(RNS) — As someone who lives alone in New York City, there have been moments in the past year when I’ve felt as if I’ve stayed too long at a silent retreat. During the early days of quarantine, the continuous sound of sirens reminded me of why this hermetic existence was necessary.
I marked my early evenings sitting zazen over Zoom with the Brooklyn Zen Center. As we closed the half-hour practice with the Pali Refuges Chant, I could hear the clapping and shouting for first responders outside, a reminder of what extraordinary times these are.
Sound can be a powerful spiritual consolation. Before COVID-19 sent us all to our rooms, I used to spend my Saturday afternoons practicing sound meditation at the Integral Yoga Institute in Greenwich Village, founded by Sri Swami Satchidananda, an Indian guru who helped introduce traditional Eastern music, meditation and yoga to the West.
“Sound puts us on a track so that we start to see things differently,” said the Rev. Lakshmi Scalise, one of the institute’s ordained ministers, who leads the weekly gong sound meditation.
Sound meditation, sometimes referred to as a sound bath, attracts a cross-generational, multi-spiritual crowd at Integral. Scalise uses overtone-emitting instruments — gongs, Himalayan singing bowls and chimes — to create an intense sonic experience. I feel the vibration from the gong as I am enveloped in a sea of sound.
“The gong will take you past your mind,” said Scalise. “You don’t even know you’re not thinking anymore.”
Inevitably, thoughts do arise, but the sound is meant to act as a tether for the mind in the same way the breath or a mantra is used in other forms of meditation. Maintaining that attention is key, according to sound therapist and ethnomusicologist Alexandre Tannous. “One’s engagement in the experience is very important to establish a meditative state,” he said.
Tannous is researching the effects of sound on human consciousness — cataloguing and collecting the ways people internalize sound-based spiritual practice. The list is long: greater feelings of self-confidence, compassion, empathy and love; less anxiety and symptoms of depression; a heightened state of presence and awareness; a feeling of connection to our higher selves, to name but a few.
Sound quiets the noise of the mind, a reboot that shifts the “noise to signal ratio,” said Tannous, “allowing the body on all levels — physical, emotional, energetic, spiritual, mental — to snap back into the original grid, without the noise, without the static.”
The effect is not restricted to the head, said Scalise. “When your head is in a clear space, it feels like happiness is beaming in your cells. The whole world responds to you differently,” she said. It’s best experienced with other people in the same room as the instruments for optimal effect.
While sound is used in many traditions, it is deeply embedded in the culture and theology of Eastern religion. “In Hindu theology, just reciting God’s name has so much power and is almost always done musically,” says Yogi Trivedi, a Hindu practitioner and scholar of the Swaminarayan tradition.
“Reciting God’s name is equivalent to worshipping him and equivalent to saying his glory and telling someone else about his greatness,” he said.
As a young boy, Parth Parikh was introduced to the concept of God through the sound of his mother singing devotional hymns as she made dinner and tucked him into bed at night. “I definitely didn’t know what they meant,” said Parikh, a Hindu in the BAPS Swamnirayan tradition. “But hearing them at that early age has a large influence in how you think about religion or divinity.”
Born in the U.S., Parikh and his sister began studying north Indian classical music as children at the urging of his mother. Today he is an accomplished musician who sings, plays the accordion-like harmonium and the tabla, an Indian drum. He emphasizes that it’s not performing that matters but something much deeper. “The intent really has to be that you’re singing as part of your spiritual journey and for the divine.”
What he’s missed the most during the pandemic is the communal aspect of “kirtan” — devotional singing of praises at his mandir, or Hindu temple. “It’s really hard to feel the same emotion you get when everyone’s together in person. It’s hard to convey that across a screen,” he said.
As a first-year medical student in Arizona, Parikh uses study breaks to sing and play harmonium to calm and clear his mind. “It puts you in a place to put forth your full efforts in whatever you’re doing,” he said. “It resets everything.”
The use of sound as spiritual practice is similar in Sikhism. On entering a gurdwara, a Sikh house of worship, you notice immediately the numinous sounds of Gurbani kirtan — accordion-like inflections of a harmonium while rhythmic fingers strike a tabla and voices weave in and out, chanting verses called shabads from Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book. This sacred scripture is meant to be sung, according to Guru Nanak, the founder of the tradition and a musician and poet.
Jalindh Kaur is a Ph.D. student in economics in New York, but she began studying Gurbani classical music when she was six. Today she continues to play the harmonium with her husband, who plays the tabla. “There is a verse in Guru Granth Sahib that says, ‘kirtan nirmolak hira’ or kirtan is as precious as a diamond,” she said.
“People who are able to sing Gurus praises the way it was composed in the original scripture, it is considered to be a real blessing, and it helps one on the spiritual journey,” she said.
When she and her husband moved from India to the U.S. two years ago, their carry-ons on the plane were their most precious belongings: their instruments. As they settled into their new city, Kaur and her husband found community in the Manhattan Sikh Association, a group of young professionals who meet a few times a month at a local yoga studio for kirtan and langar, a communal meal.
The setting is less formal than a gurdwara but fulfills a common need. “The aim is not to just sing alone,” said a fellow member, Jasmeet Oberai, who began studying tabla and kirtan in high school. “It’s about connecting. When you’re in sangat (community) the aim is to participate in the singing of praises, so that people can join in and learn about the shabad in more depth.”
When the pandemic came, they moved their sangat online and made the most of forced isolation by connecting with Sikhs across different time zones. For Kaur, this moment has been about “being able to accept … whatever is happening, and finding something good hidden in it.”
As the sun set over Washington Square Park in New York’s West Village last summer, I joined a handful of people for an informal outdoor gong meditation organized by Scalise. “This is just for the sheer joy of playing and have people come together for something positive,” she said. And then she added, “I missed everyone.”
As the sonorous sounds of the gongs washed over us, I watched hip-hop dancers practice their moves while skateboarders darted in and out of a Black Lives Matter protest. I missed everyone, too.
Reporting for this article was supported by Public Theologies of Technology and Presence, a journalism and research initiative based at the Institute of Buddhist Studies and funded by the Henry Luce Foundation.