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Meditation and Singing Bowls

Meditation and Singing Bowls

These days everyone is busier than ever, and many things compete for our time, focus and energy. We do our best to divide our efforts among many responsibilities, such as family, work and school. It seems there is a heightened pressure to accomplish more tasks in the limited time that we have. Not only that, our smart phones and other technological tools often cause us to spend more of our time on things that, while entertaining, do not provide long-term beneficial value.

For some, taking a time-out to recollect and get grounded is unthinkable given the burden of other responsibilities. Unfortunately, this can create an increase in stress and anxiety. Prolonged exposure to stress and anxiety can lead to serious health risks which include irritability, headaches, insomnia, and depression. Stress and anxiety can also negatively affect the different systems of the body.

Anxiety and Stress in Today’s Modern World

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America notes that anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States and affect an estimated 40 million people aged 18 and older every year. The American Institute of Stress (AIS) also found that 77% of people experience physical symptoms of stress, 73% of people experience regular psychological symptoms caused by stress, and 48% have stated that their level of stress has increased in the past five years.

There are many causes of stress that may differ from one individual to another, but, for many, there are similar causes underlying stress. One of the top causes of stress, according to the AIS, is job pressure. Many people become overly concerned with tension with colleagues at work, including their superiors, and are often overworked. Another common cause of stress is money, and such stress may arise due to a sense of anxiety over the loss or potential loss of a job, reduced retirement savings, or medical expenses.

Health related stresses can include medical crises and terminal or chronic illnesses. Stress over relationships can be caused by many factors such as divorce, the death of a partner, arguments and loneliness. Interestingly, media overload (namely stress from television, radio, internet, email, and social networks) ranked the sixth most common cause of stress. Sleep deprivation and the inability to release adrenaline and stress hormones are also cited as factors that caused stress.

According to Psychology Today, there are five sources of stress and anxiety in today’s modern world: having to interact with a greater diversity of people, assessing ourselves against high and often unattainable standards, the need to specialize in a specific field, increasingly competitive marketplaces, and the speed at which innovations are emerging.

According to Dr. Herbert Benson, founder of Harvard’s Mind/Body Medical Institute, increased levels of stress have made the nervous system continually activate the 'fight or flight' response. This can cause an increase in blood pressure, oxygen consumption and heart rate. Chronic levels of stress are also correlated with hypertension and heart disease.

What is Meditation

We commonly associate meditation with the act of keeping still in a seated position and emptying our minds of all present preoccupations. Some may even have the misconception that meditation is only for those seeking enlightenment.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic, defines mindful meditation as the “awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment non-judgmentally.” It entails focusing single-mindedly on a specific thing or focal point.  

The origin of the word meditation comes from the Latin word meditatum, and means “to ponder.” It goes beyond physical relaxation since it actively engages the mind. It is typically perceived as a heightened state of conscious awareness. Ultimately, it strives for a state of inner peace, stillness, silence, and being in union with one’s inner self.

Meditation in History

Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years. The religions credited for being the earliest to practice meditation are Hinduism and Buddhism. Vedantism, a school of Hinduism, held the earliest accounts of meditation and was recorded around 1500 BCE. Meditation in Hinduism is referred to as dhyana, and it evolved into other forms within Buddhism and Taoism in China by the 5th and 6th centuries BCE.

Siddhartha Gautama, who became the Buddha or the Enlightened One, and from whom the religion sprang, firmly believed he could achieve enlightenment through deep meditation. Although there are discrepancies as to the correct timeline of Siddhartha Gautama’s lifetime, scholars agree that he might have died sometime between 410 and 370 BCE. 

Buddhism’s spread in East Asia is attributed to Bodhidharma, an Indian monk who spread Buddhist principles in China that became known as Chan or Chinese Zen. Buddhism was later introduced to Japan and Korea via trade routes and different forms of it began to emerge. Japan developed its own version, which is now called Zen Buddhism. Dosho, a Japanese Buddhist monk, traveled to China to learn about Zen. When he returned home, he founded the first meditation hall in the country. He also outlined the instructions for sitting meditation, which became known as Zazen.

By the 12th century, a Carthusian monk named Guigo II established a more methodological concept of meditation in the context of Christianity known as Lectio Divina. It involves reading scripture, reflecting on the truth, prayer, and contemplation.  

During the 1960s and onwards, meditation has attracted the attention of scientific researchers who have sought to determine its benefits objectively. The Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program was developed in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts. The goal of the program is to use meditative techniques in treating patients with chronic diseases.

Meditation in Different Religions

Meditation is an integral part of many cultures and presents itself in various forms within the different religions of the world. Judaism’s version of meditation is the Kabbalah and hitbodedut, where meditators contemplate on the different names of God. In Islam, meditation comes in the form of Tafakkur, where one reflects on goodness and evil, and the lessons from the creation of Allah. Buddhists perform meditation as a means to achieve enlightenment, and their meditation has varying styles which include Zen, Tibetan, and Theravadan.

