GongLab Sound Healing
Saturday, January 31st 7-9PM
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I spoke with GongLab's Shu Shubat to find out about GongLab's history, what's behind sound healings, and what people can expect from the experience.
Q. How did GongLab come about?
A. A winding series of events lead up to what we are doing now. The backstory is that Ollie Seay and I are longtime collaborators. We co-founded a performing arts troupe in 1992 called Jellyeye Drum Theatre. As directors of this troupe, our interest was in creating a hybrid form - a percussive language that could also convey a narrative in gesture and motion. The work was experiential so it's a bit difficult to describe. It involved complexly choreographed, interlocking drumming performed on a set of custom designed rolling drums. Our objective was to create a swirling mandala of simultaneous sound and movement that would be a visceral, cathartic experience for the viewer. Needless to say, a 15+ year investigation into that sort of primal material will lead you into some pretty Archetypal territory. A few years before the group disbanded, Ollie and I were researching an eclectic blend of subjects related to the earliest roots of theatre: ceremonial instruments, dreams, myths and folktale, ritual and trance states at which point we became very interested in the psychoacoustic properties of bells, bowls, metallaphones, and gongs. Looking back on it now, hearing an Earth Gong for the first time was definitely a course-altering experience.
Q. Tell us about your name?
A. We bought the Earth Gong around 2003 or so. Of course, with a background in percussion we were familiar with all sorts of gongs, but we had never heard an instrument that was capable of creating such an extraordinary range of sound and textures - planets spinning, ocean waves crashing, meteors hurtling through space, rainstorms raging, celestial choirs, monks chanting - sounds that took you miles under the Earth's surface and sounds that launched you into revolving galaxies. I learned that this instrument was also being used in therapeutic settings. It's tuned to the transit of the Earth as it travels around the Sun and that same frequency also happens to be the harmonic signature attributed to the seed sound OM. The gong has a certain type of frequency that is able to penetrate the body, clear energetic channels, and encourage meditative states as brainwaves are driven into Alpha and Theta states.
Around the same time we purchased the gong, I was reading everything I could find about Milton Erickson. I had a practice of researching and sampling just about every healing modality out there because my own brain chemistry has veered toward the depressive ever since the onset of puberty. Milton Erickson is considered to be the father of medical hypnosis. He was stricken with polio at an early age and spent his entire childhood paralyzed with only his hearing and sight intact. He became an acute observer of his environment and the sub-verbal communication of the people around him. I was fascinated by him because it was said that his genius and instinct in working with the unconscious was so extraordinary that when he became a therapist later in life, somehow in the process of telling a client a story, for example, a story about his tomato plant seedlings, he was able to rewire whatever the client's presenting issues were - phobias, neuroses, illness, depression, whatever the case. I was also familiar with Buddhist, Hindu and Sufi "teaching tales." These were stories that were crafted in such a way that they held codes for levels of growth in the consciousness of the listener. You know, the kind of story a Master tells his student and then this narrative gets down in there in the wiring and forms a map to spiritual truths the student is in the process of understanding.
Since we had spent years working in the arena of theatre, a discipline that involves sound and story, I wondered what kind of experience might be created with the use of "healing" sound and "healing" story. As Jellyeye was disbanding, "Gong Lab" was the name Ollie and I used to designate this emerging area of interest. As we moved further along the path, GongLab became a nomadic "laboratory" for both of our creative pursuits as well as our own inner work and development. It became the container in which we were distilling a mix of diverse but related trainings and teachings. Our interest in ritual and ceremony lead us to Lama Lobsang Palden who is a TIbetan Buddhist Lama, a gifted healer and our long time mentor in sound healing. Ollie had been a math major when he was in college at University of Chicago. Subjects like contemplative geometry, quantum theory, string theory, people like Robert Lawlor, Kepler, Fibonacci, and Pythagoras - all of these held significant keys for him. The appreciation of their writings and explorations along with his interest in Buddhism and esoteric teachings expanded to an interest and training in energetic work, Reiki, Vortex Healing, etc. - all of it very complimentary to working with the gong. I pursued a Yoga Certification, following which my interest in story, symbol and the psyche put me on a path of completing a Clinical Training in Jungian Psychotherapy. As it happened, at the time of my training there seemed to be a growing interest in Shamanism among the analysts. It might seem odd at first, but there is a very natural overlap there, in that, from both a Jungian and Shamanic perspective, consciousness is not in the heart and brain, the heart and brain are IN consciousness. As humans, we regard ourselves as conscious and everything else out there as unconscious, when from the larger perspective we are embedded in a sea of percolating consciousness but we are just too unconscious to see it. I feel extremely fortunate to have studied with a few analysts on this trajectory. Being able to understand these Earth-based traditions through a Jungian lens has been an invaluable experience, and integrating the insights gleaned from these teachings has been an essential phase in the laboratory of our exploration. That understanding contributed layers of meaning and resonance to working with the Earth Gong - a sound that essentially calls us back into participation with this larger Whole, back into connection with Mother Earth and, symbolically, the qualities of the Divine Feminine. I guess that's a long way of explaining that the "Lab" part of GongLab is an umbrella for this particular mix of material we are exploring through our work. Sound healing is one component in that mix.
Q. What kinds of sounds are used in sound healing sessions?
A. An Earth Gong, a smaller Javanese nipple gong I like to call a Water Gong or Naga Gong because of it's liquid rippling sound and the beautiful Nagas (serpentine creatures with crowns) carved into it's wooden stand. You'll hear a heartbeat drum, shakers, Himalayan Bowls, bells, chimes, tingshaws, a Korean gong called a Jing which is elementally related to the wind, and the sound of my voice, guiding you through a brief relaxation and visualization at the beginning then returning to sing mantra in the later part of the experience.
