Sound…Nourishing, Balancing, Healing, Transformative
As I sit gazing out the 8th floor window of San Diego’s downtown library, overlooking construction to the harbor, alight with sail boats, sun sparkling off the blue ocean water, I can feel the imposed silence on the room. But, even more acutely probably because of the silence, hear the whispers, the beep of a phone not silenced, the cranes moving in slow-measured arcs, the hum of traffic, the sound of the keys pressed on my computer. Sounds distant, some penetrating, some soothing, all held within the container of silence. Sound arising, dissolving, arising again. Sound traveling on air, in waves, carrying through liquid and gas, into our ears, amplified and directed by the shape of our outer ear, mechanically vibrating the bones within our middle ear, translated into waves in fluid through the cochlea which flow over approximately 30,000 hair like cilia. As these cilia are each uniquely moved by the pitch and tone, the specific waveform of each sound, a signal transmits down the nerve attached to each cilia and then is then translated within the brain as horn, siren, guitar strings, drum, voice of a stranger, voice of a loved one, song, wind, birdsong, cricket and the list is infinite. Each sound brought into our being for identification, translation, resonance, emotional tenor, and potentially response.
They eyes project out of our head, allowing us to see what is not us. The ears allow all that exists to be brought within. The ears are inherently receptive, beginning their early development as early as 3 weeks into gestation and being fully functional by 4 months gestation. Sound, carried through the fluids of the body, literally becomes us, transmitting information and allowing for coherent activity throughout our entire system.
Sound is the foundation of form, which is enlivened by spirit.
Our cells communicate with one another through sound. Our entire being is a hum of sound. The old physiological concept of lock and key interaction triggering a cellular activity is being replaced with one of information. And, just as communication in a noisy environment, or communication in an unhealthy relationship becomes distorted, cellular communication too can become distorted by dysfunction, toxicity and noise.
And any treatment we employ, be it food, herb, movement, breath, or drug has to be carried via this network of communication to its target. The cells have to be able to receive and interpret the message efficiently and then be able to respond efficiently.
In a world strife with miscommunication, with yelling, with fighting, with fear, is it in any wonder that at a personal and individual level, our cells are also missing some of their essential messages, making it difficult to maintain balance and wellness? In a world where we are bombarded by visual images, but less often engage in the natural sounds of the human voice through song, chant, or in the sounds of nature, we are not invited into the deepest parts of our being and invited to know our fundamental connection to all that arises and is.
The universe is literally humming constantly with sound. Pythagorus stated that “each and every atom produces a particular sound on account of its movement, its rhythm or vibration.”
Information and sound can be destructive, harmful, damaging. But, sound can also be powerfully and potently healing. By resonating with a vibration that encourages healthy cellular communication, that is soothing to the nervous system, that allows for connection and unity, every part of our being benefits. Isaac Arama, Kabbalistic author of The Binding of Isaac wrote in the fifteenth century, “when we are emotionally and physically in tune with our own inner nature, we are likewise attuned to the vibration of the universe.”
Rhythm is the fundamental pattern of the universe. Atoms, molecules, plants, animals and humans operate in entrainment with one another. When two metronomes are placed in the same space, started at different times, they will, with time, entrain to the same beat. Flocks of birds and schools of fish move as one. Similarly, when the body is operating in harmony with our vital essence, healing occurs. When we are out of harmony, when communication is blocked by emotional, mental and physical residue, disease can ensue and healing becomes much more challenged. Poet Pir Vilayat Khan writes about the voice bringing us into harmony with the universe: “If the sound generated by the vocal cords into the vibratory network of the universe has the faculty of tuning one, it is because it links one with the cosmic symphony.”
Mitchell Gaynor, MD, a well-respected oncologist, who unfortunately passed away last year, used singing bowls and chanting regularly in practice along with conventional and integrative medical therapies. In his book, The Healing Power of Sound, he tells stories of patients who were transformed through sound and meditative practices, and discusses the many ways in which sound was the medicine of the past and will again become the medicine of the future.
Gaynor speaks beautifully to the power of sound in opening the body-mind-spirit and cellular operations to harmony, rhythm and healing. “What so many of my patients have in common is not the specifics of their disease, but rather their inability to hear their personal life song. It’s as if the negative messages they’ve received and the trauma they’ve experienced since childhood have caused them to become tone-deaf to the true and unencumbered voice of their own souls.” He goes to say, “I’m convinced that physical recovery cannot occur unless we acknowledge our constricted natures and boldly strike out beyond their borders to discover our true, unencumbered selves.” Rudolph Steiner, the father of anthroposophical medicine, compared physical illness to an untuned piano. Claude Bernard, a french physiologist, who first coined the concept of homeostasis hypothesized that our inner environment functions most efficiently when all our systems are in fine-tuned balance.
Sound is a powerful, effective medium for restoring this harmonic balance. Working with sound can allow for our emotions to be expressed freely, for our physiology to be restored to a healthy rhythm and balance, and for the restrictions that keep us from hearing our personal life song to be released. Gaynor states that through tuning the body with sound, empowered healing will ensue.
Several research studies have shown the healing potential of music on a variety of illnesses and imbalances. Reducing stress, anxiety, and heart rate, reducing cardiac complications after heart attacks, lowering blood pressure, reducing noise sensitivity, improving immune cell communication, and a reduction in stress hormones have all been documented in various studies.
