Tag Archives: music


Healing Vibes: My First Sound Bath

Many of the coolest things I’ve done in my life have been spontaneous, last-minute “that sounds interesting” kinds of decisions. The night before the Women’s March, I was scrolling through Facebook and saw a post about a sound bath hosted by the Acoustic Mandala Project, whom I knew about through Brooklyn Raga Massive. As I happen to be working on a series of art pieces based on sacred geometry and mandalas, their name jumped out at me, and I asked my mother if she’d like to go directly after the march. We agreed it would be a stark contrast and hoped we wouldn’t be too tired to fully experience it, but we were both so intrigued we couldn’t resist. Not surprisingly, it turned out to be one of the better decisions we’ve ever made.

A sound bath is a meditative experience using specific frequencies of sound (kind of like notes or tones) that – forgive the pun – strike a chord in people. The mathematical relationship among the frequencies touches something visceral and fundamental in the body and mind, and people generally experience incredible healing and a profound meditative experience. These guys carefully explained the concepts, how they derived the tones and discovered the ways different sounds resonate with one another to form chord-like harmonies. They blended electronically purified tones with raga-inflected rhythms, instrumentation, chimes, flutes, and singing bowls struck in person to make an unbelievably rich tapestry of sound and vibrations. I don’t mean vibration in the sort of airy-fairy sense, but actual physical vibrations that coursed through the body head-to-toe for several minutes at a time. But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit.

After the introduction, everyone in the group laid down on yoga mats in a wobbly semi-circle, covered with woven blankets and wearing eye masks. After our day of marching and feeling so connected with women and humanity on a universal level, it was a vertiginous dive into the mind and the self. The first few minutes felt like a psychedelic clearing-out of everything my mind had been processing, just loads of colors and shapes, invented cartoon characters, and as close as what I imagine LSD hallucinations might look like. I typically experience mild synesthesia in response to sound (which is part of why I am so obsessed with music), so any time I close my eyes and listen, it’s a bit like watching abstract paintings swim around. The purity of these tones evoked something much more intense and emotional than usual, which I felt to be the core of myself. The sound bath lasted a bit more than an hour, I think, with various instruments and tones being introduced, moved around the room, and bringing our bodies and minds on an extraordinary journey with them.

I have spent a lot of time trying to wrap my head around the idea of resonance, as it was the basis for the NMR research we did at Pratt and generally a very cool concept (I highly suggest reading more about acoustic resonance and then helping me explain it better). If you imagine two frequencies of energy like waves in the ocean that run into one another, they first go higher (amplification) then move together thereafter (sympathetic vibrations) at a sweet spot that causes more waves around them. It’s a bit more complex, but certain frequencies resonate in relationships that form chords that just feel right, like the brightness of the I-III-V relationship of major triads in music.

They had a pair of singing bowls that not only resonated with one another, but did so in a I-V relationship (I think – it might have been I-IV), so that when one was struck by the feet and the other by the head, the body joined in the brightness of that sound, and you could literally feel every molecule of yourself vibrating like an open chord. Maybe it is helpful to picture a bunch of particles spinning in random directions. When the tones were struck, imagine every one aligning like a crystalline grid and briefly spinning in the same direction, in a way that made the mind experience pure joy and luminous energy. There is more neuroscience and physics to it, but the sensation was like having goosebumps all over, shivering with pleasure, and feeling every part of oneself melt into another state.

Prayer wheels at Sarnath, the site of the bodhi tree where the Buddha attained enlightenment.
(Prints available)

I thought that might be the height of the experience, but it continued through a whole bunch of other similar body and mind sensations, choreographed in waves and beautiful complexity. It felt like my soul was dancing, simultaneously a particle and a wave in some quantum state of existence and non-existence. I felt utterly, completely free, like metaphysical flying, but also intensely grounded and connected with the raw physicality of being human.

The “finale” of the sound bath is one of those sensations I will keep with me the rest of my life. They went around to each person and struck tuning forks to a pitch that once again resonated perfectly with the softer tones washing over the room, then placed the forks on everyone’s foreheads. I am struggling to think of any way to describe it except as a soul-level orgasm. The frequencies are known to be healing, for reasons not yet fully understood, unlocking blocked emotions and energies within the body and kind of making them sing. Having this pure vibration reverberate from the head through the entire body for several minutes of exquisite being-in-this-moment presence is like nothing I’ve ever known before. I’ve never felt more awake, yet at peace, aware of everything in my mind, yet open. It was like stretching, seeing stars, and slipping through a crack into some surreality of pleasure and beauty.

