NOTE: This article first appeared in Nov. 2014, revised in 2021.
Those of us who enjoy bamboo, for all its beauty and utility, often have an affinity for Asian aesthetics in general. They confer a sense of calm and tranquility that is both subtle and sublime. To gaze out over the raked stones of a zen garden, or to listen to the knocking of bamboo canes in the breeze, you get a certain feeling that words alone cannot adequately describe. Still another way to produce such positive vibrations is through the use of singing bowls.
Traditionally associated with Tibetan Buddhism, singing bowls are a symbol of peace, harmony, and resonation with all beings. Most authentic singing bowls are made in India or Nepal, using seven different types of metal. Rubbing or tapping the bowl with a short, wooden cudgel causes the seven metals to resonate together in a uniquely pleasing manner. Practitioners of meditation find the sounds especially helpful for achieving higher states of mindfulness.
Soothing sounds from the Far East
The most common use for the singing bowl is as a tool for meditation, but it’s also an attractive and intriguing artifact for decorative or recreational use. Even casual observers, with little or no familiarity with Buddhism or meditation, seem to appreciate the resonant sound produced by these bowls.
Teachers sometimes use them like bells or gongs, tapping the side of the bowl to get the students’ attention and bring order in the classroom. But with a little practice, you can also use the wooden cudgel to rub in a smooth, steady motion around the outside of the bowl, creating a ringing sound that continues as long as you can keep your wood and bowl in gentle contact and steady motion. This also has a way of bringing order to the mind.
The act of ringing the bowl in this manner requires some degree of calm and concentration. But the results can be profound!
How to ring the singing bowl, or making the mediation bowl sing
When you see someone ring the bowl like this, producing that pleasant reverberation that just goes on and on, at appears almost magic. And when you try it for the first time, you might think it requires some extraordinary training and mastery in Eastern mysticism. But it’s actually not that difficult. (Note: Some bowls are easier to play than others, and there’s a lot of personal preference involved. Try a few out before you buy one.)
Here are a few tips and tricks to make your singing bowl sing.
- Open Hand: First things first. How you hold the bowl is critical to getting it to resonate. The idea is to make as little contact between the hand and bowl as possible, while still being able to hold it steady. Open the hand flat, and extend the finger out. Do NOT use the fingers to grip the sides of the bowl, as this will prevent it from vibrating.
- The Cudgel: Every singing bowl should come with a short wood tool, usually called a cudgel. Start by tapping the side or rim of the bowl with this wooden stick. Tap it once, gently, and listen. Tap it again slightly harder, and get to know the bowl. They can ring very loudly, but there’s a point when the sound might no longer be pleasant. So study its range.
- Circling: Now for the tricky part. Try rubbing the stick around the outside of the bowl, near the rim. Maintain some pressure between the wooden cudgel and the metal bowl, and keep them in contact. If this is difficult, keep practicing. The hardest part is to maintain consistent contact and steady pressure. If it’s still not ringing, I like to use a trick: Start by letting the stick tap the bowl, and then, without releasing contact, immediately begin circling the bowl. This initial tap will “jump start” the ringing. Then it’s just a matter of keeping a smooth motion around the bowl to keep the ringing.
- Turn up the volume: Once you’ve got the hand motion, you can try to speed up and make the bowl louder. The faster you go, the louder it should get. But be careful, when you go too fast the stick will start to rattle against the bowl. It’s because the bowl is vibrating so strongly, but this no longer sounds good. Slow it down and return to center.
- Get into the groove: Once you’ve found the comfort zone where the bowl sounds best, you’re ready for next level. Close your eyes, and hold the resonating bowl close, where you can really hear it and feel it. Take deep breaths and focus you attention on the sound as it changes. Listen the the different frequencies. Because of the different materials used in the bowl, they are able to produce a complex sound with multiple layers. Get into the texture of the sounds.
- Resonate: Now it’s YOUR turn to reverberate. Trying chanting the sacred syllable, Om, in harmony with the bowl. Focus on the frequencies, and with luck and practice, you’ll find yourself elevating to a higher state of consciousness.
Therapeutic Singing Bowls: Restoration through resonation
“One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain,” so says the Rasta wiseman Bob Marley. Healing the body with sound and music is nothing new, rather it is an ancient art whose time for rediscovery has come. And as frustration with conventional Western medicine grows and grows—whether you attribute it to new diseases and longer life spans, point the finger at the insurance companies and the ruthless monetization of medical care, or simply blame it on Obama—the popularity of alternative treatments just continues to blossom like a giant lotus in a Japanese garden.
In that vein, the Hearst Cancer Resource Center at French Hospital here in San Luis Obispo recently offered a new class: Sound Therapy with Singing Bowls. Anyone who’s ever picked up a singing bowl (of course, we always have several to choose from here at Bambu Batu) and rubbed it the right way, knows a little about the wondrous sensations produced by the resonation of these mystical Tibetan instruments whose tradition goes back over three millennia. But proper therapeutic use of the singing bowl involves a bit more knowledge and technique.
Instructor Sean Levahn, a licensed massage therapist and certified Reiki master, had been hosting the class on a monthly basis at the HCRC back in 2014. For more info, contact Sean Levahn.
To learn more about alternative healing practices from the Eastern tradition, check out some of these other fascinating articles.