Photograph by Rowan Carr. Disclosure: This story contains no affiliate links
Gong Baths: The Power of The Gongs to Bring Peace and Relaxation
Gong baths are special, and as I enter the hall, the resonance of the gong is heavenly. Building and slowly fading, then joined by another note, mingling the sounds of gongs and singing bowls, the tone, the timbre and sometimes a hint of dissonance, all these combine to send me deep. At the end of the session, I have the most profound sense of relaxation.
This was my second time with Rowan Carr and my second experience of gong baths and sound healing with with gongs and singing bowls. Even the wind chimes make an appearance at the end, tinkling and sending me off to some blissful fairyland and giving me rest like I used to enjoy when I was a kid.
Rowan prefers the term Holistic Resonance, but you’ll find similar practices elsewhere described as Gong Meditation, Gong Baths and Gong Immersion.
Of all of these terms, Rowan, who teaches meditation, takes issue most with the name Gong Meditation. It’s not meditation, he says (and he knows what meditation is) this, Rowan says, is transcendental.
Rowan Carr, Our Gong-Master
I catch Rowan two days after and we chat over Zoom. I want to know how he came to do gong baths and to practice sound healing with the gongs and singing bowls. He’s an engaging guy, and something makes me want to learn more about the man. It turns out there’s lots to learn.
Rowan has, he says, had a colourful life.
Rowan tells me he was born as the result of an extra-marital affair to a black Jamaican man and a white English woman. He stayed in Birmingham, Britain’s second city, a place with a high level of racial and cultural opportunity.
Then when he was nine, his mother moved him to Tamworth, one of the whitest places in England; and worse, it’s a town with a strong National Front presence.
In case you don’t know, the National Front was a British fascist and racist organisation which is fortunately now defunct.
Living in such a community, growing up wasn’t easy for Rowan. He describes a ‘highly-racialised’ childhood and adolescence in a town that was 99% white where he was of mixed heritage.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that he turned to Karate from the age of twelve and then Judo. Though his motivation might have been to improve his fitness or self-defence skills, these martial arts have a strong spiritual dimension, and they started him on his life-long journey.
Meditation Isn’t Always Easy.
But why do people want to go to gong baths? What are they looking for?
For different things: bliss, relaxation, harmony. Peace, of course. That’s a big one.
You may see meditation as a way to relax, to soothe away cares and stresses and get back to who you really want to be.
But maybe some hidden promoting is making you interested in this Holistic Resonance healing with the gongs.
Probably at twelve, Rowan didn’t realise he had set foot on a spiritual journey when he set foot in the dojo. But that path ultimately led to a profound spiritual awakening.
There are many techniques of meditation, but they all involve turning away from the chattering voice and distractions of the monkey mind.
In fact, you may have tried to meditate. You might have been successful in tuning out the busy world around you, or maybe not so much.
Usually, a meditation teacher will give you a focus, whether that be a mantra, your breath, a candle flame, or the arising sounds of the environment.
The purpose of this focus is to allow the busy mind to quieten and fall into itself so that, without any effort or directed intent, the true inner nature — the silence essence — arises like water clarifying, its swirling finally coming still.
But it can be hard to get this focus on your own. You could be in your noisy flat, or cold in your chilly bedroom. You might overhear sirens and arguments and smell cooking and the sound of next door’s TV on too loud.
Or you have your kids calling for you and your elderly mother on the phone. Maybe your email pings off halfway through your meditation and you just can’t stop yourself from stretching over to see what important thing you have just been summoned to do.
Coming to this gong bath session fixed all that for me. In that hall, I was in the right place with the right intent, and I followed the sound of the gongs and singing bowls to somewhere very peaceful right within.
Picture The Scene
When I enter the place where the gong bath will happen, the hall is comfortable, warm, but otherwise pretty bare. Rowan sits in the centre, in his yoga-pose, surrounded by bronze gongs behind and half-circles of gleaming singing bowls in front. The last rays of Autumn sun die away outside and are replaced by tasteful low light inside. There’s even a mirror ball above that slowly spins as it gets dark, shedding a cascade of silver around the walls.
There are only nine of us here. When I went to the first Holistic Resonance session, there were many more, but this is COVID time, and we are socially-distanced.
For the first sequence, we are seated, and I plunge into an immensely restful state to the sound of the gongs and Rowan’s soft but clear voice. I am not asleep, but I’m not awake either.
For the second part, we lie down, covered in blankets, heads on pillows, bodies on yoga mats. We allow ourselves to drift with the music because it is really music; it has rhythm, tone and modulation, and like music, it has the power to take us somewhere beautiful.
Break Dancing For Money
When he was eighteen, Rowan left National Front riddled Tamworth, voted with his feet and went to find his father’s family in Birmingham in Balsall Health and Handsworth. There he hung around with his brothers and sisters and became absorbed into that lifestyle.
