Har­monies in the boom of a gong are trans­port­ing city dwellers into a med­i­ta­tive state

The Observer Magazine - - Self & Wellbeing - Words AMY FLEM­ING

Leo Cosendai used to be an acutely anx­ious young man. “I couldn’t cope with tak­ing the train,” he says. “I never felt safe.” So when he moved to Lon­don from Switzer­land in 2008 to study mu­sic, he tried yoga to calm him down. But it was when he dis­cov­ered gong med­i­ta­tion ses­sions, oth­er­wise known as sound baths, that he started trans­form­ing into the smi­ley, serene per­son he is to­day. He was so deeply af­fected by the prac­tice that he ditched his singing and com­pos­ing ca­reer, in­vested in some gongs of his own and em­barked on a mis­sion to pass on his new­found con­tent­ment to oth­ers. “I’m not say­ing I’m happy all the time,” he qual­i­fies, “but I’m com­fort­able with life even when it’s re­ally un­com­fort­able.”

To find out ex­actly why bang­ing a loud gong can have such a trans­for­ma­tional ef­fect on mind and body, I try out one of his ses­sions along with 20 other sound-bath novices. We gather on the top floor of a build­ing near Lon­don Bridge with panoramic views of a sun­set so daz­zling it’s im­pos­si­ble not to sneak a phone snap, even though this feels un­mind­ful and de­cid­edly not in-the­mo­ment. How­ever, Cosendai re­mains char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally non­judg­men­tal as he checks his three beau­ti­ful gongs are in or­der. Yoga mats are laid out with eye pil­lows placed at one end. Once we’re all re­clined and quiet, the bright lights, noisy air con­di­tion­ing and squeaky floor all feel am­pli­fied. Cosendai be­gins by list­ing these as things to sim­ply no­tice and ac­knowl­edge, along with how our bod­ies feel on our mats, as he di­rects our aware­ness to the present mo­ment.

The sound bath it­self is topped and tailed with Cosendai’s voice ac­com­pa­nied by the shruti box – often used to pro­vide a drone sound in In­dian clas­si­cal mu­sic. His long, soft vo­cal tones meld into a spot of Mon­go­lian over­tone singing, in which he ap­pears to sing two notes at the same time: a lower tone and a melodic whis­tle. How­ever, the gongs are the main event, with a side or­der of conch shell for added an­cient Ti­betan vi­bra­tions. He weaves nim­bly among us with his in­stru­ments to make sure we re­ceive all sound fre­quen­cies from all direc­tions and dis­tances, cre­at­ing added crescen­dos as he gets closer. The ef­fect is a bizarre multi-lay­ered wall of sound which, oddly, took me out of the city and made me feel as though I was in a cave.

He bangs and rubs the gongs with big fluffy beat­ers, teas­ing out deep, re­ver­ber­at­ing, alien sounds that you feel in your bones. The over­all ef­fect is sooth­ing, but it can sound eerie or dra­matic at times, too. Like a re­ally sat­is­fy­ing mas­sage, some parts chal­lenge your senses while oth­ers gen­tly lull you into re­lax­ation.

While Cosendai says sound baths were de­vel­oped by western­ers in the mid 20th cen­tury, we have prob­a­bly al­ways used sound for ther­a­peu­tic rea­sons. Al­though there have been no stud­ies yet mea­sur­ing the ef­fects of sound baths on the brain, there are reams of neu­ro­sci­en­tific lit­er­a­ture on the ef­fects of mu­sic per se.

“It’s an an­cient tra­di­tion to use sound to al­ter our state of con­scious­ness,” says Elvira Brat­tico, Pro­fes­sor at the Cen­ter for Mu­sic in the Brain at Aarhus Univer­sity in Den­mark, who is plan­ning to con­duct the first sci­en­tific re­search into the ef­fects of sound baths on the mind. “The shamans have done it with drum­ming,” she says, “and to use mu­sic as a medium to deepen a med­i­ta­tive state is quite com­mon in dif­fer­ent yoga prac­tices.” But with gong med­i­ta­tion, sound is of­fered without the phys­i­cal poses – you just lie on the matt and soak it up. A method that is keep­ing Cosendai very busy in­deed.

He is work­ing seven days a week, from large one-off events (such as re­cent ses­sions at the Nat­u­ral His­tory Mu­seum and Lon­don Fash­ion Week), to reg­u­lar slots at yoga cen­tres across Lon­don. His app Third Ear has 20,000 users and the au­dio book will be pub­lished early next year, recorded with “bin­au­ral” meth­ods to ren­der the sound in three di­men­sions. “Gongs pro­duce a lot of har­mon­ics,” says Cosendai, which is when we hear mul­ti­ple tones in a sin­gle hit. “You get har­mon­ics in ev­ery­thing, it’s just a ques­tion of how much of them you hear. While the pi­ano sounds like one clear note to the hu­man ear,” he says, “gongs are the num­ber one har­monic-pro­duc­ing in­stru­ments. When you’ve got a lot of har­mon­ics in the room, or on your head­phones, they blend with each other, mak­ing baby fre­quen­cies if you like, and the more fre­quen­cies you have, the more your brain is ac­ti­vated in a dif­fer­ent way.”

With these dif­fer­ent fre­quen­cies, he says, you hear what are called bin­au­ral beats, which is “when the brain re­ceives in­for­ma­tion from two sound fre­quen­cies that are so close to one an­other, the brain brings them to­gether and hears a beat”. The throng­ing ef­fect of a bell or gong sound is pro­duced by our brains.

Brat­tico be­lieves cer­tain brain mech­a­nisms ob­served in other mu­sic stud­ies are also at play dur­ing gong med­i­ta­tions. One key ef­fect, she says, is a process known as en­train­ment, whereby our brain waves syn­chro­nise with mu­sic. “Our neu­rons com­mu­ni­cate with each other

‘The ef­fect is a bizarre wall of sound, as though I’m in a cave’

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