Secular Forms of Meditation

Meditation can be practiced without any religious involvement. Transcendental meditation introduced by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi is one such example. It focuses more on becoming relaxed, reducing stress and encouraging self-development. Common methods of non-religious meditation involve dedicating time to engage in deep-breathing exercises.

Another similar method of meditation is known as the 'Relaxation Response'. Dr. Herbert Benson created the concept and proposed that it could be an effective remedy for different types of stress-related problems. This process counters the body’s 'fight or flight response' and assists the body in returning to pre-stress levels. It also engages the parasympathetic sector of the nervous system which is responsible for relaxation and digestion.

Benefits of Meditation

Several studies have investigated the benefits of meditation objectively.

Researchers from Yale performed functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans on both novice and experienced meditators to observe the effects that different techniques had on them. They discovered that there was reduced activity in the default mode network of the brain when they ran the scan on advanced meditators. The prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortex were the areas particularly affected, and this effect was seen to occur no matter what type of meditation was practiced. The default mode network has been connected to lapses of attention and disorders such as anxiety, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, and even the buildup of beta-amyloid plaques seen in Alzheimer’s disease.

A study conducted by Richard, et al. explored the changes that occur within the brain and the body’s immune function as a result of mindfulness meditation. In the study, which ran for eight weeks, the researchers measured the electrical activity within the brains of 25 employees who were divided into a meditators group and a wait-list control group. The individuals in the meditators group were to perform mindfulness meditation in their workplace environment for the eight week period. After the eight week period concluded, all 25 employees were injected with the influenza vaccine. The researchers saw a substantial increase in the left-sided anterior activation of the meditator group compared to the control group. They also discovered a remarkable rise in antibody titers against the influenza vaccine among those who meditated. With these results the study suggests that meditation may affect the brain and immune system in positive ways.

Research by Lazar, et al. analyzed the connection between meditation and the increase of cortisol thickness. Cortisol is the hormone involved in a wide range of processes within the body, including metabolism, immune response, and the body’s response to stress. The researchers utilized MRI scans to evaluate the cortisol thickness of 20 subjects who had extensive insight meditation experience. The results showed that the areas of the brain involved with attention, interoception and sensory processing, as well as the prefrontal cortex and right anterior insula, were thicker in meditation participants compared to a control group who did not meditate. The researchers suggested that meditating has an effect on the structures of the brain involved with sensory, cognitive, and emotional functions, and may even impact age-related declines in cortical structure.

There have been several studies that have documented the effects that meditation has on anxiety and stress. A study by Sears and Kraus focused on college students, and it was found that brief meditation which focused on love and kindness greatly reduced anxiety levels and increased hope.

Another study by Barkhe and Morgan investigated the effects that meditation, resting, and exercise have on anxiety levels. The research involved the participation of 75 adult males randomly assigned to an exercise group, meditation group, and resting group. From the data the researchers collected from the experiment, they found a significant reduction of anxiety that occurred for each treatment whether it was from exercise, meditation, or quietly resting. The study concluded that acute physical activity, meditation, and quiet rest sessions are equally effective in reducing anxiety levels.

Furthermore, another research study explored the effects of mindful meditation on stress levels. The study involved 28 individuals participating in an eight week program focusing on stress reduction and mindfulness meditation. The participants were randomly selected into an experimental group, who conducted the mindfulness meditation routine, and the control group, who did not. Upon conclusion, the researchers discovered that the experimental group had significantly reduced levels of psychological symptoms, an increased level of self-awareness and control, and higher scores of spiritual experiences. The research suggested that meditation may be a powerful cognitive behavioral coping strategy, and may also be a means to help prevent the relapse of mental disorders.

How Meditation can be Performed

There are many types of meditation, and each method has a unique way in which it is performed. However, there are various common denominators that are present in every process. Some of these include relaxation techniques, concentration exercises, contemplation, reflection, and guided imagery. 

In 'Relaxation Response', meditation methods include visualization, progressive muscle relaxation, energy healing, and breathing techniques. In Dr. Benson’s book, he outlines how one can meditate. The procedure involves sitting in a comfortable position, relaxing the muscles, and being aware of your breathing. This practice is similar to how Zazen is done, although Zazen requires specific sitting positions. It also entails focusing on the hara, or the spiritual center of the body.

What are Singing Bowls

A great companion to have during meditation is a singing bowl, the nature of which is similar to that of a bell. In fact, singing bowls are known as “standing bells” due to their bowl-like shape. Singing bowls are typically crafted from copper or tin. They are commonly used in Eastern meditation and relaxation practices but have also become popular in the West. They are also known by a variety of names such as resting bowls, prayer bowls, Tibetan bowls, Himalayan bowls, Buddhist bowls, and rin gong, among others.

The sound is produced either by striking the bowl or by running a mallet around the rim, and it is believed that the sound emitted possesses healing properties. It is also believed by some that singing bowls create the sound of “void,” which is the music of the universe.