I was afraid of the come-down from such a great high, that as the vibrations ceased all the muddy and dark stuff in my brain would gunk it up again. I was astonished to find that never happened. I wasn’t able to pinpoint when the vibrations ceased – I just kind of rode the wave back into myself. I preserved the clarity and purity of that moment for the rest of the session – and since then – as if all the little subatomic particles in my mind and body got right and just stayed that way.

When we took our eye masks off, I saw everyone else’s eyes were wide and shining like mine, as they described things they felt and “saw” and experienced throughout. It was the spiritual equivalent of the sun coming out from behind clouds after rain and lighting up the mind like the sky. My mother described dramatic visuals in shades of purple, which are supposed to be associated with the crown chakra in meditation. I joked with her that purple is the color I’ve always associated with her, so of course her soul would be purple too.

I am still mesmerized by what an extraordinary experience it was, and I doubt I can ever adequately convey to someone what it felt like in that moment. When I think back, it reminds me of the time I jumped off a cliff into a glacial river in Iceland – saying the words and telling the story kept horrifying me every time I repeated it, like I still couldn’t believe I’d actually done that. This sound bath was a similar sort of jumping-off-a-cliff into something exhilaratingly beautiful and unknown, and yet at the same time, diving within, to the parts of my mind and existence I know best because they’ve been with me all along. I will cherish it forever.

Walking Lightly

Music has a tendency to find me when I need it. I can’t count the amount of times a song has come up on shuffle, and it was like sunlight unexpectedly bursting into a room. Or when a band I love puts out a new album and I rediscover a song on an older album. I find I am suddenly in exactly the right state to fall in love with it, and it becomes a new favorite that acts like a beacon to pull me past whatever I’m going through.

That was the case a few years ago when I mentioned José González‘s brilliant album Veneer on a date (seriously, don’t you want to lean your head on someone’s shoulder, look at the stars, and listen to him sing “Heartbeats“??). When I got home I excitedly listened to his band Junip‘s new album. The song “Walking Lightly” came on, and it was like an auditory cathexis – all other sound and experience dissolved into soft focus and there was just this intensely beautiful song opening my heart and filling it with light and a sense that everything would be okay. It was the soft blanket wrapped around me when I most needed it, and I listened to it around the clock, hoping my coworkers didn’t realize it was literally on repeat for hour-long stretches sometimes. I saw Junip perform at (le) poisson rouge about a week before my beautiful Smokey died, when I knew he was nearing the end but still couldn’t accept it. I think that concert and seeing that song get put together live is one of the only things that preserved my sanity during that time, and it gave me whatever it was I needed to keep functioning and get through losing my honey.

Not surprisingly, it broke my heart to listen to Junip for years afterwards, no matter how much I still loved their music. I think everyone goes through that with the songs that get them through a loss or break-up, and it’s a tremendous feeling to be able to listen to them again and see that enough time has passed to have healed some, where the hurt has turned from an acute stab to a dull ache; it reminds you that eventually it will fade back into pure love.

One of my absolute favorite things to do is walk around and think. I recently read a new-to-me article from 2014 discussing some of the health and psychological benefits of purposeless walking, and I thought about how important walking and running is for clearing my head, processing experiences, working out artistic ideas, and reconnecting with the present tense. When I really need to mull something over, I can only effectively do it in motion, even though I don’t completely follow the prescribed method in that article (or the countless others I’ve read about running). I tend to listen to music because New York can be relentlessly loud and full of conversations I don’t want to overhear. Also because I am obsessed with music, but you knew that part already.

The other day I was in a specific kind of terrible pain that precluded running, but I knew I would feel better if I walked a few miles in the sunshine. I went to the amazing track in my neighborhood that’s across the street from Yankee Stadium so I could just get lost in my head. I used to despise track running, feeling like I was on a 1/4-mile long hamster wheel, but there is enough general activity at this one (this time it was an excellent soccer tournament) that I don’t even mind routinely being mistaken for a high school or college student by guys eager to show off how much taller and fitter they are. I really like the Bronx.

Walking around and around, I started thinking about the non-linear shape of time, picturing the layered loops on the MapMyRun app as a metaphor for our daily routines and the repetitions we make over time. “Walking Lightly” came on my shuffle, and I started to think through some of the experiences I wish I’d handled more gracefully in the moment and the way those missteps reverberated forward through time, often irrevocably damaging friendships and relationships. I also thought about past hurts, and the way holding onto grudges kept hurting me every time I thought about them with anger. As Salman Rushdie put it in his latest book:

“In the end, rage, no matter how profoundly justified, destroys the enraged. Just as we are created anew by what we love, so we are reduced and unmade by what we hate.”