One particular area of interest to me, which I believe has far reaching effects, is the improvement in activity of natural opiates or endorphins. There has been a lot of attention placed recently on the use of low-dose opiate analogues in managing the symptoms of auto-immune disease, fibromyalgia and even assisting in cancer treatment. The joy people experience when they listen to music they enjoy can be attributed to this endorphin release. Endorphins help us manage adaptation. If we are experiencing a stressful situation, endorphins, when healthy, keep the body from having an exaggerated stress response. Exaggerated stress responses, when chronic, repeated or prolonged, can be damaging to the immune system, increase inflammation and inhibit healing. This is a topic for an entire other blog, but understanding why people do not manage endorphins well and how we can support this activity is of integral importance in many of the chronic illnesses so common today. The current therapies reduce symptoms and improve quality of life, but the symptoms return when the therapies are discontinued.
The power of sound to harmonize the physiology and allow for healing on all aspects of being could allow for a return to healthy and lasting endorphin activity and a re-equilibration of the adaptation response.
There are many ways to engage in healing sound.
1. Our words. Words have incredible power and when words are spoken in love, with compassion, with honesty and kindness; healing ensues. May we practice the four gateways of speech. May we speak truth, May we be kind, May we speak only what is necessary, and May we be aligned with wise timing. Also, the human voice through song, chant and mantra is particularly resonant with our entire being. Gaynor writes, “sound is a manifestation of breath, and breath is the most fundamental aspect of life.” When we engage in song or chanting, we naturally become more in tune with our breath. Paying attention to our breath and allowing for the free flow of deep breath also allows us to play with the sound and tones we can create. Many people become restricted in the expression of sound, either through childhood messages that we cannot sing well, or the nudges we receive in “polite” society to operate more quietly. I have found in my own personal life and in patients with whom I’ve worked that screaming, laughing, singing and vocalizing can be incredibly powerful tools for release and healing.
Another important aspect of the voice is that it modulates our parasympathetic nervous system. Prosity, or the tone and rhythm of the voice are sensed by the vagus nerve, a primary nerve involved in how we perceive threat and in how our major organs function and communicate their functioning to our brain. Again, this is a topic for another blog. But, in short, Stephen Porges, in his work on the Polyvagal Theory which has incredible implications for trauma, neurodevelopment disorders and mental health as well as physical health, reminds us that the Vagus nerve, a cranial nerve which runs from the brainstem and connects to the heart, lungs, diaphragm and intestines, both senses activity in the body and modulates this activity. The tone of various sounds, especially voice, sends a signal of safety and calm or threat and anxiety to the brain via the vagus nerve and can impact heart rate, breathing rate and digestion in response. Think of a mother’s lullaby and the calming effect on a fussy infant. Working with our own voice through toning may support a healthy and balanced vagus nerve response and help us experience our environment as fundamentally safe rather than being in constant states of high alert. This has a profound impact on our wellness.
Our environment. Being in nature and allowing ourself time to rest in the sounds of wind in the trees, ocean waves, birdsong, rustling woodland creatures, and the sounds of the universe, the sounds of stars, of sunshine, of darkness, of the flowers and the insects entrains our physiology to to the world in which we are meant to be in natural harmony. Natures sounds are sometimes felt more as silence, but fundamentally waves of sound simply perhaps imperceptible to our conscious range of hearing provide entrainment and healing at the oftentimes imperceptible layers of our being. See the following video for a fascinating exploration of the songs plants share with the world. Singing Plants
2. Music. Throughout history, people have engaged in healing sound, through chant, mantra, storytelling, drumming, and specifically tuned instruments. “Relaxing music” has been used in operating rooms and hospitals and showed improved healing responses and reduced patient stress. Bellaruth Naparstek uses imagery and music for a number of mental and physical states and her work has been used specifically for patients undergoing surgery where healing was improved in the experimental group. In the movie Awakenings, the story of Oliver Sacks work is told where music was used with patients with Parkinson’s, acting as a catalyst for improved freedom of movement. Music has been used to improve labor and delivery and also to facilitate the transition out of this life. And Gordon Shaw, PhD states that “the music of Mozart may ‘warm up’ the brain.” He suspects that “complex music facilitates certain complex neuronal patterns involved in high brain activities like math and chess.”
3. Sound therapy. There a number of sound therapies available and being used specifically for healing. Tuning forks, gongs, harps, and and singing bowls are a few. Crystal singing bowls are an instrument I have found particularly useful. Singing bowls have been used since ancient times, made of metal in Tibet. Today, bowls made of quartz crystal are a simple instrument which can be tapped with a mallet or the mallet can be moved along the rim of the bowl just as you might run a finger along the top of a crystal glass to create a rich and vibrant tone. The bowls are tuned to a wide scale of notes. A person may resonate with one bowl or a trio of bowls which can then be played daily as part of a daily meditation practice. Toning or chanting, bringing the voice in tune with the bowls and playing with harmony magnifies the healing capacity of this incredible therapy.
Gaynor writes of his experience with singing bowls for his patients: “The sounds permeate our systems, resonating with our essence, so that inner chaos, conflict and dissonance seem almost immediately to be transformed into harmony.” Gaynor envisioned a day “in the not-to-distant future when music therapists regularly visit and work with patients in all of our healing institutions; when singing, toning, chanting, and other forms of music echo through the corridors of every hospital unit.” And, That “quartz crystal singing bowls are offered as a healing option as routinely as antibiotics, surgery, and chemotherapy – a truly holistic approach that melds sound and high-tech medicine.”
It is a joy to share crystal singing bowls with my patients, and knowing the power of sound, of being in harmony with ourselves and with our world, I daily pray and strive for harmony in our communication, in our interactions, in the way we engage with sound, and in the incorporation of sound in a therapeutic manner into our healing practices on a daily basis.
To learn more about Crystal Bowl Healing, contact us at 858-332-1645 to schedule a private session or to meet the bowls. Also check our event page for upcoming meditation/sound and yoga/sound events. Happy singing!