Bang the Bowl Slowly
The first time someone gave me a Tibetan singing bowl sound healing, I left my body.
“What just happened?” I found myself saying once I returned to it, dazed.
Then I glanced around the nondescript office in Midtown Manhattan where a young woman had just placed golden bowls of many sizes all around me and on top of my body, then played them as they resonated in parts of me I hadn’t known existed.
And my mission became clear.
“I want to do this for other people,” I announced.
And six months later, just as the deadliest pandemic in more than a century was poised to barrel into New York City, I met the extraordinarily gifted sound healer – Kathy Hamer – who could teach me how to do that.
“Well, aren’t you a ray of sunshine” was the first thing Kathy ever said to me.
Standing in the doorway of her tiny studio on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I immediately launched into the familiar narrative I’d clung to for decades – how I’d been haunted by all the mental illness in my family of origin, along with my own anxiety and panic. And how I’d almost died as an infant, leaving me scarred by trauma.
But Kathy shook her head. “Nope,” she said with a smile. “You are pure heart bowl.”
I had no idea what a heart bowl was back then. And I had no idea that there was a strong connection between experiencing all that suffering and cultivating profound joy. But I would learn all that and so much more once Kathy began assembling a set of antique singing bowls for me – sourced by her Tibetan teacher from the tiny Himalayan villages where they’d been created.
Ranging in size from four inches to twelve inches and forged in the 1800s and 1900s from seven precious metals that had been melted down and poured into stone molds, every bowl corresponded to a different chakra or energy point in the body. As Kathy introduced me to their history and powerful properties, she became my mentor, healer, confidante, and beloved friend during one of the most confusing and terrifying times in my life.
Thousands of people were dying daily in hospitals all over New York City, and once schools, offices, and businesses were shut down – leaving the streets eerily silent – Kathy and I moved our lessons to Zoom. She’d relocated to upstate New York to quarantine with her family: I was locked away with my husband and dog in the suburban house where we’d raised our two sons, who now lived in New York City but didn’t dare visit us, afraid that they’d infect us with the deadly virus.
While some shell-shocked Americans hoped to spend their time at home mastering new things like cooking, crafting, learning a second language, or racing up mountains on their Pelotons, I didn’t have a specific goal in mind for my sound healing adventure.
I just banged the bowls.
My playing came straight from the heart, and the bowls cried out in ways that I couldn’t, sometimes mournfully, sometimes hopefully. Kathy urged me to play for myself before attempting to play for others, and she never made me feel self-conscious about mistakes I might be making; it seemed, in fact, that there were none to be made.
So, every morning I’d wake up before dawn and head downstairs to our living room, where the bowls sat on a coffee table. Then I’d play them and weep. For myself, my family, my friends who I never saw anymore, New York City, patients dying alone in ICUs, their grieving families, the medical staff tending to them in the hellish halls of overcrowded hospitals, essential workers serving the needs of those of us fortunate enough to stay home…the list of people who were suffering unprecedented pain was overwhelming.
During a period when the whole world was hurting, I discovered – in a deep, profound way – that the world is always hurting. That we must all learn lessons from other people’s suffering – whether they be strangers, friends, or family. And the biggest, most important lesson is that cultivating compassion for others will be what truly heals us.
Sound healing is a practice that’s 5,000 years old, originating in India and introduced to Tibet during the time of the Buddha. My bowls were made by monks sitting in a circle of four, facing each other and chanting prayers as they struck the molten metal: Om Mane Padme Hum, Om Mane Padme Hum, Om Mane Padme Hum. And now every time I struck a bowl, hundreds of prayers were released into the world.
God knows the world needed them
Under the care of a psychotherapist, I had benefited from powerful therapies like EMDR and Somatic Experiencing, and it was clear that the bowls were a continuation of that somatic healing. One minute I could be weeping in my living room, and then I could feel a lightness enter my body. They seemed to magically intuit what I needed to feel and release at any given point in time.
Kathy taught me that Westerners tend to think of certain emotions like anger or fear as “good” or “bad,” or “healthy” and “unhealthy.” But when I played the protocols that she’d designed to address a wide range of emotions, I discovered that they were always shifting and that sometimes the most painful feelings can lead us to take the most constructive action. I began recording my teaching sessions with Kathy, hoping to capture all the wisdom she was passing down to me.
