imagine this is what the line to a Van Halen concert might have looked like in their heyday, I thought to myself as I stood in the enormous queue in front of Grace Cathedral. I’m certain it was half a mile long, at least. It could have been even longer, had we all been orderly, and not scattered in disorganized clumps around the courtyard. I was waiting for my first sound bath, or sound meditation, at one of the most beautiful places of worship in San Francisco. Tickets had to be purchased weeks in advance, because these events are very popular, and sell out quickly. Yes, this was a meditation event of rock star proportions
This specific sound show, hosted through a group called Sound Meditation San Francisco, uses sound according to the tradition of Nada Yoga, which, as told by their website, is “an ancient Indian system of philosophy, meditation, and yoga that focuses on sound vibrations.” I was promised all types of Tibetan gongs, singing bowls, shamanic drums, and flutes, just to name a few instruments, and I was intensely excited. This was exactly what I needed. I knew it.
Surrounded by stained glass
You see, I was suffering from a bit of a meditation malaise. At the time, I was identifying as a “baby meditator’” someone who really wants to have a great and profound practice, but usually just sits for a few minutes each morning, trying to get her breath to cooperate with her brain. I would journal a little, try out some breath work, focus on a mantra…the only problem was, nothing ever really felt like it was happening. I was proud of the disciplined part of the practice I had cultivated, sure, but I thought I really needed to introduce some bells and whistles to amp it up.
Packing my bag for the sound meditation was very much like packing for an overnight trip. My ticket was of the “laying down” variety, meaning that I would participate in the meditation in savasana. On the stone floor of the cathedral, no less. I brought my yoga mat to make this positioning more comfortable, extra layers of clothing, because the stone floor would get cold, a notebook (for recording my profundities, I reasoned), crystals (to magnify the powers of my meditation, naturally), a water bottle, my computer, some clunky wireless headphones, and a few books to read on the train, just in case I got restless on the ride up to Meditationpalooza. My backpack was filled to the brim with possessions, and yet I still had to bother my sound bath partner to sheepishly ask if she could please bring me a blanket, because I had already filled up my bag with the things I’d need for the night.
Soft light illuminates my fellow sound meditators
Waiting in that aforementioned line, I realized that I was not the only person who had packed for a daylong hike and not an hour of quiet meditation. Air mattresses, sleeping bags, large pieces of foam—even, inexplicably, a tuning fork—had all made an appearance in our winding collective of humanity. Once I was appropriately wristband-ed (just like a rock concert), I entered the cathedral, giant sack of junk and all.
The space was dark and gothic, and beautiful. There wasn’t much that needed to be done to make it any more stunning—decoration was sparse, which allowed for the beauty of the architecture to really shine though. After dutifully admiring the stained glass and soaring arches, I settled into my claimed spot in the very back of the cathedral. Then, I began to lay out my belongings and attempted to create my personal space. As it turned out, this was difficult. With another person’s head right at my feet, and people to the left and right to me, and all of my junk in my backpack, I quickly came to terms with the idea that we were going to be in close quarters.
A magnificent, cavernous space
As promised, the sounds, music, and experience were memorable. I clung to my crystals, using my pack full of “necessities” as a makeshift pillow (another thing I wished I had packed, I thought in the moment), and I let the sound wash over me. The gong, well, gong-ed, quite a few times. Every once in awhile, someone would sing a few phrases to the prone masses, and flutes and bowls added to the echoes of sound. This went on for well over an hour, though it didn’t seem that long in the moment. Granted, I may have fallen asleep for a bit. With the toll of the last gong, I became very clear at the moment our songstress sang the words, “I am letting go of all the things that do not serve me.” It meant a lot to me then, as I frantically sat on the train that night and wrote down all the “revelations” I had while sound meditating that evening. But, it means even more to me now.
In the spirit of complete disclosure, I almost didn’t write about my sound meditation experience. I was scared that while it was nice, I wasn’t able to offer any ancient wisdoms that were delivered to me via singing bowl, or give any tangible update on how my life has forever changed since I listened to a flute while freezing on the floor of a church. I thought that this meant the experience wasn’t worthwhile—that it was a throwaway, and that I had better find something else. It made me frantic in a way I hadn’t felt in a long while.
Chilly smiles from the floor, post-gongs
I was trying too hard to make it more than it was—just a really neat experience. I had brought too much baggage into the space, both physically and spiritually. I shouldn’t have expected something like one sound bath to “fix” my meditation practice. That’s an internal issue right there, and it wasn’t fair of me to place such a lofty end goal on sixty minutes of listening to sound on the ground. It’s okay if every new spiritual adventure doesn’t give a “level-up” in some way or another. Sometimes, the sweetest fruits of our labor are the failures. I was so uncomfortable with the amount of time, money, and effort I had put into the event, that I tried to force something it wasn’t ready to give me. The additional pressure I put the experience to enlighten me could have affected the end results of that night, surely. Maybe had I surrendered to the moment and checked my expectations at the door, I would have felt differently about that night. Maybe not. Regardless, I now know that letting go of what isn’t serving us might look like letting go of expected outcomes, or even releasing a full practice that isn’t providing the comfort and service you had hoped it would give.
I learned an important lesson from that sound meditation, one that I will carry with me far longer than the memories of the chimes or the forced musings I tried to milk out of that hour: You’ve got to know when to leave your backpack at home. Drop all of your expectations, leave all of your physical and emotional junk elsewhere, and show up as you. Let go of the things that are not serving you. Half the stuff in your backpack is useless anyways, and you’ll take up less space without it.
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