure her.
I rested her upon the peg of the feeder, which her feet instinctively clutched. Gently, I leaned her beak into the opening of the feeder. She was so weak she just rested there, unable to move. I would have to force feed her.
It’s hard to overstate how tiny a humming bird beak is, and hers’ was shut tight. With her little feet still gripping the peg of the feeder, I steadied her body with one hand and lightly tapped the dropper against her beak. She looked up at me dazed; it seemed as that was the first time we really made eye contact. I tapped again and squeezed a single drop of the fluid so that it balled up at the tip of her beak.
My joy that she had started to suck down the fluid was short lived, because with the first drop, she disappeared, zooming straight up so fast I couldn’t even tell whether she had flown into a recessed lighting panel, or into the loft above the office. Outside, the long shadows had given way to twilight. This was not good.
Cursing, I dusted the pine needles, spiders and accumulated dirt off the ladder outside and hauled it into the office to investigate the lighting panel. She wasn’t there. That would mean she would be in the loft, where there were hundreds of places a bird the size of my index finger could hide. I had to find her before it got dark. She didn’t have enough calories to last the night.
Our loft is a small space- not more than 50 cubic feet maybe, but it’s used for storage so it was packed with stuff. I rifled between tubs of zafus and stacked Himalayan crates stocked with singing bowl cushions. No Hummingbird. The space is lined with double-paned windows, and there is one open window in which a square, exhaust fan sits. I peered through the blades of the fan. Of course – there she was, clinging to the screen of the open window in a ¾” space between the screen and the fan. There was so little room – how was I going to get her out of there? If I removed the fan, she would just fly out the other side of the loft, which opened into my office crammed with even more places for her to hide. So I couldn’t let her escape. I grabbed a roll of blue tape and sealed all the openings between the fan and the screen, except the one which would give me access to her.
The fan was to my left and it was such a tight space, there was nowhere to fit my right shoulder so I was unable reach my right hand into it. I would have to flatten my body against the wall and grasp her with my less dexterous, left hand. The light was quickly fading, and I knew I only had one shot at this. I gave her my game plan:
Ok, little hummingbird. You can’t spend the night in here, you won’t make it. You have to be free. I’m going to reach my hand in here. You need to let me take you. I won’t hurt you, OK?
With a deep, even breath, I reached in and simply closed my hand around her. Extricating her little claws from the screen, I pulled her free. Tumbling down the loft ladder, I bounded for the patio door and opened my hand. She swooped up and perched on tops of the Temple bamboo, swaying in the Western glow of the summer evening. She was going to be fine. I made a note to myself; if you ever have to rescue a Hummingbird again, work outdoors.
So of course, when we discovered our Hummingbird had babies, it made me all the more sure that our resident Hummingbird was the same one from last summer; as if she had felt safe to build her nest here. We were only aware of the babies for a few days. I would watch them out my office window with binoculars so as not to disturb them. Luckily, the tree was wrapped in netting so the cats couldn’t scale it; and it was such a quiet space that it was naturally sheltered from larger, winged predators. The nest was only the size of a Japanese tea cup; just enough room for the diminutive bodies of the two chicks; their heads and tips of their tails sticking out the top of the nest. They stayed so still, only animating when their Mom came to feed them. We figured that remaining motionless must be a defense mechanism, their black eyes staring like itty-bitty, jet beads.
And as is the way of nature, one morning they were gone. I kept staring at the nest with the binoculars; thinking perhaps that somehow, they’d reappear. They did not. I don’t know where they went. I did see what looked like a new, full grown hummingbird at the feeder. I read that that by the time they fledge they are actually bigger than their Mom, so I don’t know that I would recognize them if I did see them. A glum, empty nest syndrome settled on our office.
But the mother seems to be in great spirits. She’s eating up a storm. She sits on her perch, watching us, chirping and whooshing across the patio, her home. We’ll leave the nest in the Ficus for next year, as apparently they reuse them. Life is unfolding in its perfect rhythm and in its time. It’s only the mind that is rushing by, while wanting time to stand still.
Many of our good customers at Bodhisattva are destined to share their singing bowls with their communities. But few have put more research and energy into immortalizing these vessels of peace than our customer who is simply known as Hans. A lanky, razor sharp Californian, Hans amassed a world class collection of singing bowls in quartertone tuning (close to Solfeggio) in a breathless year and a half, over the course of maybe four or five collections. Then he recorded. 33 Bowls, in our opinion, picks up where One Hand Clapping, the first digital recording of Tibetan Bowls and nature sounds, left off. That torch has been passed. Thank you, Hans, for lighting up the world with it.
