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My Pandemic Odyssey to Costa Rica: The Woo Woo

Brian and the soundbath. gong.

by Dan Cohen

I’m in the middle of a soundbath. I mean right now, as I write this. I’m sitting at a little bamboo table in the hills above Dominical at Finca de Vida, one of those vegan yoga retreats I’ve mentioned. This one is different than most, though. It’s fairly spartan, for one thing. No personal masseuses or $150 facials here. I’m staying in a simply furnished room with two bunk beds. It reminds me of summer camp. There are rooms for couples and groups too, of course. One yoga class every morning at 7a, an activity like soundbath most afternoons. Massages offered Mondays and Wednesdays. Great, fresh, beautifully prepared food every night for dinner. You’re left to make your own smoothies and salads for breakfast and lunch. It’s cheap. It’s gorgeous. The people are great. It all works for me. I feel divine.

I thought last week that it would be all woo woo. You know, the kind of experience you have at a 3-hour holistic Saturday seminar, where they lay a few crystals on you and tell you it’s going to change your life but you leave feeling exactly the same as you did when you walked in. I expected it to be a mellow, inclusive experience. A few pleasant, gentle bongs on the gong that we listened to until the very end of their resonance. Then we’d talk empathically about it. And that lady from New Jersey would go on about how her hip feels better and it brought up the difficult divorce from her guitar player husband. Then we’d rest for an hour before dinner.

I’ve had my issues with the woo-woo. I’ve lived long enough that I’ve been able to watch first hand the various styles and modalities of woo woo take seed and grow and spread throughout our culture. I did TM. I read Be Here Now. I read Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. Alan Watts. Marianne Williamson. Deepak Chopra. Carlos Castañeda. I could go on and on. That weird but kindly psychic lady from Florida. Tony Robbins, even. They are all in some sense children of the woo woo. A secular faith that rose as belief in capital G God waned. I was among those apostates, those acolytes. I was right there with them. But I always had my doubts. I was never quite all in.

To be totally honest, though, soundbaths are a woo woo outlier. They’re totally different. They’re like a real bath where sound is the soap and air is the water and you’re scrubbed like hell. The gong is giant, 30 inches across, maybe more, and it contains multitudes—multitudes of tones, multitudes of frequencies, multitudes of power. Frequencies from the very bottom to the very top of the ability of the human ear to hear, and beyond, into dog territory. And each of these frequencies resonate outwards in various strengths depending on where Brian is hitting the gong at any given time. He makes sure to hit the gong everywhere, to cover all frequencies.

It begins in silence. Brian begins playing the gong rather delicately, but soon moves on to more assertive strikes. And you realize, lying there, trapped, that the gong is not mellow. The gong in fact is loud as hell. You’re lying down and your eyes are closed but the gong is not there to soothe. Today I’m sitting 20, maybe 30 feet away, to the side of it, so none of the sound is coming directly at me, and still it’s so loud at times it feels like I’m inside a train whistle. And last week I was in front of it, maybe 10 feet away.

But loud is not the word. Train whistle is definitely not the word. It is not piercing but enveloping. Your ears are but one of the participating organs. You don’t hear it so much as feel it. And you can’t not feel it. In the woo-woo, the whole world is made up of energy, of vibrations. Everyone hovers at a certain vibration. Living things have a higher vibration, a more active vibration, but vibrations are not limited to the living. Trees and birds and bees have a vibration, but so do rocks. So do machetes. So does toilet paper.

It’s not that the gong is so big or loud that it only resonates everyone’s root chakra, down low, behind your pubes and before your anus. No, the gong plays all frequencies, so it plays your frequency. It plays frequencies behind your ear and under your wrist and inside your hippocampus. I found myself dreaming like crazy, unbidden, during the ceremony, dreaming rich colors and visions of friends and places and journeys, like certain vibes sparked certain nodes, released certain stories stored in uncharted corners in your brain. He moves the mallet around the gong so that at moments, with a particularly sympathetic frequency, you feel your entire body lightly humming to it. There is no time, no rhythm to it, the gong is so resonant that hitting and hitting it produces not a drumbeat rhythm but a light, slow crescendo that finally blooms into a roaring wave of sound.

