Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Ritual as Practice - Ritual as Liberation


adjective rit·u·al  \ˈri-chə-wəl, -chəl; ˈrich-wəl\

Simple Definition of ritual

  • : done as part of a ceremony or ritual
  • : always done in a particular situation and in the same way each time

We often look at ritual as something we do over and over that takes discipline. But that assigns a negative connotation to it, because we often see discipline as something negative, like it's a punishment. 

It takes discipline to get up in the morning when we want to stay in bed. 
It takes discipline to not eat the bag of cookies.
It takes discipline to do our practice.

But ritual is far from being something negative. In fact, it is something that can lead us to liberation. Think of that. Who wouldn't want to feel liberated?

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.” 
― William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell     

Ritual at first might just seem redundant: “I'm doing this again, like I did yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that, etc.” But the beauty is, as you persevere, a transformation takes place. Ritual is like a locked door that you try to open everyday, and everyday, you manage to turn the door handle just a little bit, until one time it turns all the way and the door opens. 

What is on the other side of that door? Liberation.

Liberation in various forms. 
One form is that your ritual is now a habit. It flows easier, it moves easier. 
Your ritual is now also something you look forward to. 
Your ritual is now a part of you and you are a part of it.
Your ritual expands you mind, your body, your spirit, and most importantly, your awareness.

This expansion liberates you. It allows new ideas, new information, new visions to come in. Your creativity shifts and becomes the process that removes the door completely, leaving just the portal.

Repetition is what allows something brand new to occur. Repetition, like the lapping of ripples against a rock, gently shifts the ground on which we tread, and so alters our relationship to the things we experience.
—Anne C. Klein, "Revisiting Ritual"

So keep up with your practice. And when you feel like turning away, feel like abandoning it, don't. This is when the door is ready to open, so stay with it.

~ MB

Chop Wood / Carry Water /Play Gongs™ 

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Light Through the Cracks in Your Life

Everything in the Universe is broken in some way. 
Nothing is perfect. 

But in being broken everything is perfect. This state of broken perfection is a state of both change and growth. It it through the cracks in our lives, the very cracks we try to hide and avoid, that the light comes into our lives. And not just light, but sound, as they are both vibrational forms of the same Universe. 

Kintsugi - the Japanese art of fixing broken pottery 
with gold and lacquer to transform it into a new art object.

As you do your practice, as you meditate, do not shut yourself off. Do not close yourself up. Be open. Let the cracks appear, as they are not the wounds you think they are, but are: 

Doors to expansion.
Doors to opportunity.
Doors to the real you.

How often when you were hurt or lost have you reached for the sound?

Turned on the radio.
Hummed or sung to yourself.
Played your instruments.

And how did that make you feel? Don't wait for those difficult moments to reach for the sound. 

Do it now. 
Let the vibrations flow in. 
Let the newness begin.

Silence reigns across the landscape
until broken by the metallic call
of tones deep like a winter's canyon
with a depth ringing out
and echoing across the sky —:
this is the moment when all disappears
into the sound, rich and sonorous;
disappears into the unconscious vibration,
transcending all names.
For how can one put a name on forever?
Or speak of the essence divine,
when no words are made
that can convey this sense of wonder.
Oh, let me melt within the sacred tones
as I take refuge from the
bitter silence of our lives.
From Dragon Songs, ©1999 IAM Publishing,
reprinted with permission.
Transform yourself…

~ MB

Chop Wood / Carry Water /Play Gongs™ 

Friday, September 30, 2016

Cultivating A Practice Through the Art of Drowning

We've all had that day, the day we feel too tired, or too busy, or too scattered, or too…name a thousand things. I go through that. I go through that with Yoga, with music, with meditating, with writing, with all the things I do. But when we're too tired, or busy, or scattered, that's the time we need our practice the most.

The practice is enough in itself.

I resist.
I make excuses.
I procrastinate.
I tell myself lies.

Yet when I finally say yes, I am grateful. I am grateful because I am doing it for myself. Too often our modern society makes us feel guilty if we take time for ourselves. Other people tell us, “You really need to do this for me right now.” 

Right now. 
Well, right now is for me.
Right now is my time.

If you were drowning, I would stop to save you. But have you ever stopped to think that I may be drowning inside? That maybe I need to save myself? 

I drown a little bit everyday.

I drown little bit everyday and no one sees it but me, because I try not to advertise it, to force it on others, to make a big deal out of it. And as a result, I save myself everyday. 