If anything, 33 Bowls is a confluence of ancient bronze technologies and – as of today – state of the art high resolution recording technology. Tell us about your technical and artistic background that brought these technologies together.
I am in awe of the masters of constructed/studio soundscape, Thomas Dolby, the late Hector Zazou, Allan Parsons of Pink Floyd, Delerium, Michael Brook, to name a few; and yet the challenge of creating, capturing, or really facilitating a natural soundscape — antique musical instruments in a live acoustic space — is/was what intrigued me.
When younger, I hung out more with nerds and musicians than with motorheads or jocks, and somehow managed to avoid serious hearing damage. Nuance and subtlety in music and sound have always been fascinating to me, and have been an attraction as to how we hear, and how to reproduce or re-create the experience in recordings.
I have both a technical and Artistic background, and firmly believe in integrating both hemispheres. I think I innately understood electronics before I could speak! For many years I was with Laserium, combining visuals of bright clear laser light with music in Planetarium domes, and facilitated thousands of mind expanding trips without partaking in any hallucinogens. Later, I was part of an analog chip design group, and left the words “Don’t Panic” from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in micron sized letters on a chip that is part of the Internet backbone.
What is ongaku?
There is a word used in audiophile circles: “ongaku” which means soul or essence of sound and music. That also describes the presence of live un-amplified music in a good acoustic space that is felt as much as it is heard. Most recordings and systems fall short, one can easily hear from the next room if it is live or reproduced, regardless of what a famous tape company claimed in ’70s and ’80s ad campaigns.
What attracted you to the bowls initially? And what inspired you to record them?
While studying massage with the many hours of practice, I put together some remixes for massage music that were popular with fellow practitioners and recipients, but the complexity and cost of multiple copyrights prohibited general release. The call for something more fluid, natural, timeless, ethereal, and original was sparked. So, 33 Bowls started out as a couple of questions: “what if” and “wouldn’t it be nice to” in the context of Singing Bowls. It is also a story which does not have a place in the realm of strict left brained linear planning: it was a mind blowing experience of serendipity or synchronicity to piece together a set of pitch matched antique metal Singing Bowls in a relatively short period of time once the intention was set and released or let go of if I may end a sentence with a preposition. The pitch is not western A440, it turns out to be closely aligned to an older scale which is harmonically related to terrestrial and cosmic cycles, that is referred to (and unfortunately hyped) as the Solfeggio Scale, but the ratios are harmonious to western ears. It is my contention that as we, through our ancestors, have heard these sounds for centuries, and there is something innately familiar, even sacred, about the sound of antique musical instruments tuned to this scale.
What attracted you to the antique singing bowls, as opposed to Crystal bowls?
Although the more modern crystal or glass Singing Bowls can sound quite nice, particularly when accompanied by female voice, and are easier to record as they are considerably louder, the resonances are less complex. It is also arguable whether they are truly crystalline, as they are crafted as a spun amorphous slurry at high temperatures which gives them their close to perfect radial symmetry. Ironically it is the slight imperfections in metal Singing Bowls that add the complex harmonics and sub harmonic beats. Take that as a metaphor about perfect imperfection. Antique metal Singing Bowls in particular can have a rich, sonorous, smooth sound quality. But the complex harmonies and particularly sub-harmonic beats that both match and induce deep, meditative states in the brain, mind, heart, and gut are what appealed to me.
Why 33 Bowls?
I was playing live for a thanksgiving day yoga class, and the Yogi, counting the class attendees noticed there were 33 students there, and that there were 33 Singing Bowls. So the name became obvious.
Tell us about the Artwork.
The cover Artwork is from a painting in a private collection by a relatively obscure, modest, and very talented Artist. I wanted something that looked like the music of 33 Bowls feels, and this painting matched in a way that was instantly “it”. This is what the Artist had to say about the music that her painting matches: “It connects me back to something, an older language of sound that just resonates in a way that doesn’t even have words. Feels like I’m joining an ancestry, it doesn’t feel like my emotion…something that’s been dormant, becomes enlivened.” I specifically do not put my name or image on/in the album cover Artwork or liner notes, as it is about the music and not the musician, and certainly not about the musician’s ego.