I’d read an article earlier that day that someone had posted about the health benefits of forgiveness (apologies if you’re the one who posted it and I’m not crediting you – I really can’t remember how I got to it). Like a lot of people, I have a pretty firm policy against dating people who speak badly about their exes or parents, and I am always uneasy when friends still carry anger toward former friends or acquaintances. And yet, I am weapons-grade stubborn about holding grudges and I know it takes me a problematically long time to forgive and move on, especially when I know the person who hurt me doesn’t feel any remorse. I did a little mental inventory and realized, yeah, I still have some stuff, and I don’t want to keep carrying it anymore.

© Dr. Joerg M. Harms, Riboworld

Time isn’t a neat spiral or coil moving cleanly upwards or directly toward something. It’s a blobby, amorphous tangle of experiences that are shaped and colored differently as we go back and forth through them. I picture it like a complex protein. We think we are just shuffling along with minimal baggage, and then our secondary alpha-helix loops back around on a moment from long ago. Memory is a creative process, and if the past emotions haven’t been resolved they stick out and radiate energy that demands attention each time we remember them, like repeatedly stubbing a hurt toe. If the experiences are ugly or upsetting enough, they act like intramolecular forces that keep us reattaching and tangling ourselves back up in the same emotion every time, grasping that hot coal and getting burned over and over.

Memory is a strange form of transportation, and I think your mind really does bring you back and forth through time. It’s like this Tweet that describes the surreality of reading a book as, “you stare at marked slices of tree for hours on end hallucinating vividly.” If the mind truly is traveling back to that time and place that hurt, why do we feel compelled to keep reliving the painful memories? Is the brief satisfaction of a hateful grudge more important than letting the mind move around in peace?

I started to picture an alternative, of smoothing over the rough edges in my past by seeking understanding and compassion (however much I’m inclined to say it’s undeserved), and I made the decision to really forgive and move on, for my own sake, and to hope the people that I have hurt can do the same. I realize the only way out is through, so I need to find another way of feeling.

I believe that if I am careful and walk lightly, my amorphous blob of experience can stop tripping me up and flattening down into a terse spiral. Instead I can start stretching out, looking up instead of back, and grow in previously unimaginable directions. It is completely up to me to fill my own conscious experiences with light, to let the music back in, and stop giving the bad stuff so much power, until eventually it loses its sharpness and fades.

From here forward, I intend to be created anew with what I love.

Music literally blows the mind

I have always been elaborately, intricately, head-over-heels in love and obsessed with music. I am at my happiest when my calendar stacks up with dates at the opera, ballet, concerts, and especially the New York Philharmonic because hearing music live lights up parts of my mind and spirit that sometimes get neglected or undernourished and opens up new parts I didn’t know I had. I never realize how much I need to hear music performed until I am in the moment, a warmth spreading through my chest and flushing my cheeks, filling every cell of my being with some profound sense of right-here-and-now-ness and love.

I’ve been thinking and talking a lot about music lately with my brother, who is taking a world music class, and it’s given me the opportunity to examine what music means to me in a spiritual and philosophical sense.

This past summer in India (yep, here I go again about India) music played a massive part in the spiritual awakening I experienced. (By the way, an adorable friend from India asked super casually about my time on the Ganges in Varanasi, “And did you have a spiritual awakening?” the same way I’d ask, “Did you get to see the Colosseum?” to a friend visiting Rome, and it felt perfectly natural to say, “Yes, actually, I did,” completely unselfconsciously because that’s just what one does in India.) A lot of what I’m calling “music” isn’t structured like Western music, in that it’s often chanting in Sanskrit accompanied by drumming and percussion, but it feels incredibly musical in the way it transports the mind and carries the spirit with it.

The Ganga Aarti, the daily evening prayer performed at sunset on the Dashashwamedh Ghat on the Ganges in Varanasi is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever experienced, with seven priests making dedications, swinging around fire, and chanting gorgeous versus that I desperately want to find in translation. Candle offerings in floating cups surrounded by flowers are released into the Ganges to carry prayers or wishes (there is a lovely description and photos here). Something about the way the drums echo the gentle lapping of the water between boats and the seemingly lackadaisical current makes the moment truly magical and transformative. I felt intensely connected with a fundamentally benevolent universe, hopeful and full of a pure love for mankind, overwhelmed with what beauty and kindness we are capable of feeling and giving to the world.

