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™

Monday, August 15, 2016

From Here To Eternity: Parallel Paths

Everything in life is a personal journey, and no 2 person's journeys are the same. We can talk and write about it all we want, but our journey always remains our own, because we see and experience it from the inside, while others only see outward manifestations of our experience. Life is very much like watching a film. We can experience the story the film is telling, but we can't experience being the actors making the film.

Walking the Path

It is much the same with sound. As players, we each have our own, unique journey making the sounds. And as listeners, we each have our own unique experience hearing the sounds. The player cannot have the same experience as the listener. So too, no 2 listeners can have the same experience. We can all have similar experiences, but not the same. 

Don't ever assume that what you are experiencing is the same as others.

This blog is about my journey. You may have similar experiences, you may have completely different experiences—it is my hope that we can always find common ground. It is the same when I play for others. I always hope that we can meet somewhere and share part of what is happening, yet I want each person to have their own, personal experience. This is the reason I never tell people what to expect, or dictate to them what will happen (the exception would be a guided Yoga Nidra session or similar).

The other side of this is that I never know what I am going to do! There are things that I often repeat, but I don't have a set list or a plan. So how can I tell others what to expect?

Walk your path. Let others walk their's. Celebrate them both.

~ MB

Chop Wood / Carry Water / Play Gongs™

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Art of The Practice

Being one with the sound. Losing yourself in the vibrations. These are noble aspirations, but are they practical and attainable? Yes, you can find a way to merge with the sound. In this blog post, we will look at various steps to deepen your practice of playing Gongs/Bowls/Bells, whether for yourself, or for others.


It all starts with the breath. While breathing is perfectly natural, when we are often trying to do something, it becomes unnatural. I have found that many times when a student is trying to accomplish something new or difficult, the first thing they do is hold their breath, or at least alter their breathing pattern. The minute you hold your breath, you introduce tension into your body. The longer you hold your breath, the more the tension builds up, until you finally have to quickly suck in another breath, and then the whole process starts over.

Before you start your practice, relax and take a deep breath. Let it out fully and then take another. As you let each breath out, let your tensions, worries, and monkey mind go out with the breath. And most importantly, let go of any expectations you may have. Keep breathing like this until you are ready to play.

Letting Go

Goals, expectations, destinations, these are all fine to have, but when you enter your practice, they often become distractions. Monkey mind will be chattering, How far have we gone?, or, How far do we have to go yet? This is living in the past, or living in the future, and neither one of those exist. You live in the moment. Let go of all expectations.

Be Present

The moment. The now. This is all that exists for each of us. While we can yearn for a future, yearn for a goal or destination, we cannot touch it or experience it, we can only experience what is here and now. Don't let yourself get caught up in the past or future at the expense of the now. Let yourself go and be in the moment. Feel your breathing. Feel your heart beat. Feel your surroundings. The more you are in the moment, the more you can experience the vibrations.

Be Open

Along with letting go, be open for whatever presents itself. Again, if you have no expectations, then you allow things to happen. Listen to the sound. Follow the sound. I am often surprised by the sounds that emanate from my instruments. They make me smile and whisper in my ear, “Come with me.” They are sounds that I would not consciously make if I was focused on a specific destination. And because of that, they take me to realms I never would have discovered.

Be Joyful

You play the Gong. No one says, “I work the Gong.” It is a joy to enter the vibrations and lose yourself. It is joyful to play for others and share this feeling. Be joyful, be grateful. 

Keep Breathing

Keep breathing. If you get tired, or stressed, or lose focus, come back to the breath. This has saved me many times. And not just in playing Gongs, but in life. Breathe consciously. Breathe with a focus and clarity. When you are having problems, check your breath. Proper breathing helps align us physically, mentally, and spiritually.

Don't forget to breath.