He became a raver. He would go to wild, and mostly illegal, raves, take drugs and dance. Rowan is honest about his drug use in those days. He says he used drugs to help him dance. He was such a good dancer that he would be paid to get up on stage!
Rowan was also a big frequenter of Jamaican Blues Parties. Rowan explains that the existing clubs didn’t cater for his community so they had to put on their own parties.
He talks about getting sound systems, lager (he didn’t say if it was Red Stripe) and setting off parties at twelve o’clock that went on for days and days and days. Though he wasn’t a drinker. He says that alcohol made people vulnerable and he couldn’t afford to be vulnerable because in the places he frequented, he always had to be looking over his shoulder.
In Rowan’s life story, we see themes of music and rhythm and the embodiment of movement through martial arts, developing with what we might call grace (or even Grace) and taking him dancing down the path to awakening.
Rowan’s life went on being eventful, and he talks about police sieges and ram-raid attacks with heavy police trucks to break the party up. He talks about associating with gangsters and prostitutes and pimps, not to do anything criminal, but mostly to dance.
There was rhythm and grace, but there was also anger.
The Gongs Themselves
It is said that the first gong was made by accident four thousand years ago. The story goes, that, at the beginning of the age of agriculture, someone heated up bread in an oven. The heat from the oven melted the tin and copper in the ore-bearing rocks beneath the oven. These formed a metallic alloy plate, and when they had cooled, the bread maker decided to whack them, and in whacking, produced a pleasing tone.
A lovely story, but I don’t believe a word.
Many ancient cultures have used gongs, including the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Mongols, and Uighurs. In Africa, rock gongs are found from Burkina Faso to Zambia and Sudan. In Niger, there were undoubtedly iron gongs too.
We have the earliest written records of gongs from the time of the Chinese Emperor Hsuan Wu of the Han Dynasty, in the Second Century before the Common Era, which report gongs being in use in the country between Tibet and Burma.
Esoteric alchemical records say that sacred gongs were being made as early as 40000 Before the Common Era, with some sources claiming the first gongs go back as far as 16,000 BC.
Gongs are usually made of bronze and usually 80% copper and 20% tin, though that can vary to a maximum of 30% tin. Sometimes other metals are added such as lead, silver, iron, zinc or even meteoric iron fallen from the sky.
The most famous gong manufacturers are the Zildjian Company from Turkey. They claim that their recipe goes back to an ancient alchemical formula, and the Paiste Company from Zurich in Switzerland claims their formula goes back to the Bronze Age.
The German company Meinl makes a symphonic range of gongs. They don’t, as far as I know, have anything to claim about the Bronze Age.
But look out for these names. The drummers of your favourite bands will likely be using cymbals made by either Zildjian or Paiste.
Other instruments used by gong masters are tuning forks, wind chimes, and of course Tibetan Singing Bowls. We have something to say about them later.
The bronze bowls we know as Tibetan Singing Bowls go back historically to the Chinese Bronze Age 3000 years ago, and they were made all over the region from China to Tibet to Nepal and Bhutan.
The years went by, and Rowan got into a relationship and found a job. It was a pretty ordinary job, but there’s no crime in that.
Then one day, his life changed.
Rowan says that he was an average young man driving forklift trucks at Safeways when two things happened at around the same time.
In 1993, Stephen Lawrence, a teenager in Eltham in South London and happened to make the mistake of waiting for a bus when a group of racist thugs harassed him and murdered him simply because he was black.
To compound the crime, the police didn’t do anything. There was lip-service, but they actually investigate. It was later found that they didn’t do anything because they were corrupt and preferred to look the other way and let the racist murderers get away with their crime.
Around the same time, Rowan’s daughter was born. Sitting on his forklift truck, it occurred to him that he lived in a place where his baby daughter could be murdered just because she was black.
And if she got murdered, he couldn’t rely on the police, the courts, or the newspapers to do anything about it.
It seemed to Rowan that if he wanted to safeguard his daughter, he would have to do something about it himself.
So he went to night classes. It took him six years to climb the formal educational ladder, but he studied hard and got his Bachelor’s degree in African Studies at Birmingham. After that, he went on to do a Master’s degree in Race and Ethnic Studies at Warwick University.
He began his doctorate at Keele University and started working with black youth and with troubled young people involved with guns and gangs.
He was offered a position on the Joseph Rowntree Foundation Committee giving grants to promote racial equality and spent time lecturing and teaching.
Then in 1998, his partner ran off with a sailor and moved his kids two hundred miles away.
It was about this time that he had his first encounter with the gongs.