The bowls are notoriously difficult to record. Tell us in general terms your approach to engineering the recordings. Were all the bowls recorded live?
Technology: I started off with the proverbial blank sheet of paper. There is no single facet or piece of equipment in the recording chain that makes the recordings sound the way they do. There is a gestalt or synergy of everything involved. None of it is “off the shelf”; all is either modified, custom, or built from scratch. The intention was/is to capture as much of the nuance as possible early on in the signal path. Once that is lost, it is “gone forever” and no amount of studio trickery can re-constitute the aliveness of the real thing. Particular attention was/is paid to minimizing time smear in each facet or component and the implementation of that component. There are a few unavoidable background noises of a live event, but it is close to what one would hear if relaxing in a room hearing the Singing Bowls live, with full ambience and presence. It is not a studio piece by piece creation, so the continuity of the live experience is there. On a reference system, 33 Bowls is the only recording of Singing Bowls that I am aware of that has consistently fooled a variety of listeners into thinking there was a live performance of Singing Bowls in the next room. The CD and high resolution 24 bit downloads provide the highest level of fidelity, but mp3 and iTunes versions sound surprisingly good, again as the recording started out early on with full nuance and resolution.
How do the bowls affect us? How does brainwave entrainment expand our consciousness? Tell us about your work with using bowls as bio feedback instruments.
I believe there is a poignant need for awakening, coherence, articulation, integration of complexity; and hope that music such as 33 Bowls contributes to that. Although statements like that do sound rather abstract, such phenomena provide an archetypal underpinning for “concrete” embodied experiences. They are not a luxury, they are essential for not only our survival, but our “thrival” as a species on this emerald earth. I also believe it is important for us to re-discover our innate embodied, yet environmentally interconnected wisdom and how it ties in with the flow of a bigger picture; whether we call it intuition or hunches, or listening to the heart, or splenic/sacral/plexus knowing.
There is a phrase that is popular to the point of being a cliche, but does have meaning: “holding the space”. Much, maybe most music is about communicating a message of sorts, usually emotional. 33 Bowls does not do that, it holds the space to facilitate and enhance whatever is present. What it is doing is providing a coherent, yet complex natural “signal” for the ears/brain/mind to entrain to and “drop” into a more relaxed, lower stress state of being. Our ears are not passive; they are active participants in sound, interacting with the environment in a way which leads to brain/mind entrainment with what we hear, whether it is shamanic drums, Singing Bowls, cacophonic city noise, or the breath and heartbeat of someone close to us.
Here’s something to try: while listening to Singing Bowls live or via a high resolution recording, notice the embodied sensation, physically, inside your ears. It may be subtle or it may be obvious, but there will be a sensation of the area inside your ears pulsing, or moving to the sub-harmonic beats. You may even notice background sounds modulating or phasing in and out inversely. That is the mechanism of brain/mind entrainment as your ears phase lock and entrain to sounds. Once you get it, Singing Bowls and possibly other sounds may never be quite the same again.
This is likely an evolutionary throwback of our physical ancestors by which our ears have an expanded dynamic range for greater sensitivity: predator and prey developed and favored an adaptive hearing ability while listening for each other in the context of background sounds; those that were more successful passed the epigenetics to future generations.
It is possible, even probable that temple meditation in ancient times was more than enhanced by the sounds of Singing Bowls through entrainment. Once one has consciously experienced a particular state, even if induced externally, it is possible to achieve it individually sans stimulation. The practice of Mindsight and the modern field of Interpersonal Neurobiology is confirming such a hypothesis. Compassion and empathy do naturally occur with expanded external and internal focus and concurrent integration.
I have heard from numerous healing practitioners of various modalities that their clients love 33 Bowls as background music, that it enhances the healing process. I do hold a special place in my heart for those who endeavor to make the world a better place one body/psyche at a time.
Your dedication to the artisans who made the bowls I found very moving. Do you get a sense of the bowls’ history? Do you get a sense of timelessness? Do you get a sense of their future?
Very much I get the perspective of standing on the shoulders of giants, the Artisans who crafted these Singing Bowls centuries ago; their focus, intention, timeless expression of beauty and beauty in expression. Hence the dedication of gratitude to them is included in the cover Artwork. Looking to the future, unless we figure out teleromes, the collection of Singing Bowls will likely outlast me as they have with their original Artisans. One benefit of the pandora’s box of modern technology is that many more can enjoy and benefit from the sounds of Singing Bowls, particularly if they are well recorded as described above.
