Gong playing is no different from any other pursuit. You can study from others, you can read books, but to really get it, you need to get into it. Here are 9 principles that have served me well, and might serve you well in a pursuit that matters to you.
1. Learn the macro from the micro.
People often ask how I learned to play the gongs. The answer? By playing one gong at a time, one mallet at a time, one gesture at a time. I am a big believer in practice. But not just random practice.
I like to focus on small things and to make them as perfect as possible. I may repeat a little gesture over and over again for an hour. I will play a single little thing until I can reliably recreate a very specific sound or overtone upon command.
What is cool about this?
It doesn’t just affect that one sound. I have found that by focusing on the smallest of details, it raises my game automatically in every other area of my playing. Elevating my play in one area elevates *every* area. This is because the universal is found in the smallest detail. Live out the smallest detail and you discover the universal.
2. Your state determines the quality of your actions.
I kind of knew that I needed to be in a ‘good state of mind’ to give a good gong bath when I got started, but after a while, it became clear to me that my state of mind was *the most important* variable to the quality of the gong bath.
There were situations when I didn’t have time to practice as I like to, before a session, but if I had time to just sit for 4 or 5 minutes and maybe do some breathing meditation or just get super still, the gong bath was always great. I learned that I could count on myself, so long as I was right. It is amazing how well I can play when I am calm and in presence.
The point: When you have no time or resources for anything else, focus on your inner self first.
3. Little differences make all the difference.
I consider a gong bath to be a succession of a little moments that creates a big whole moment. If I can make each detail I notice as good as possible, then I can feel good in the knowledge that I have made the whole gong gath as wonderful as possible.
I firmly believe in this. I believe that every little detail related to a gong bath creates the quality of a gong bath. The quality of a reminder email the day before the session. How meticulously I prepare the space. The quality of the incense I use. Where I place an eye mask on a pillow are only a couple examples of little differences.
I buy the best kind of hand soap for when people need to wash their hands, candles in spots to provide a certain feeling, this list goes on and on. Everytime I discover a detail that can be improved, it gets improved. It gets love and attention. In this way, I aim to give a completely intentional and loving experience.
4. Anything can be a useful metaphor for anything else.
I developed the way I play gongs with no instruction or direct help from another gong player. I never actually played with other gong players for many years. I owe any success I have had to masters I have studied from other areas of life.
I have liberally borrowed from other areas of my experience and applied those experiences and insights to the gongs.
A few examples: I use compositional theory from classical Indian music. I attempt to layer sounds on top of each other like Rothko layered colors on top of each other in his paintings. I loosely follow a storytelling format for giving presentations in business.
I attempt to bring people into a deep state of meditation by playing in such a way that holds people’s attention longer than their habitual span of attention, thereby bringing them into a deeper state. I learned how to do this as a meditation teacher.
The point. Anything you know can be a resource in any other pursuit. You just have to find the connection.
5. Go away so that you can come again.
This is something I learned along time ago when I was playing the saxophone. I would take a small vacation from the horn, and when I returned, I was shocked that I had improved! Without playing a single note! This has proven to be true too of playing gongs.
Every 3 months or so, I take a week or two weeks away from the gongs, and when I come back, I always come back with fresh ideas, and open ears, and flexibility to create new forms of beauty. I don’t really know why this is so.
Maybe I need to forget somethings, to unstick myself from patterns I fell into without even realizing it, in order to play in a new way. Maybe distance makes the heart grow fonder, and it rekindles my enthusiasm. I don’t know. I just know that it works.
6. Give vulnerability a chance.
Giving a gong bath is a little bit like walking on a high wire. It is a little like getting naked in front of strangers. Like showing them my vulnerable parts.
I never quite know what the gongs are going to do before I play them. I have to respond to them no matter what they do, and make a story out of it, make it musical, and I have to do this publically.
I care about telling a good story with the gongs. I care about how they sound. And yet I must admit to myself that much of this process is beyond my control. I can merely listen and respond. I must be vulnerabile, and work with that.
I have to put my heart on the line, so to speak. I have to be that open to the unknown for a whole hour without stopping. As a result, I have learned that the more I lean into vulnerability, I play the naked truth of ‘what needs to be said’ by the gongs.
When I play with this kind of totality, I never have regrets.
7. Be prepared to get your ass kicked.
Two days after I got my first gong, I gave my first ‘gong bath,’ though we didn’t call it that. I just spontaneously asked a friend to lay down while I played, and then two days after that another friend. Seeing how it made them feel, I decided I needed to offer this publicly. That was how this gong bath business started.
Two weeks later, I gave my first public gong bath. Even though I didn’t ask for money, I advertised and got my friends’ friends’ friends to come. A lot of it was great. Many came back, many more didn’t
Some quotes I remember: I have a headache. That sounded like a horror show. Or what was worse. That look. That look as they left said everything. It said they were never coming back.
For the first year or so of giving public sessions, I had maybe 2 good sessions and then one where I totally bombed. It was horrible. Embarrassing. Loud, scratching, totally not-harmonious. Just rough. I often went to bed feeling pretty dejected.
But in the morning, I got up and practiced and a week later, gave another session. I kept on going and people kept on coming, and slowly in became what it is today. The truth be told, I am still embarrassed about sessions I gave.
But those ‘bad’ sessions had more to teach me than the good ones.
We are all students at the school of hard knocks. We all fail to meet up to our expectations at times. The key is to make sure you are failing at something you really care about. That way, your failure provides the most value. It educates you in those important areas of your lives that matter to you.
And when you hear the comments of those not on your path, you can remember this awesome quote by Theodore Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
8. Connection over performance.
When in front of others, it’s easy to be a personality, to just say the habitual stuff without even looking at how the people around you are digesting it, but this is not real communication, and it doesn’t really feed your audience or you.
I try hard not to fall into the trap of habitual blah blah blah. This is challenging because I need to say roughly the same sort of thing before and after every gong bath. So I work to see beyond what I am saying, the content, and keep my awareness free to take in the people and how they are taking it all in. I makes pace for the connection.
9. Go for truth and hit beautiful along the way.
As I play the gongs in a session, there is a little voice in me that tells me what to play and how to play it. I call this voice my intuition, and when I honor it by playing what it suggests, I call that playing the truth.
When I play the truth like this, it always turns out beautiful. Even if the sound is challenging, and it sometimes is. It sometimes is ‘too loud,’ or ‘too quiet,’ or ‘not harmonious,’ or too ‘rough textured,’ for my sweet tooth taste.
Still, when I obey the dictates of that quiet voice inside, I never have regrets, but when I go for ‘beauty’ or, even worse, the familiar, by ignoring this voice of truth, I end up confused, without direction, needing to pause, take a deep breath, listen in, and start again.