After the gong bath session, he felt unsettled and upset. In fact, anger was the most prominent emotion, and he swore he’d never go near the gongs again.
The Packaged History of Tibetan Singing Bowls
There is no documented history of Tibetan singing bowls being used in a religious or sacred way. Evidence might emerge from further research, but it seems that Tibetan Singing Bowls were, for most of their history thousands of years of history, simply Tibetan bowls.
Various claims have emerged that seven notes can be generated from the bowls and so they are associated with the seven Chakras, though there is no evidence from Hindu or Buddhist scripture to that end.
Because of the link with the seven chakras, they were linked to the seven traditional astrological planets, and each of the planets has its own metal, for example, Saturn is associated with lead and the Moon with silver. So, it came to be that special ‘Moon’ singing bowls would be made with the addition of silver to the alloy and only worked during the full moon and would ring in the note of F.
There is no evidence for this in Tibetan culture. What seems likely is that Westerners found the beautiful bronze bowls and got infatuated with the aura of mystical Tibet and so they made up all the stuff about planets and chakras and metals.
Local people in Nepal and Bhutan and Tibet cottoned onto this cultural appropriation, and cultural fabrication to be honest and served the market. If a Moon Bowl can command a premium price, then let’s make a Moon Bowl. This is despite the fact the whole concept would cause Tibetan grandmothers to scratch their heads.
Now, actual Tibetan and Indian and Nepalese sites will sell you these chakra astrological singing bowls with all the made-up history. And if you’re prepared to pay, they’ll swear it’s all true. Look out for the smiles in their eyes when they tell you.
Back To the Gong Bath
Like we said, after his first encounter with them, Rowan vowed never to go near the gongs; they riled up too much anger in him. Anger that came from the injustices he saw all around him, but anger all the same, and anger is not a pleasant emotion.
His martial arts journey went from Karate when he was twelve, to Judo and then Aikido. Even then, he was interested in meditation. When in an Aikido session, a Japanese Zen Master came to lead the meditation, he showed Rowan how to do the proper posture or asana, and something clicked.
After that, he was able to meditate for longer and longer periods. There was no discomfort, even sitting for hours.
Then suddenly, close in time to each other, both he and his partner Lisa had a spiritual awakening.
It’s usual to talk about Enlightenment as an event, but it is a process, and Rowan is clear about that. This was the process of Shaktipat.
Shaktipat is the transference of the divine energy, named after the goddess Shakti, consort of Lord Shiva.
He was drawn back to the gongs and bowls and the beauty of the harmonies involved in the Holistic Resonance of the gong music. This time the gongs didn’t bring anger, but peace.
Rowan speaks of sitting with a bowl and the tone it produced induced a spontaneous samadhi state that lasted for forty-fifty minutes, though he has no recollection of that time.
In pursuit of deeper truths, Rowan and Lisa journeyed to the famous teacher of Advaita Vedanta (an ancient Indian philosophy that says there is only one reality, not two, also known as non-dualism)
At Mooji’s ashram in Portugal, Rowan was profoundly moved by the guru’s teaching. Mooji is a Jamaican and his story is fascinating about how he reluctantly became awakened by Papaji in India. Papaji’s guru was Sri Bhagavan Ramana Maharishi. He was able to pass this insight, this darshan, onto Rowan and Lisa.
Rowan says that the awakening, the Patanjali Sutras have new meaning. He finally gets it. There is no arrogance in this, he talks about his insights with profound humility.
He has humility, but there is definitely something about his presence that helped me attain a deeper state, and maybe it is because of his own awakening.
Rowan had always used gongs in his own meditation practice. He had always been a teacher, but now to be able to teach with the gongs was a calling.
Put a bowl of water by a music speaker, and you will see ripples appear on the water as the water begins to resonate in time with the music. This same phenomenon of frequency following is even better illustrated with tuning forks. If you ring a tuning fork and put it next to a still tuning fork, the still tuning fork will begin to resonate in tune with the ringing fork.
Remember we are mostly made of water. You can feel specific frequencies in your body, but all frequencies of sound affect our bodies, whether we are conscious of them or not, to a greater or larger extent.
This is how the holistic resonance effect works on our bodies and through our bodies on our minds.
We will start to resonate in harmony with the frequencies that are going through us, and, as we know from listening to music, different frequencies and rhythms of sound create other emotions in us. Sound can stir us to war, it can calm us to sleep. Sound can make us fall in love; it can make us happy; it can make us relax. And once we’re relaxed, it can allow our bodies to heal and repair themselves.
There is a whole area of acoustic science devoted to studying the beneficial effect of Binaural Beats. This phenomenon is related to the frequency following mentioned above. Basically, if one gong plays at a frequency of 180hz and a second gong resonates at 186hz, the brain will notice that difference in frequency of 6hz.