And in the quiet of my own home, I began playing the bowls online for friends and their friends, who were quarantining all over the country, facing all kinds of challenges. It was fascinating to see who showed up, drawn to the sounds that had mesmerized me so immediately.
Someone hearing them on Facebook asked me to record a session for nurses working in the Covid ICU of a Manhattan hospital. Next, I offered up the bowls to a dear, bereft friend whose son had just died of a drug overdose. And a few months later I played them for a brave young woman whose brother had been killed by police officers ten years earlier and was speaking out eloquently at Black Lives Matter demonstrations. I played the bowls on Zoom for a grieving group of social workers in Manhattan whose co-worker had died of Covid.
The bowls kept finding their way to people who were in pain, including a woman who’d been listening to them online regularly until she was diagnosed with Covid in the spring of 2021, and hospitalized in the ICU unit of a New York City hospital, close to death.
“If only we could somehow pipe the sound of the bowls into those ICUs,” Kathy had remarked back when thousands of New Yorkers had been dying all alone, hooked up to ventilators and surrounded in hospitals by heavily masked strangers. “Imagine the comfort we could give to people.”
And now I did just that.
I played protocols that specifically addressed my friend’s battered lungs and she listened to them over her phone, which she placed on her chest. As patients all around her struggled and died, the bowls helped ease her fear and labored breathing. And when she was finally released from the hospital, I played them as she was transferred from one rehab facility to another, finally returning home four months later, still struggling and still finding the bowls a powerful healing tool, as she does to this very day while she faces long term COVID symptoms.
A friend was diagnosed with cancer and Kathy instructed me how to play protocols that soothed her anxiety about chemotherapy and its side effects. When I filled my largest, oldest bowl with warm water scented with rose oil, then placed her feet in the bowl and played, I felt my heart fill with love and gratitude for the opportunity to be part of her healing process as her neuropathy lessened.
It’s a privilege to help others find a path forward, through whatever they’re experiencing, be it the death of a loved one, a health crisis, or other significant life passages. Every sound healing session I gave to anyone was a gift to myself.
As Covid changed the way everyone looked at themselves and the world around them, I discovered that loneliness and fear were an epidemic as well, which made my own suffering feel like a drop in an ocean of grief.
After one session when I ‘d detected sexual trauma in a stranger, I got spooked and wondered whether this practice was a kind of gift or a burden. So, I turned to Kathy for advice, which she skillfully provided for me. Along with a reality check.
“Anyone can do this work,” Kathy said modestly and matter-of-factly, “They’re just not slowing down, becoming truly present, and listening as you’ve been trained to do.”
My dream at the beginning of the pandemic was that all human beings would be forced to slow down long enough to learn how to open their hearts, and that our communal suffering would somehow make us more compassionate as a people. But what I learned is that fear often drives us toward selfishness, while true selfless service opens the door to deep, sustainable connection and healing.
I’d been trained to recognize people’s pain for what it was and then intuit ways to address it. That’s the ultimate in selfless service, which is the foundation of most spiritual practices.
When I play the bowls for people now, I tap into their most private insecurities and frailties, which arise in their bodies and enter my consciousness with a fluidity that makes it easy to be compassionate. I can feel fear and sorrow trembling inside of them, then place the bowls in places that will facilitate releases and allow their bodies to bring awareness to new energy coming forward.
And that energy is best described as love.
“Just be love,” is what I tell myself every time I sit down to play the bowls for someone.
During a time when people could literally kill each other merely by breathing on one another, I learned how to heal strangers. How to give away love.
I try to get people to live, breathe and love with more comfort now, and I play the bowls much more slowly than I did when I first encountered them, savoring the fact that very strike of a bowl contains an entire cycle of birth, life, and death. There’s no need to rush that exquisite, rich, deep experience.
I don’t question the power of the bowls or my role in playing them, or whether their ability to lessen our pain is medicine or love.
But I do believe that it’s probably both.
And that the world needs more of this magic.