History of Singing Bowls

Many accounts explain where singing bowls originated. One report indicates that singing bowls can be traced back to the 8th century BCE during the time in which Buddhism spread to Tibet from India by Padmasambhava.  

Tibetan culture asserts that singing bowls came from the Bon Pot Shamans, who were regarded as sacred metallurgists and were able to craft singing bowls through their spiritual understanding of the metals. They created bowls that had a unique sound and vibration. Unfortunately, the sacred recipe of metals has been lost throughout the years.

Some ancient bowls are regarded as sacred relics. One such bowl is claimed to have belonged to an earlier incarnation of Buddha and was used as a begging bowl. It is housed in the Drepung Monastery, and it is said that the sound projected when one uses it is the sound of their karma.

How Singing Bowls are Made

Ancient bowls were usually crafted from high-quality bronze and a combination of different metals such as gold, silver, iron, mercury, copper, tin, lead, and meteoric iron, or thogcha. Meteoric iron is highly regarded by the Tibetans, who refer to it as 'sky-metal', which is said to represent the celestial bodies, such as the sun, moon, Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn. The contents of the various metals within the bowls is said to be where the multiphonic overtones originate.

Traditional methods of crafting singing bowls involved hammering the metal by hand, but this ancient process has radically declined in recent decades. Today, singing bowls are commonly made by machines.

Today’s singing bowls are typically crafted from a combination of copper and tin referred to as 'bell metal'. Ancient bowls are still believed to produce the richest, most beautiful sounds because of their material and age, but it can still be quite difficult to differentiate a new bowl that has been made to look aged from a genuine ancient bowl. Nonetheless, high-quality modern bowls are still capable of creating beautiful sounds. Very few experts are capable of determining if a singing bowl is antique or not, so one must be careful when purchasing a singing bowl that is being touted by a merchant as being 'antique'.

Singing Bowls in Healing and Meditation

Singing bowls have an important part to play in sound healing. In most sound therapy sessions, singing bowls are positioned near a person’s chakra. A practitioner may also place the bowl on top of a specific area of the person’s body. The practitioner uses the resonance of the bowl’s harmonic vibrations to create balance and encourage relaxation. Singing bowls are also used as instruments for activating an individual’s chakras, and practitioners may choose different sizes of bowl depending on what they feel is appropriate in the circumstances.

Singing bowls are also used during Buddhist meditation as a means to facilitate entry into deep meditative states. Playing a singing bowl before meditating allows the brain to synchronize with the sound frequencies of the bowl and assists in maintaining focus and relaxation.

Benefits of Singing Bowls in Meditation

Goldsby, et al. conducted an observational study to determine how singing bowl meditation affects a person’s mood, tension and well-being. The researchers aimed to determine if deep relaxation and an uplifted mood could be achieved by listening to high-intensity or low-frequency combinations of singing bowls, gongs, and bells. The study involved 60 adult men and women and compared their condition both before and after meditation. The participants completed the Profile of Mood States, the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale, and the Functional Assessment of Chronic Illness Therapy-Spiritual Well-Being Scale questionnaires to evaluate their condition before and after meditating. 

The individuals lay on yoga mats while music consisting of Tibetan singing bowls, crystal singing bowls, gongs, ting-shas (tiny cymbals), dorges (bells), didgeridoos, and various small bells was played. The singing bowls were the main source of therapeutic sound, and they were positioned near each individual's head.

The researchers saw a significant difference between the pre and post-meditation phases of the participants. The individuals reported feeling a reduced level of tension, anger, fatigue, and depressed mood. Participants aged 40 to 59 also felt reduced physical pain.  

Although the specific cause of this phenomena is unclear, researchers believe that the sounds generate beta and theta waves and thereby propel the brain into states of deep relaxation.

How to Use Singing Bowls in Meditation

It may sound easy, but it takes practice and patience to master the art of playing a singing bowl. To play it correctly, open your left palm flat and place the bowl on top of your hand. For smaller bowls, make a cupping form with your hand and put the bowl on top of your fingertips.

To start using your singing bowl,  strike the bowl or circle the rim with a mallet. These two approaches produce very unique sounds. The 'around-the-rim' technique will produce a sustained and angelic tone, while the 'striking' technique will create a sound more akin to the ringing of a bell.

When you have successfully created a sound using the 'around-the-rim' technique, remove the mallet from the rim and let the bowl continue to vibrate and resonate, which is known as letting the 'sing'.

You can also try filling your bowl with some water. The liquid creates a unique sound when you play the bowl. Once you have created a sound, try letting the bowl continue to vibrate while tilting and swirling it gently.

Conclusion

It can be a challenge to keep ourselves still and find relaxation in today's stressful world. Meditation is a beneficial process that can assist in stress reduction, promote health, and bring inner peace. There are many ways to meditate, and it is up to you to discover the ways that work best for you.

There are various instruments which can help facilitate meditation, and singing bowls are an excellent option. If you are having a difficult time meditating, consider incorporating a singing bowl into your routine and let the sound guide you through your meditation.

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