In a small and very religious village called Orchha, which was one of my favorite places we visited, loudspeakers project the chanting and music from the Hindu temple throughout the town. At first I thought it must be oppressive and exhausting, as Christian hymns or a constant recitation of Bible verses in a small American town would get real old real quick, but our group leader said actually the chanting was primarily in Sanskrit and archaic language only recognizable to scholars, so it sort of washed over people in the town the same way it did for Westerners, surrounding you as you went about your day.

It felt a lot like having one’s own soundtrack, walking around town with seriously excellent drum and bass going at times. Despite the generally terrible quality of my video above, I hope you can understand how I felt I only needed Adrien Brody to show up to make my reenactment of a scene out of The Darjeeling Limited complete. Curiously, I found my body moved differently in Orchha, as I felt a rhythm and a connectedness every time I was in the street. It was occasionally surreal, like what I imagine it would be to have a music video spontaneously erupt around you, as so many people picture when wearing headphones walking through a city. This music became like an ether, enveloping and surrounding us, inflecting everything we did, and I noticed the people in Orccha also had an infectious happiness, a gentleness with each other, and a welcoming kindness that felt somehow connected to literally everyone moving on the same wavelength in harmony.

Maybe over time I would have gotten tired of it or tuned it out into background noise, but in the moment, I felt like I understood something fundamental about being human that dated back for centuries. Later I remembered a section of this wonderful BBC documentary series called The Story of India where the narrator visits Brahmins in Kerala who were chanting Vedic verses that preserve Bronze Age linguistic sounds that more closely resemble bird song than any human vocalizations we know today. This link with our super-ancient past was kept intact because Kerala has remained relatively peaceful, its traditions guarded and protected from invaders for thousands of years. The unique method of repeating syllables backwards and forwards (explored marvelously here) gives great fidelity to an oral tradition that might otherwise have been lost.

All these ideas about music and spirituality coalesced in another illuminating moment at the Rubin Museum in New York, which my mother and I visited for the excellent Steve McCurry: India photography exhibit (cannot recommend highly enough). The Rubin has some of the best exhibition pedagogy I’ve ever seen in their explanation of tantric imagery, materials, and techniques (I put some photos here). In one brief little wall text, I got one of the more perfect and concise explanations of tantric philosophy I’ve ever read:

Tantric deities are the focus of esoteric religious practices (tantras) that aim to radically transform conventional understandings of reality… Female and male deities in sexual embrace represent the unity of wisdom (understanding of reality) and method (compassionate action), two aspects of the enlightened mind.

I was genuinely taken aback by the simplicity of the concept, transforming one’s understanding of reality by uniting understanding with compassionate action in the mind. It all came home when I read another description of implements used in tantric rituals, specifically the bell symbolizing wisdom (the feminine aspect of enlightenment) and the hand drum, which when paired with the bell, “represents the male aspect of enlightenment and its drumming is the sound of the bliss of realizing the true nature of reality.” These implements (which I am inclined to think of as instruments) are used in the Tibetan practice of “cutting the ego” or Chöd, resounding with impermanence.

And there it was. Music has always been a tantric force for me, transforming my conventional understanding of reality by freeing me from the ego and time. By overwhelming and immersing me in the present, I actually am as connected with the past and future of humanity as I feel. The deep peace and love, that warmth in my cheeks and catch in my heart, are a profound bliss of realizing the true nature of reality in an ego-less state, which is, not surprisingly, a call to compassionate action and a flood of gratitude.

This may be the kind of piecing together of the universe that only I find relevant or important, but my mind was absolutely blown.

With this realization, coupled with a reluctance to listen to a lot of my Spotify playlists that are way too steeped in memories and associations, I’ve found myself getting obsessed with ragas, an Indian classical music mode derived from the word for “color” or “hue,” associated with different times of the day or season. The idea of the raga structure is to attach color, in the emotional and spiritual sense, to a moment, often stretching into long improvisational sections similar to jazz. I met a really sweet (and quite handsome) sitar player in India who taught me a few basics of how to play (permanent life philosophy: if someone offers you a sitar lesson, take it). He concluded, “The most important part is feeling. You have to use your heart to make a raga.”

I joked with him that I thought it would take a lot of practice before I made anything worth listening to, and he took my hand sincerely and said, “But your heart is good, I can see that.” (Indian guys are nothing if not charming.)

I always listen to music when I paint, and as I’ve been listening to ragas more and more, I feel my mind going to these incredibly open and expansive places, vast terrains of pure freedom. I believe this opening up or escape from the mind / ego is a positive and important part of making art, and I feel an incredible lightness of spirit, like I’m actually painting from the heart. I’m so excited to share what comes out of it soon.