~ MB

Chop Wood / Carry Water / Play Gongs™

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Zazen of Sound



(in Zen Buddhism) deep meditation undertaken whilst sitting upright with legs crossed

After writing assorted blog posts about the Zen of sound, various people have asked me about how they can get deeper into the sound, deeper into their own playing. So I've decided to offer some suggestions that have worked for me, but realize that each of us is different, so you will most surely find your own way.

Say Hello To The Sound
  1. Turn off your phone/computer/electric distractions.
  2. Make sure the kids, pets, other family members cannot disturb you.
  3. Make sure you are comfortable sitting or standing in front of your instrument/s. Because of my set up, I always stand.
  4. For a Gong, strike it gently in the center, getting a full, focused tone. For a Bowl or Bell, strike it gently on the side/edge to get a clear, yet pleasing sound. This exercise is not about loudness.
  5. Listen to the sound as it fades away.
  6. Be patient and let the sound fade completely away.
  7. When you feel you have waited long enough, wait a bit longer.
  8. Then strike the Gong/Bowl/Bell again, repeating the listening and waiting above. Make each strike consistent and like the last.
  9. Through all of this, be aware of any other sounds, like your heart beating, your breathing, your nervous system humming, any room sounds or outside sounds, such as traffic, jets, or dogs barking. Let these sounds blend in and become a part of your practice.
  10. Keep breathing and be aware of your breath—don't hold it.
  11. When you listen, don't focus on the sound as much as let the sound become a part of you.
  12. Listen with your ears and your body. You can feel the vibrations as much, or more, than hearing them.
  13. Each time you play a sound, try to wait just a bit longer before playing the next sound.
  14. If you have more than one instrument, alternate playing them.

If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all. 
John Cage

Learning to listen and experience sound is no different from any other activity. You need to do this everyday for 10, 15, or more minutes. A big part of this is developing a relationship with sound/your sounds, and a trust in both you experiencing things, and in your abilities to play and control your instruments. It's important that if you hear a sound you like, that you can recreate it at will. 

Other benefits of this exercise are learning to control your stroke each time you play your instrument/s. I spend a lot of time playing my instruments in different spots with different mallets in order to learn about how many different sounds I can create and, most importantly, what sounds I can use. It's important to me to be able to recreate these sounds as needed when playing for others. It's too easy to let yourself go with just one, basic sound. 

There are no shortcuts to getting a good sound.

It's also important to learn how your instrument/s respond to your touch. Two different people playing the same instrument will most likely bring out different sounds, because they each have a different touch, different approach. You need to work at learning your touch and how your own personal instruments react to that touch. 

Rainer Maria Rilke


    No longer for ears . . . : sound
    which, like a deeper ear,
    hears us, who only seem
    to be hearing. Reversal of spaces.
    Projection of innermost worlds
    into the open . . . , temple
    before their birth, solution
    saturated with gods
    that are almost insoluble . . . : Gong! 

    Sum of all silence, which
    acknowledges itself to itself,
    thunderous turning within
    of what is struck dumb in itself,
    duration pressed from time passing,
    star re-liquified . . . : Gong! 

    You whom one never forgets,
    who gave birth to herself in loss,
    festival no longer grasped,
    wine on invisible lips,
    storm in the pillar that upholds,
    wanderer's plunge on the path,
    our treason, to everything . . . : Gong! 

    Rainer Maria Rilke

~ MB

Chop Wood / Carry Water / Play Gongs™

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Moving Through The Aether…

Beyond the Terrestrial Sphere

According to ancient and medieval science, aether (Greek: αἰθήρ aithēr[1]), also spelled æther or ether, also called quintessence, is the material that fills the region of the universe above the terrestrial sphere.
(courtesy of good old Wikipedia) 

In working with the Gongs/Bowls/Bells, it’s easy to think about bringing all of our experience and ideas with us when we play them. After all, this is the Western way we have been taught, “practice hard, work on your ideas, refine your technique.” If you are a performing musician, you know that when you play you bring with you all your accumulated knowledge and ideas. You are expected to produce (or more accurately, reproduce) a specific musical experience.