That 6hz frequency will then be followed by the brain, and the electrical activity of the brain will start to copy it, and the brainwaves will pulse at 6 Hz themselves.
This is important because we know that the frequency of brainwaves creates different emotional states and different levels of alertness.
Our normal waking brainwave state is the Beta State. When we are alert and going about our daily business, our brain activity regularly pulses at between 13 and 30 Hz.
When we are particularly switched on, correlated with the sympathetic nervous system being active, “Go Fast”, we are in an Alpha state which is between 8–13hz.
When we are dreaming our brain is in Theta state. This is 5–7hz. During that sleep phase, the body is in self-repair mode. And guess what, the 5–7hz range is what is induced in Holistic Harmonic Residence. To be honest, the gong-master can generate whatever frequency he or she chooses.
But the aim of gong baths is to bring is peace and healing, hence the inducement of the Theta brainwaves and the trance state.
Rowan will select singing bowls with this frequency difference, but the exciting thing is he plays the bowls intuitively. As with any musician, the choice of sounds is made without much if any interference from the active mind. He selects the sound from a deep place, a place of Spirit.
Another aspect is the choice of the mallet. The wand or mallet used to generate the notes imparts a different quality depending on what it’s made of. For example, aspen wood elicits a different note, say one mallet will produce a D, but another material will produce C#.
Every bowl has a “fundamental” note, but four pulsations, or nodes. Some directions, e.g. north and south contract, while east and west expand. This gives different tones.
A different wand will produce the next “partial” but with six pulsations. Another type of material in the mallet will produce another “partial” with eight nodes.
Sound Healing For The Vagus Nerve
The Vagus nerve is the longest in the body and probably the most primitive in that it can be found in very ancient organisms like worms. Not very glamorous, but that just goes to show its ancient origin. Its name means ‘the wanderer’ in Latin, and it meanders down from our brain stem through our neck, our heart, our stomach, liver and all the major organs.
The Vagus nerve does not like stress. When it gets stressed and over-excited, it can cause heart palpitations and stomach upsets as well as those awful tingly anxiety feelings.
It is known that stimulation of the Vagus nerve by massage can relax us. It switches on the parasympathetic nervous system. Basically, our nervous system has two settings: Go Fast and Go Slow.
These settings are influenced by the state of the Vagus nerve, so vagal stimulation can promote the Go Slow.
One branch of the Vagus nerve, the Tympanic Nerve, sits in the ear. It is sensitive to the sound vibrations coming into the ear.
One effect of Harmonic Resonance through the sound of gongs and singing bowls is to stimulate the Vagus Nerve and modulate it so it is in a relaxed state and it turns on the Go Slow of the parasympathetic nervous system.
When the body isn’t on high alert, it begins to repair itself. So if the gong music can calm the Vagus Nerve, and turn on the parasympathetic response, the body will start to self-repair.
Gong Baths and Not Knowing
“I don’t know what’s the first bowl I’m going to strike. I sit, come to a moment of stillness. My attention is centred in the space within myself and beyond myself and then the body moves, and my job is to keep out of the way and move with the sound. I move as the body seems to want to move.”
“You are the unfolding of life, rather than the one creating or making it unfold.”
“We are always either making the most of what’s happening or making the worst.”
“The mind seeks meaning. There is no meaning. No inherent meaning. We make it. We are geared to make meaning.”
Rowan explains that the importance of the singing music of the bowls and gongs is paradoxically the silence that you are ultimately left with at the end of it.
This is a palpable sense of the silence that is not dependent on the lack or appearance of sound. That lack of sound is your essential nature, the gongs and bowls direct your attention to this “essence nature”.
The thought stream turns towards the awareness of the source of that. You are drawn in, and you find a moment, where is a profound sense of still silent presence, your essence nature.
This is absolute reality. This brings you home.
A Blissful Gong Bath
So what will you experience? What will the gongs give you? Many walk away with a natural buzz that in some cases, lasts for a week.
The effects compound as well, so the more you come, the more you will experience a lasting sense of calm.
People talk of the “blissful sound bath”, and report feeling relaxed and at peace.
There are anecdotal stories that old injuries become prominent during the gong immersion, but then after the gong bath is finished, the pain decreases and in some cases vanishes, at least for a while.
The effects should last well into the evening, and even the next morning, you will feel an incredible sense of calm and focus.
To be fair, there are sceptics, but when they actually try out gong immersion and have the holistic resonance session, unless they are deadset on their disbelief, they become converts.
People with hyperactivity comment on how immediate the effects are and how much more deeply they can relax.
Me, I slept like a log that night, and in the morning it was sunny, and we went out and foraged for horse chestnuts. I seemed to get on well with everyone that day. I put that down to the gongs.