Brian plays that wave. He surfs it. Sometimes a tiny wave, sometimes huge, sometimes low, sometimes high. In the middle he brings it down to a very soft level, puts the mallet aside and merely rubs the gong with what looks like a spatula, creating high, ghostly vibrations that echo across and above you. It’s a respite. You feel you’ve arrived somewhere. Then he cranks it back up again and you’re on the way back. Toward the end he adds a sort of low chant of his own, a dark drone that gives the gong an even deeper color. And then he brings it down and the gong loses steam and soon disappears into the mist.

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After the ceremony everyone lays there just breathing for a moment. Then they get up. Brian speaks briefly. “The gong creates so many energy fields and takes you right where you need to be,” he says. “Sometimes you just remain in your thinking mind. It’s all good. Eventually you develop the skill of emptying your mind. Meditate. Work on it. You all went to school. You got good at something. Now practice meditation. Get good at emptying your mind.” Brian says this at the end of class. Briefly. Matter of factly. It’s just a comment. Take it or leave it. Then he leaves.

This is the whole thing about the woo-woo world. You can take it or leave it. Most people leave it. It’s easy to leave it. Because even if you take it, you’ve got to really take it, and even if you really take it, really meditate, really yoga, really vegetable, even then it’s a much slower process, much more subtle, maybe transformative, maybe fruitless. It’s out there, something’s out there beyond our ken, but only certain people want to venture there, and maybe only certain people need to. There’s an odd guilt that comes with it that is also part of what you are trying to get over, a guilt of which the charlatans of the industry, and there are many, take full advantage. That guilt that it must be me. If it doesn’t work, it’s not a process, it’s me. I didn’t believe enough. I didn’t try hard enough. I didn’t pay enough. If I didn’t feel it then I can’t feel it, I’m just a dumb person vibrating on some dumb low frequency. I have to just accept that. But you can’t accept that. So you pretend to feel it. You get pretty good at pretending to feel it, so good in fact that you begin to think pretending to feel it is in fact feeling it.

But all of that, the whole universe of that sort of guilty thinking, is bullshit. You know it’s bullshit. I know it’s bullshit. It’s bullshit. Even if you’re not the least bit woo-woo you know you have to own your life, find your own path and make your own peace with it. There comes a time when you can’t pretend any more.

I’ve come around. I’m still not totally all in with the woo woo, not all woo woo anyway (as with anything, there’s woo woo and then there’s woo woo), but I feel like I understand it, I understand the thinking, and the non-thinking, behind it. At least I think I do. But do I? Do you ever truly understand anything? Living in harmony with that question mark is the wellspring of the woo woo.

But at least I think I understand that my former reasoning, the ‘It’s all bullshit’ reasoning, misses the point. It may be ‘true’ that it’s bullshit. True for you, at least. We all fashion our own truth of course. But it misses the crux, the divine spark of the woo-woo. The tincture, the herb, the gong, they’re only part of the medicine. The other part is your participation. The other part is time. Western medicine gives you a pill that will do what it says it will do, no matter how you feel, what you think, what you do. With the woo-woo, you have to believe. The belief is not some dodge, not some ruse, not an escape clause for when it doesn’t work. It’s part of the medicine. It’s an actual ingredient, like it’s listed on the label. And even then it takes fucking forever to work. Have you ever taken St. John’s Wort instead of Valium? It doesn’t fucking work! It’s bullshit! But it’s not bullshit. It just takes time. It’s not that allopathic sledgehammer. It takes a day or 2 of horse-sized pills, plus maybe a bit of yoga or qui gong, and belief, to achieve what you feel when you take one 5mg tab of Valium as you’re having what you feel is a nervous breakdown. In the woo woo, you have to help mother’s little helper. Those outside the woo woo, even now I hear them cry: “What the fuck is the point of that? That means it doesn’t work!”

So does it work? Can you tease out whether you feel better because of the yoga or the qi gong or the herb? In a word, no. At least I can’t. Not really. Not clinically. Certainly not like you can with Valium. That fucking works. That’s why western medicine is so very good at treating symptoms. It’s unfair, you think. But it’s not unfair. Not really. There are no shortcuts. The symptoms are not the disease.

The soundbath is over. The vibrations have ebbed away. But something remains. All those frequencies coursing through your frame for 50 minutes leave a trace. The bathers have all gone, and I’m still sitting here. I’m almost done. And when I’m done, I’ll be taking a nap. I’m fucking exhausted.

(Check out finca de vida in Costa Rica at fincadevida.com, or farmoflifecr.com. I highly recommend it.)

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