Photo Credit: Toby Frost, ABC Classic FM

It's easy to get caught up in planning and perfecting what we do. “I've got to remember to do this, because it always gets a reaction.” Or you may have a basic list/order of things you always do. If you play in a rock band, this is great, because you are basically working to affect people in a certain way, to create specific moods/reactions with each song. And if you've ever been to a major rock/pop/country concert, you know just what this experience is. 

But if you play Gongs/Bowls/Bells for meditation or sound therapy sessions, then this is the wrong sort of approach. Instead of trying to do it to people, or control their experience, you are really looking to do the complete opposite. Your job is to get out of the way and be as invisible as possible. Instead of presenting preplanned ideas, you need to be open to the moment and be aware of what is being called for. In this way, the people are controlling their own experience.  

It takes years of hard work to develop this sense  of “listening” to the people. The most important thing is to learn how to get out of your own way. Again, we are often used to thinking, “If I do this, I will get this reaction.” Instead, we need to pay attention to what is happening around us, pay attention to the people we are playing for. If you tune in, they will always tell us what they need.

What we do is intangible. Sound is produced, it goes out into the air/aether, and then disappears. There are no remnants, no sound waves left over to remind us of what just happened. Here and gone into the aether, never to return. There is nothing for people to bring home and put on a shelf. They can bring home their experience, but that too is transient, evaporating into a memory.


The Zen concept of wu-shih (also sometimes written as wu-shin) translates as, nothing special. In his essay, Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen, the legendary philosopher, Alan Watts, quotes the great T’ang master, Lin-chi, In Buddhism there is no place for using effort. Just be ordinary and nothing special.” 

So, you took a weekend class and now have a framed certificate on your wall. You also have a shiny new Gong or Bowl. It's tempting to think that you have earned some sort of place in this world. But it's important to remember that this path is one of service, service to others, not yourself. You are ordinary and nothing special. This is not to say that you aren't important, just that you aren't anymore important than anyone else. The minute you think you are, then ego has taken over. 

You get up in the morning, get dressed, and go about your business like anyone else. You may work in an office, a school, a factory, or a store; or you may play a Gong, but there is no difference. What you do is ordinary and nothing special. Remember that each day is the same:

Chop Wood / Carry Water / Play Gongs™

~ MB

Monday, July 18, 2016

Where Do We Go From Here? [Part 3]

There's no way to avoid it. There are always 2 sides to everything. It's the nature of the Universe. 


And so there is also 2 sides to every story. In Part 1, we looked at facts that were more or less wishful thinking. In Part 2, we looked at how wishful thinking, or more accurately, intent, may actually create our Universe. So where do we go from here?

If you play Gongs/Bowls/Bells long enough, it becomes clear that something is happening. It may be difficult to put your finger on exactly what is happening, but you know something is. And this something may be experienced differently by each and everyone of us. So that makes trying to find a solid answer a bit of a sliding floor.

Perhaps the preeminent philosopher of the 20th century, Alan Watts, may have hit on the ultimate answer:

To Speak The Truth  
As you make more and more powerful microscopic instruments, the universe has to get smaller and smaller in order to escape the investigation. Just as when the telescopes become more and more powerful, the galaxies have to recede in order to get away from the telescopes. Because what is happening in all these investigations is this: Through us and through our eyes and senses, the universe is looking at itself. And when you try to turn around to see your own head, what happens? It runs away. You can't get at it. This is the principle. Shankara explains it beautifully in his commentary on the Kenopanishad where he says 'That which is the Knower, the ground of all knowledge, is never itself an object of knowledge.'
Think about it, Science used to think the atom was the smallest particle, but when they finally looked at the atom, they discovered electrons. When the looked at electrons, they discovered sub-atomic particles, and so on. We are in a game that never ends.

So too with sound. Playing the Gong/Bowl/Bell is just the surface. Once we have spent some time with them, we realize there is more beneath the surface of the sound. And as we look deeper into the sound, we find more and finer sounds. And we also realize more and finer affects that the sound has on us, on our bodies, on our energy systems, on our very souls. 