I jump in. 
I jump in with my practice.

And my practice, no matter how reluctant I am to do it, gives me the space to exist. It gives me the moment to exist. It is my breathing this Universe in and out, over and over again. 

And I fight it.
And I surrender.
And I fight it.
And I surrender.
Over and over, like the mythical Sisyphus, rolling the boulder up the hill each day. And it is my hill and I claim it. And I Surrender and am reborn everyday. And it saves me.

The practice is enough in itself.

Don't forget to take time for yourself, take time for your practice, whatever it is…

~ MB

Chop Wood / Carry Water / Play Gongs™

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Art of the Tea Way

“The art of the Tea Way consists simply of boiling water, preparing tea and drinking it.” Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591), Way of Tea 
Simple advice—boil water, prepare tea, drink it—but not always easy to do. The world has become such a fast paced place. Our modern existence owes much to being connected, being scheduled, and, being busy. Sometimes part of that is making things more complicated than they need be. We've become so used to things being busy, being complicated, that we forget how to let go and let things just be.

In his time, Rikyū took what what had become an elaborate and ostentatious tea ceremony, discarding everything he felt was not needed and detracted from the essence of drinking the tea itself.  This new tea style owed a lot to the simplicity of Zen thought, as well as the Japanese idea of wabi-sabi. The idea of wabi-sabi is to make things simple, natural, and serene. For Rikyū, this meant ridding the tea ceremony of all unneeded trappings, including the movements made in making the tea. This would allow the participants to focus on the essence of the tea itself.

Even the Gongs can become part of the everyday circus: do you have the latest Gong, the fanciest new mallet, a special carpet, candles, and on and on. It can be easy to get caught up in the distractions of life, playing, yet forgetting to take the time to listen ourselves. We can learn from Rikyū to leave the unnecessary behind.
Set up, play the Gong, and listen to it.
There is nothing more that is needed.

~ MB

Chop Wood / Carry Water / Play Gongs™

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Gong Has No Religion

First off: this is blog post number 101 of The Way of the Gong™! Little did I know some 2 ½ years ago, that I would even reach 100 blog posts, let alone still be writing this. Thanks for all your questions, comments, and most of all, for reading these past 100 posts. Here's to the next 100!

The Gong Has No Religion

While Gongs, Bowls, and Bells have been around for hundreds, even thousands of years, to label any of them as belonging to a religion/spirituality, or exclusively to any one tradition, is a dangerous claim. The instruments themselves are made of metals dug out of the earth, and forged into form by fire and hammering. They have no built in meaning or value, as they are merely objects. Any sort of meaning we find attached to them is assigned to them by man. 

This is an inanimate metal object

For example, the Singing Bowl. It is often associated with Tibet, monks, monastaries, and secret rituals that are unknown to the Western world. While there is evidence of them being used in temples and ceremonies, for the most part, they are everyday objects that have been mystified by dealers/traders in order to sell them to the Western public. A good example of this is the notion that the best bowls are made of 10 metals, including meteorite! Who wouldn't want to buy a bowl like that?

While we see many Christian churches with large bells in their steeples, we also see similar bells in government buildings, fire stations, schools, and other places. The Bell as an exclusive church object does not exist. The same can be said for smaller Bells. While they are often used/heard in churches and temples, they are also heard in banks, offices, schools, and various other public places. Bells are used in music and dance, and in calling people to dinner. Bells are ubiquitous to human society.

The same can be said for the Gong. Even though Yogi Bhajan is credited with making the Gong popular in Yoga and meditation, it is neither an exclusively Sikh, or spiritual/religious instrument.  Yes, it works well with Kundalini Yoga and Meditation, but Gongs are also great with symphonic orchestras and hard rock bands.

While Gongs, Bowls, and Bells all work well within the framework of various spiritual practices, just remember that they not in themselves spiritual objects, rather, they are vehicles for expressing your spiritualism. 

~ MB

Chop Wood / Carry Water / Play Gongs™

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Essential Essence of Rhythm & Melody

I was recently out in California where I had the chance to play with a fantastic sax/woodwind player. He also happens to be a Gong & Singing Bowl collector, so I was able to use his instruments, instead of having to bring anything out there with me (except a bag of mallets). Being in a situation like this really tests you. On one hand, I wasn't able to go to my usual sounds and ideas. But on the other hand, I was free to come up with new sounds and ideas. It was also the first time we had played together, so I was starting from a blank canvas in many ways. 