How many downloads of 33 Bowls have you gotten so far? What other singing bowl projects are in the works?
Actually, with “just” word of mouth and zero advertising budget, 33 Bowls has been in the Amazon New Age downloads top ten for the past year. They seem to have a mind of their own! Sequels will be released when there is genuinely something worthwhile to say. I can say that the next release will segue with the end of “morning” to make a seamless extended session of 33 Bowls. Plus, maybe, something specifically for headphones. We shall see. For announcements, check back here or visit 33bowls.com.
Our breath is the ultimate act of generosity life gives us. Without it, no other of life’s abundant gifts are possible. Our breath is a chorus, accompanying us as the ambient sound track of our lives, from the moment of birth until we leave our bodies. As we endeavor to learn about meditation or Yoga, and our teachers point to the breath as the starting point on the path to enlightenment. Take a deep breath. Delicious, isn’t it? An instantaneous mood changer! For all its importance, we often take our breath for granted; even overlook it altogether. Why should we focus on it? It is always there – until for whatever reason, we find it difficult to breathe. Then nothing is more important!
Our breath is the fuel of our life force, as been referred to as Chi (Chinese) or Prana (Vedantan), depending on spiritual discipline and culture. This energy fuels not just our own life force, but the life force of every living thing on the planet. The air we breathe, in one way or another, has nourished and sustained every life form that has ever lived, as it cycles from gas to vapor to rain to water, and back to vapor and air; for as long as there has been oxygen on this Planet. So the air in our lungs connects us to all life.
As singing bowls are bio-feedback instruments, they can be used to help us connect to our breath, and harness it for the deepening our meditation. As we play a singing bowl around the rim, the quality of its voice is a great indicator of our state. The more nervous we are, the more scratchy and shrill the voice of the bowl becomes. The more focused and relaxed we are, the bowl’s pure, sweet tone mirrors our serenity. Although technique certainly is a factor, the breath has a huge part to play in our ability to transition to this state.
I’ve had the great blessing to watch literally thousands of people’s first encounters with a singing bowl. They nearly all remind me of the first time I tried to ride a bike. I remember it vividly! I was scared, initially, and insisted that my brother push my bike, while I pedaled furiously, demanding that he stay with my bike until I could slow down and stop safely (even at the age of five or six, I needed an exit strategy). And this manipulation worked for me a couple of times, until he let the bike go and I freaked out and crashed into a tree.
But trust and forgiveness is not the subject of this blog! What is pertinent is my crystal clear memory of the moment when I realized that he had let go of the bike: every muscle in my body went into overload and froze up. And although I’m sure I must have screamed, what I really remember was that I was holding my breath, as if that control would somehow save me from impending disaster.
Likewise, when I endeavor to do something for the first time and I am totally focused on the task at hand, often I find that it’s just natural to tense any muscles involved in the activity, as well as many that are not – and hold my breath in the process! And then I wonder why I’m feeling so uncomfortable, and the task seems so difficult, if not impossible. It is because I am not breathing and I’m tensing almost every muscle in my body! So, as every single one of my meditation and Yoga teachers has reminded me, I turn my awareness back to my breath. I’ve seen countless people laboring furiously away at rimming a bowl with no sound resulting at all. When reminded of their breath, their bowl’s volume takes off right at the moment of inhale! Similarly, at first you may find the voice of your bowl quiet, or strained. Breathe in – and see what happens.
You can also use your breath to even out your tone. If you’re rimming your bowl and you observe that your mallet is rattling at a certain point in the revolution every time, draw in a breath right before you get to that point. The breath slows you down and evens out your energy; and you will notice your mallet has glided effortlessly over that problem spot where, a moment before, you got rattling and noise. This is one of the many, simple lessons that bowls give us: if you find a place of resistance, in a yoga posture, or a healing crisis, or any kind of life situation; try using the breath. Even if some force is inevitably required, your body will be utilizing the power of your breath in its service.
Singing Bowls and the Breath – Simple Exercises
Sit in a comfortable position; either cross legged, or in an armless chair. Basics for meditating with a singing bowl are similar to any other form of meditation: check your posture, and make sure your spine is straight but relaxed; your arms are hanging free, your shoulders are relaxed and even, and your shoulder blades are at rest on the back.