Thus we have a responsibility to pay attention! Pay attention to what we are doing, what we are saying, what we are experiencing. And so too we need to pay attention to what we are presenting to others. It's no secret that sound can have a great impact on people. Just look at how music permeates our everyday lives.

In his book, Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor, the great mythologist, Joseph Campbell wrote:

Artists provide the contemporary metaphors that allow us to realize the transcendent, infinite, and abundant nature of being as it is.

This fits perfectly with what the great 19th century poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, wrote in his book, Letters On Life:

Art is not a making-oneself-understood but an urgent understanding-of-onself. The closer you get in your most intimate and solitary contemplation or imagination (vision), the more has been achieved, even if no one else were to understand it.

You must first understand yourself, and what you are doing (at least as much as you can), before you can understand what affect you are having on others. And even after all the doing and understanding, life goes on. The mundane remains and you continue about your journey. The great Buddhist teacher and writer, Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book, How To Eat, reminds us to live the everyday:

Wash every bowl, every dish as if you are bathing a baby— breathing in, feeling joy; breathing out, smiling. Every minute can be a holy, sacred minute.

Be holy. 
Be sacred. 
For you are a telescope, expanding the Universe as you reach further into the sound.

~ MB

Chop Wood / Carry Water / Play Gongs™

Monday, July 11, 2016

A Question of Intent [Part 2]

First Things First

1) If you haven't read last week's blog post, please read it first here.

2) Take a few minutes to read this article and watch the video on recent experiments in Quantum Physics here.

3) Please realize that this blog is my thoughts and ideas filtered through a mix of music, Buddhism, physics/science, various spiritual traditions and esoteric organizations. 

4) It's important to understand that I reserve the right to change my mind and beliefs based on being presented with new evidence.

5) I believe above all, that the Universe is fluid, and everything we know is changeable and changing. 

Now this week's blog:

A Question of Intent

In my previous blog, we looked at how many people assign specific ideas to Gongs, Bowls, and Bells; especially connecting them to the Chakras. This is suspect at best. Even the whole ancient Chakra systems have been bent and folded to fit western ideas. For example, assigning a note from the western 12-note scale to each of the Chakras (Heart Chakra = F, Sacral Chakra = D, etc.) In addition, each Chakra is also assigned a color, element, metal, essential oil, and many other things (Ambika Wauters, The Book Of Chakras, Barron's 2002). 

In the same way as there are Chakra Singing Bowls, there are also Chakra Gongs, Planet Gongs, Elemental Gongs, and other such designations. Rather than being a proven, scientific system behind most of this, it all comes down to basically being someone's opinion (as well as being a great sales pitch!). The problem is, as I wrote in the previous blog, when these ideas/opinions are taken by others as facts and then passed along.

But let's look at this whole thing from another perspective, intent. I want to refer you back to number 2 up above. In this famous experiment, and other similar ones, scientists have found that, at least at the quantum level, the results of an experiment can be influenced by the observer. Left alone, an experiment will produce one result. When the scientists are present, a different result happens. 

The observer can change the outcome

A similar study was apparently done on group meditation and how it can affect a surrounding area. You can read that article here. Another article on Energy & Frequency is here. I am not necessarily advocating for either of these articles, but am using them to point out how the idea of energy and intent is being looked at by various sides. As always, read, investigate, and come to your own conclusions.

Now add to this the recent theories that our Universe may be a giant hologram, or a computer simulation in another reality, and the possible existence of parallel realities that may bump against and affect our own, and we have to take a deeper look at what life and reality is all about. 

There's Nothing New Except What's Been Forgotten

Now these ideas are nothing new, as various religious doctrines have said much the same thing for thousands of years. The main tenant of Buddhism is that the world is illusionary, and that once we can see through that illusion, we can be released from the boundaries that hold us. The overall idea is one of all existence being energy at various vibratory levels. Change your vibration, change your state.