Now in retrospect, I can look at what I really brought with me, which was years of practicing and performing in many situations, as well as years of searching and experimenting with sounds. The launching point for everything I do musically, is that I was trained as a percussionist. I can't help that because percussion is me, is in my blood, is in my soul. I say this because I realize that a lot of people who play Gongs/Bowls/Bells, come from a non-percussion background, or even a non-music background. So in all of my blog posts here, you need to understand that I write everything from a percussionist's point of view, tempered with my interests in Buddhism, spirituality, and physics. So let's take a look at what I learned about what and how I do things from the above experience.

The Heartbeat of Rhythm

Rhythm, its essence, is always on my mind. Whether consciously or more subliminally, it guides what do. While to the listener, it may seem as if there is no rhythm—because the actual pulse is measured in minutes, rather than the usual rapid fire series of staccato notes—trust me that there is a measured pulse being played. When I play, I'm always counting, or at least sensing the time between each notes played. I play a note, listen to it, listen to it fade away, and sense the space until I play the next note.  This is time running more aligned with nature instead of clock time.

While I often play long, slow pulses of rhythm that seem to evaporate into the air around us, I also play faster, more familiar pulses that move with a sense of urgency. These streams of notes are punctuated with accents and shadings to both the pitch and texture of the sound. I think of them as living strings of notes because they are anything but static. They may be in a measured meter (4/4, ¾, etc), or they may be in a series of changing meters/pulses (7 to 5 to 11, etc), or, it may be a stream of notes with no specific meter, but divided up into pulses that continually shift. No matter how it is, I'm always thinking and feeling time/pulse/meter.

Rhythm is a Whole World of Its Own.

To me, there is so much to rhythm. Nothing I play is ever random. There is always a thought process behind every note, every strike of the mallet. There is always purpose to each note. Even in the midst of the most intense free improvisation, I am still thinking rhythm, still thinking about what I'm doing. 

This compares a lot to modern painting. For example, the late Jackson Pollock (not to put myself in the same league as Pollock). Many people look at his paintings saying, “My 5 year old could do that,” because to them, his paintings look like he randomly tossed paint on a canvas. Sure, a 5 year old could throw paint on a canvas, but it wouldn't result in what Pollock did. He worked for years to develop his art, to perfect his techniques. And the untrained eye may not notice the subtlety of what he did, but every motion he made was deliberate and backed up by years of study.

 Jackson Pollock at work

Jackson Pollock - Convergence

The Call of Melody

The other aspect of what I do is always thinking in terms of melody. I'm thinking of pairs of notes, or a succession of notes that create little melodies. As with rhythm, I don't just randomly play notes/pitches. I'm always looking to come up with interesting little melodies, even if just a 2 or 3-note melody. To me, a Meditation Session is a musical performance. That's how I approach it. So I'm always thinking music, melody, and harmony. I've moved past the idea of just serving up a big wash of sound. In many ways, I'm actively working to evoke a response from people, triggering impulses and memories, helping them recall moments lost in the past. (This is the idea behind my Stories We Tell Ourselves project)

And when I'm working with other musicians, I'm thinking of how my sounds fit and blend with the sounds and rhythms that are being created around me. Making my music a part of the whole is important to me. I never want to play and have it seem like a percussion solo with band accompaniment. 

So whether I'm leading the charge, or following someone else, I'm always thinking melodically and harmonically, to either blend my sounds into the proceedings, or to play something that will stand out in opposition to what is being played. For me, it's important to know the pitches/sounds of my instruments so I can react accordingly. In the session mentioned above, the challenge was to quickly learn & memorize what the basic sounds were of the instruments available, so that even then, I wasn't playing blindly.

Look before you leap. 

Think before you strike.


Chop Wood / Carry Water / Play Gongs™

Monday, August 22, 2016

6 Thoughts About Your Practice

Someone had asked a question about how do you approach playing the Gongs/Bowls/Bells, especially for others. I came up with these basic thoughts:

  1. Always leave your ego at the door.
  2. Listen to your sounds more than anything else. They will always tell you what you need to know.
  3. Listen to/feel out the people you play for as they will tell you what they need.
  4. Explore your instruments and learn how to make good sounds.
  5. Study, read, listen, learn, repeat. It's a lifelong process and you will never know it all, but keep learning and improving.
  6. Stay humble.

~ MB

Chop Wood / Carry Water / Play Gongs™