Observe the singing bowl sitting on your hand. Make sure that your hand is only coming into contact with the base of the bowl, so that your palm and finger pads are completely underneath the curvature at the base of the bowl. Visualize your energy shining out your fingertips like rays of white light. This way, your fingers don’t involuntarily grasp the bowl while playing.
Breathe into your lower abdomen, feeling your rib cage slightly expanding as air inflates your lungs and gently pushes them against the diaphragm. You can even experiment with the sensation of your lungs pushing gently against the small of your back as you inhale. Exhale naturally. There! Now you’re using all your lung capacity: but don’t force the breath at any time. Try a few more rounds of conscious breathing before you begin to play your bowl, so that you can get into a natural flow of breath to support your playing. Yogis might want to use Ujay breaths for this, a pranic exercise of supported breath in which you slightly close your soft palate, creating a rushing sound as the breath enters and exits. This breath is done through the nose with the mouth closed.
Begin by striking your bowl with the padded end of the mallet. Notice your bowl’s beautiful balance of harmonies, as the dance of its beat frequencies play in your energy field. Breathe its vibration into your lungs, and feel the warmth as it fills your chest cavity. This vibration is tuning your cells within you, bathing your body in harmonious wave forms! Breathe out, mingling your breath into the sound waves as they expand outward into the room. On your exhale, pause just a second or two before you inhale again, and observe your state. You should feel palpably more relaxed with every exhale. You can try counting at first: inhaling for the count of six, and exhaling for the count of six, to find a rhythm that is even and comfortable. If you wish to deepen your relaxation, increase your count to eight. Or, you can simply use the bowl’s beat frequency as your metronome. Repeat striking the bowl, tuning your body with every inhale, and tuning your environment with every exhale. As the bowl’s vibration subsides, notice the change in the energy of the space around you; as well as the space within.
To rim the bowl, rotate the mallet against the outside lip, firmly and fluidly; listening to – and feeling – your bowl. You’ll hear the abrasion of the stick against the metal at first, but almost immediately, you should feel some vibration coming through the base of the bowl into your hand. Breathe into that vibration, and listen to what happens to the volume. Be conscious that the energy of your breath will fuel the sound like air fuels fire! As you rotate your stick and build the volume of the bowl, you’ll hear the bowl’s voice coming up loud and sweet and clear. Be careful not to push the bowl beyond the threshold of volume at which it’s comfortable. If you do, the bowl will let you know, and you’ll start to hear an edge in its voice, or it may even kick you mallet off the side. So just breathe, and slow down, perhaps increasing your pressure a little. Continue to rim the bowl with the awareness that the consistency of your tone is a mirror of the ease of your breath. As you remove your stick from the rim, send your exhale out as the tones dissipate into the air. By now, you should now observe that the entire time you’ve been rimming the bowl, you have been in a thought-free state. Enjoy this state of quiet mind. Use your bowl to return to it as needed!
Discovering the Male Tone of a Singing Bowl
It was Fall of 2000, and the 2nd International Conference on Buddhism, fittingly, was off to a quiet start. Rain and I had driven from Los Angeles through the Southwest and the Rockies, and had arrived late at night our first visit to the YMCA Conference Center in Estes Park. We pulled up in front of the administration building to check in, and parked in spaces overlooking the soccer field. I got out of the truck and reveled at the sweetness of the mountain air and the explosion of stars above the black, vaulting Rockies rising around us.
On the wind, I heard a strange clacking sound. The first image my mind conjured was a couple of martial artists stick fighting in the field, but that was silly, I thought. It’s 11:00 at night. I stared hard into the darkness. Slowly, the forms of two young bull elk began to emerge, playing at combat, locking their young antlers together, trying to wrestle the other into submission, breaking free, and charging again. Strange creatures, males, I thought.
We set our booth up in the Chapel, and we were the first booth inside the entrance. There were only about 20 other vendors, mostly with Traditional Himalayan handicrafts, Nepali statues, Thangkas, jewelry and some clothing. There were Western artists reproducing traditional Buddhists subjects, as well as vendors of books, CDs, and zafus. We clearly had the largest selection of singing bowls. Only problem was, the Buddhists Conference was only attended by about 200 meditators, and they weren’t buying. So it was a long 3 days, sitting at the booth, playing bowls, waiting for the lectures to break.