Q. What is the connection between Sound Healing and Meditation?
A. As I mentioned earlier, the frequencies of the gong have the ability to drive brainwaves into meditative states so unlike meditation it’s not something you'll need to actively focus on doing, particularly, unless you have a practice that you'd like to implement during the session. Then, by all means experiment with that if you'd like.
Typically, people will find themselves drifting in and out of states of drowsiness, imagery, short intervals of sleep perhaps. In addition, this experience will be more of a full body sensation than meditation. It has some similarities to something like a deep acupuncture session where you can feel the channels opening up, expanding and releasing as a dreamy state is induced. On the other hand, because the sound is palpably moving through the body, I'd say it's much more of a vibratory experience and in that way unique unto itself. Because you're moving through a landscape of sounds and textures it can also be a very visual experience for many people - a sense of traveling, and a sense of time bending and shifting.
Q. What are some of the beneficial aspects of sound healing sessions?
A. The sound is doing the work of opening up the channels through which the Prana or life force flows through the body. I like to augment the work that the gong is doing by talking you through a very purposeful intention setting / candle lighting ceremony at the outset, followed by a guided relaxation as you move into the landscape of sound. This helps the body access the process that the sound waves are initiating at deeper levels. There are a lot of reasons why we accumulate blockages in the free flow of this life force in the body. The mental structures we wall ourselves up in, physical pain and, more and more I think, the pace and culture of this time we are living in is such that it actually encourages us to live in our heads, in a concept. As humans we are embedded in these larger fields of prana and vibration. The session works like a transfusion of sorts. Picture a stagnant lake that was formed by a great river being dammed up. When the locks are open, the lake has access to these larger life-giving streams of energy and the stagnant muck can be cleared away. In the same way, the sound pressure waves travel through the connective tissues that form a network through all systems of the body down to a cellular level. The multi-tonal frequencies initiate the release of holding patterns that often manifest as fear, fatigue, or depression and can result in illness.
Q. Tell us the best way to prepare for the experience?
A. My first suggestion would be to wear loose comfortable clothing. I think it's also probably best to have a buffer of about 60-90 minutes since your last meal. Since the event will begin at 7pm, shortly after the dinner hour, I will highlight the fact that the gong sound initiates recalibration in the body and as a result it tends to amplify what's in the system as the body is trying to reset itself. This might mean if you've had a heavy meal or a couple of drinks you may fall asleep pretty quickly. If you are over caffeinated, it's possible that your experience may be one of heightened restlessness. In any case, you'll definitely want to remember to have an empty bladder before lying down in order to avoid being distracted and uncomfortable.
On the other side of the equation, although it's not necessary, a lovely walk in nature, a hot bath, meditation, breath work, yoga, or some other form of exercise earlier in the day could prepare the body for an even deeper experience of openness and well being.
Q. What should people bring?
A. Participants will be laying down for most of the experience. Sometimes yoga studios have enough mats and blankets to go around in which case one should just bring a pillow for the head. Many people show up with Ikea bags filled with their blankets and pillows along with a mat or sleeping bag to lie on. It's a womb-like experience that can be nicely augmented by a sense of safety and comfort, so you are invited to make yourself feel soothed and insulated with a favorite blanket, eye pillow, etc. - whatever feels right for you. Since we are sharing a space together and many people have allergies, it's best to make sure whatever you are bringing into the studio is free of pet hair, strong perfumes and detergents and such.
Q. What are some of the most surprising things people have told you about their experiences with their first gong sound healing?
A. Well, the most personally surprising thing I've heard was told to me after our sound healing event at the Medicine Buddha Retreat this summer in the Catskill mountains, where we work with Lama Lobsang Palden each year. A man in attendance was a neuroscientist at the forefront of research on the effects of meditation and yoga on the brain. At some point in the past, he had had a life-altering, visionary experience in which some form of the Divine Feminine appeared to him. That particular night as I was singing the Green Tara mantra, it happened to him again. In the middle of it, he was able to pull a card out of his pocket, write a short note to himself, and then go back into the overwhelming experience. I love the complete nerdiness of that! It turns out that the note was a reminder to connect with us afterwards and invite us to be part of a very inspirational event centered around the Divine Feminine that he hopes will be realized sometime next year. There's more to the story than this and I suppose it would explain why it was so incredibly surprising to me, but part of it was that at the time this happened, I was really just beginning to see very clearly that the archetype of the Divine Feminine is really the solidifying core of the work we are doing. And, I was seeing that it was also right there at the beginning in the original impulse to form GongLab - the desire to create this womb-like experience for healing and repair, the bedtime story motif: people arriving with their blankets and pillows, the gong tuned to the frequency of Mother Earth, its lullaby ushering people into the realm of dreams and darkness… and the death of my own mother 4 years ago which really had a profound influence on my own path of exploration. So, that moment of synchronicity through this surprising event was very poignant for me.
Here's a more humorous anecdote in regard to surprising things people have told me and this happened again just this past weekend. Occasionally, an elderly woman will come up to me and whisper sheepishly, "I'm a little embarrassed to ask but I just have to know. Does anyone ever have….?" At which point I say "You mean, a cosmic orgasm?... because yes, I do hear this from time to time.” And, then she'll say, "Ah, I didn't want it to stop! At first, I didn't recognize it. I was like… Is this?... You know, it's been a LOOOOOOOOOOONG time!"