Could this be the meditation solution I've been looking for?
A couple years ago, I heard ABC News anchor Dan Harris speak at Chicago Ideas Week. He told all of us in the audience how mindfulness meditation changed his life. He was a self-proclaimed "fidgety skeptic" who had an on-air panic attack, then discovered meditation and became a happier, more focused person. I was sold.
Though I wouldn't necessarily categorize myself as a "fidgety skeptic," I often feel like a human ball of chaos, trying to balance work, getting things done at home, spending time with family and friends, exercising, and just chilling out. I struggle with anxiety. I get overwhelmed and stressed easily. And the more my to-do list and calendar fill up, the less focused I become.
So if taking even a few minutes a day to literally just breathe would help me manage all of that, I was definitely down. I loved the idea of starting every morning with a nice, peaceful five- to 10-minute meditation to clear my head before diving into my day. I thought for sure it would be the answer to slowing down, calming, and focusing my mind. Instead, it made me kind of angry: I tried meditating on my own using various techniques I read about and under the guidance of all sorts of apps, but I just couldn't keep my mind from wandering to all the stressors I was trying to avoid. So instead of waking up and taking those five to 10 minutes to myself before starting in on emails and work, I begrudgingly (and sporadically) tried and failed to find my zen. Two-and-a-half years later, I hadn't completely given up, but I'd gradually come to view meditation as a chore, and not one I feel satisfied after completing.
And then I heard about sound baths. After the initial letdown when I found out they weren't some sort of cool spa experience involving water, bubbles, and perhaps some aromatherapy, I became intrigued by what they actually were: an ancient form of sound therapy that uses gongs and quartz crystal bowls during meditation to promote healing and relaxation. "Different parts of our bodies—each organ, bone, etc.—vibrate at a specific frequency that is unique to you when we are in a state of health and well-being," says Elizabeth Meador, owner of Anatomy Redefined, the Chicago sound meditation and Pilates studio. "When we become ill, stressed, encounter disease, etc., the frequency of various parts of our body actually changes, and our own body can experience literal dis-harmony. Through the sound meditation, your body is able to absorb sound waves to help restore harmony to the body, mind, and spirit."
To be honest, I wasn't (and am still not) sure if gongs can really help me heal on that kind of level. But I did read that the sounds give your mind something to focus on, making it easier to ease into the meditative state, which did make a lot of sense. "In our busy, modern world, our minds are so used to having something to focus on," says Meador. "We are switching from phone to computer to tablet and so on, leaving the mind racing. To take the average worker and place them in a silent room after a chaotic day can be challenging for anyone, let alone those new to meditation. With a sound meditation, the soothing music actually gives the mind something to focus on to keep it occupied, gently guiding you into a state of deep meditation." Maybe what was missing this whole time in my efforts was a good, strong sound to focus on. Still wanting to embrace meditation despite the struggle, I headed to Meador's studio to try it myself.
First, let's be honest: I wasn't in a good mood when I got there. It was the end of a long day, I was tired, and I drove through Chicago's patience-testing rush-hour traffic for pretty much the entire four miles from my condo to the studio. When I walked in, I really just wanted to be home on my couch, hanging out with my cats and my husband, catching up on Bravo's latest. But I tried to put those feelings behind me, which did get easier when I entered the studio itself. It was a dark room, lit only by candles and some soft decorative fixtures. Five gongs and six white bowls in various sizes were in front, and on the floor were six rectangular cushions, each set up with a couple pillows (one for propping up feet or legs, if I wanted), a blanket, and an eye cover. I took my place on one of the cushions.
Meador, who was leading the class, took a few minutes to explain the benefits of a sound bath (also known as gong meditation, gong bath, or sound meditation) and the instruments she'd be using. There are four "planetary gongs," which she says vibrate at the same frequencies as their corresponding planets and pull in "the energetic, emotional, and astrological qualities of the planets." If you're still with me, I'll give you an example: The Venus gong theoretically helps with matters of the heart or with encouraging feminine energy; while the Mars gong encourages "warrior" energy and inspires courage. Meador also plays a "Flower of Life" gong that she says "has a very grounding and soothing energy that nurtures the nervous system." As for the singing bowls, she says some sound practitioners believe each note coordinates to a specific energy center or chakra on the body, though it's hard to know if each sound affects each person's body in the same way. Regardless, the notes blend well with the gongs for a balanced sound experience. (Related: Everything You Need to Know About Energy Work—and Why You Should Try It)
Meador told us she'd play for an hour and asked us to lie down and get comfortable under the blankets. She noted that our body temperatures would drop by about one degree in the meditative state. I immediately had mixed emotions: There was panic upon realizing that I'd be lying there for an hour with only sounds and not some vocal guidance—I can't meditate for five minutes on my own, much less an hour! Then again, the setup was pretty comfy. All of my meditation apps tell me to sit upright with my legs crossed or feet flat on the floor. Lying on a squishy cushion under a blanket seemed much more my speed.
I closed my eyes and the sounds started. They were loud and, unlike the ambient sounds that sometimes accompany meditations, impossible to ignore. For the first few minutes, I felt pretty focused on my breathing and the sounds and, if my focus did begin to fade, each new hit of a gong brought it back. But as the time passed, my mind did begin to wander and even those loud noises faded into the background. Over the course of the hour, I did recognize several times that I had lost focus and was able to bring myself back to the task at hand. But I don't think I ever fell into a fully meditative state. For that, I was a bit disappointed—partially with the sound bath for not being the miraculous meditation solution I wanted it to be, but more so with myself for not being able to successfully submit to the experience.
I thought about it some more when I got home that night. The bad mood I was in when I arrived at the studio was gone, and I did feel more relaxed. And sure, that could have been the case after any screen-less, "me"-time activity I could have done after a long day on my computer. Then again, I also realized that, while there was some disappointment, I didn't come out of that meditation frustrated and angry like I did with my many, many previous attempts. So I decided not to discount it.
I downloaded a Gong Bath app and started the next day with a five-minute session, lying on my squishy shag rug under a blanket. It wasn't a perfect meditation—my mind still wandered a bit—but it was...nice. So I tried it again the next day. And the next. In the month since I took the class, I've used the app more mornings than not. I don't know if my internal frequencies are being reharmonized or my chakras are being realigned with each mini-session, and I'm not sure I buy into the whole planetary thing. But I do know that something about this sound bath keeps me coming back. Rather than feeling obligated, I feel compelled to do it in the mornings. When the timer goes off at the end, I sometimes start it over for a few extra minutes, rather than feeling relieved it's done.