One day, Nawang Kechog, an old friend of Rain’s and a future Grammy award winning Tibetan flutist, came by the booth to hang out. He was relaxing on the bench on the back of the booth, and casually picked up a bowl to play it. First thing I noticed was the lack of angle on this stick; it was not poised along the edge as we normally do to play the female overtone. Next thing I noticed was, nothing was happening.
I’m from New York. At least, that’s where I came of age as an adult, and presumably, where my energy got stuck on hyper. I have the ability, which I have tried to curb with varying degrees of success over the years, to open my mouth and speak without thinking. So, in this particular situation, I brazenly suggested to the brilliant Tibetan musician “Nawang, if you angle your stick just a little bit on the outside of the lip, your tone will come up much faster.”
He smiled serenely, and continued rotating the stick straight against the outside wall of the bowl. Soon, I began to feel a warm sensation, and then became aware that my inner ears were vibrating with a deep sound I had never heard, emitting from the bowl. If was the male tone of the singing bowl, solo, without the female overtone that until that moment, had been the male tone’s constant companion!
“How are you doing that, Nawang?!” I blushed, realizing that only a minute earlier, I had been essentially giving him instructions how to play a singing bowl. He demonstrated how to keep the stick straight, flush against the wall of the bowl, in contact with the “belly”, or the widest point of the wall. The belly will be pronounced on some bowls, as in Lotus bowls and Highwalls, or straighter as in the medium size thadobatis we call Karma or Buddha bowls.
As we didn’t have leather covered mallets back then, he was isolating the fundamental with the wooden end of the mallet, which is harder to do because there is less traction of the hard surface of the mallet to grab the molecules in the bowl and get them moving. Now that leather padded mallets either come with your bowl or can be requested for a second mallet at an additional cost, learning how to isolate the fundamental is much easier.
Remember to breathe! In general, singing bowls require us to be fully oxygenated when we play them, or we do not have enough Chi to make them sing. This is especially true with the Fundamental tone.
Also, the male tone of a singing bowl is shy, and needs to be coaxed out of the bowl, not pressured, like the female. A light touch works best! Although playing any singing bowl around the rim is a great exercise in concentration, the fundamental technique requires the mind to be very focused and quiet to begin with. So practice isolating the fundamental after you’ve been playing the female overtone for a few minutes and the bowl is warmed up, and your mind is quieted down.
Isolating the Fundamental
Sit comfortably in a chair or on the floor, with your back straight, as you would for meditation. Breathe generously, but naturally, from your diaphragm. Check in with your body. Are you holding excess energy in your arms, shoulders, legs, your face? Breathe into any tension, and let it go.
Hold your mallet in your dominant hand, with your bowl sitting on your receiving hand. Important! Keep the hand holding the bowl very flat, with your fingers relaxed, but energized so that they do not unconsciously wrap around the base of the bowl while you are playing. Even a slight touch will dampen the fundamental! Hold your dominant arm away from your rib cage enough so that you do not have to bend your wrist in order to position the mallet against the wall of the bowl.
Massage the wall of the bowl with the leather end of the mallet. You can use a light pressure on a thin walled bowl, slightly more pressure on a bowl with a thicker wall. Start out briskly, but start to slow down as you feel the vibration beginning to come up. Once it does, adjust your speed and pressure according to the volume of the bowl. If the voice is very quiet, ramp up the speed or pressure just a bit. If the voice of the bowl is edgy and the mallet is chattering, slow down.
If you are stirring your bowl for quite a while and not feeling any vibration, look at what you are doing and observe what you’re doing. Here are the top 3 problems most people run into:
*Is your receiving hand clutching the bowl?
* Are you are breathing?
* Is your mallet flush against the wall of the bowl, rather than angled against the lip? If you are just getting the mid tone or female tone, this may be the case.
Try to practice this on a medium size bowl before you try it on a cup bowl, as this technique is tricky on smaller bowls and does not work at all on very small, dense bowls with large, triangulated lips.
Because of my energetic edge, I tend to resonate to the lower tones of bowls. The male tone is so healing for me, so I use it all the time. It’s much subtler than the female overtone; we feel it as much as hear it. I will always be grateful to Nawang for showing me how to access this tone. Now you can do it, too!
For a demonstration, please visit my video “How to Play a Singing Bowl”. Enjoy your practice!