When science bends more and more to the view that all matter is merely a form of energy, a grouping and re-grouping of forces, as advocated by scientific materialism (or, as some would prefer to call it, energism), it is only admitting in different words the unsubstantiality of matter, which the Buddha declared more than two thousand years ago. [from Aspects of Reality as Taught by Theravada Buddhism by Dr. G. P. Malalasekera ]

Even Albert Einstein was a big proponent of the changeability of the Universe:

Quantum physics tells us that reality is far beyond human perception and intuition. In other words, our rational mind and common sense are just not capable of understanding the true nature of reality.
Einstein's theory of relativity introduced a new way of looking at the physical properties of the universe. The Newtonian constraints of absolute time and space were abandoned. Time and space were unified and made relative, it formed a continuum that curved and enfolded about itself. Gravity was a distortion of this continuum caused by the presence of mass. From this, the famous formula e=mc~ was derived. (e=energy, m=mass, c=the speed of light, the magical constant in the system, the absolute maximum speed that anything can travel.)
So Einstein's famous theory has one absolute (speed of light) in a relative universe, and it forms a kind of boundary around all we can know. Even though this theory has been borne out by many experiments, its consequences appear very bizarre. Objects shrink when they are in motion, space time curves, light is bent by gravity etc. [from Einstein's Search & the Illusion of reality]

The Idea of Intent 

So this brings us to the Gongs, Bowls, and Bells. How does all of this affect what we do with sound? Intent may actually play a big part.

Can/do we as sound practitioners, create the reality we are working in, through our own intent?

How much does our intent affect both our own reality, and the reality experienced by the people we play for? 

  • If I believe that the Singing Bowl I play is a Heart Bowl, and my intent is to affect the Heart Chakra, does my intent create that reality? 
  • If the person I am playing for believes that their Heart Chakra will be/is affected, does their intent make it so?
  • If my intent does create that reality, then does it really matter what Bowl or Gong I use to affect the Heart Chakra?
  • If I truly believe that playing the bottom of the Gong affects the Root Chakra, and as I move up the Gong I move up through the Chakra system, does this happen?

These are interesting questions with no solid answers 

Various placebo tests, where one control group is given the actual medicine, while a second control group is given a placebo, like a sugar pill, have shown that if the people given the placebo truly believe they have the actual medicine, that they will experience the same (or sometimes even better) results as the group given the actual medicine. What does this say about intent? 

A Conclusion of No Conclusion

So, is there a real and solid answer to all of this? As we looked at in part 1, does the assigning of various qualities to the Gongs & Bowls have any real merit, or is it just superstition/opinion? Or, as we have just investigated here, is intent a valid thing that supersedes all other beliefs? 

While I have no solid scientific answers, I do have my own beliefs (see number 5 above). I also believe that we all have a responsibility to stay open minded (see number 4 above), and to always investigate any claims or facts presented to us. Don't just read something on Facebook and take it as fact. Look for sources, research, and other things to back up and validate what you have found before passing it on as true. I know this takes time, because I do this a lot. I spend a great deal of time reading, researching, and correlating things I have found. In this blog, I try to provide sources/links to things so that you can investigate on your own and come to your own conclusion. As I stated in number 3 above, this blog is my ideas and opinions, you may have different ideas and opinions, and that is fine.

Stay open and keep your vibrations true.


~ MB

Addendum: Here is a recent study in the magazine, The Strad, pitting Stradivarius violins against modern violins, in a blindfolded test with world class soloists. Interestingly enough, the soloists preferred modern made violins! 

We see this same effect over and over again. Wines taste better if you know they're expensive, but price predicts almost nothing in blind taste tests. Food tastes better if you're told it's "organic" or "local", whether it actually is or not. Our minds are funny things. Expectation has a major effect on enjoyment and perception.- Ramez Naam

This ties right in with the placebo effect and how our perceptions can be changed/controlled by our own thinking and perceptions/expectations. (added July 18, 2016)

Chop Water / Carry Wood / Play Gongs™