I gave my first gong bath, sort of, only 2 days after I first played a gong.
That may sound doubtful or even crazy, but it is nevertheless true.
Here is what happened:
On a Wednesday afternoon, a UPS man showed up with a big van and unloaded some big boxes, which contained gongs, a gong stand and some mallets. Like an over sugared 5 year old on Christmas, I ripped open the boxes and immediately went to work assembling my new toys. When I use the word ‘toy,’ I mean in the sense that a truly invested kid would use that word. In other words, yes they were toys, but they represented my life. It was a BIG DEAL.
On Friday, a friend named Duncan came by for a visit. We were to go for our weekly Friday walk and talk.
As he came in and saw the huge golden discs in my living room, his eyes grew big and round. I saw that and an idea came to me. It was the first moment the idea of playing the gongs for somebody else occurred to me.
I asked him if he would try something. I asked him to lay down for a few minutes while I played. It was innocent enough. I had never been to a gong bath. Up to that moment I didn’t know they existed. But I knew plenty about meditating to music. I had been doing that for at least 30 years, if not longer.
So as he laid there on my sofa, I played. I had only been practicing for the 1 and half days the gongs were installed and nothing else. So I had no real idea what I was doing. I just had a basic idea. I played that out for Duncan.
I played for him for about 20 minutes.
When it was over, he slowly opened his eyes, and said, ‘When can I do that again?’
Two days later, the same thing happened with a friend named Brianne. With Brianne it was more than the words she used. It was the look on her face as she emerged from the playing. Looking into her face at that moment was like looking into my future.
At that moment I understood, for the first time, that I would be playing gongs for others.
Not just for myself.
I would be giving gong baths, and I would be giving them right away.
Two weeks later, I gave my first public session for 10 people.
That’s how it started.
The next 3 years were what I call my period of apprenticeship.
This apprenticeship consisted of me giving sessions regularly on a by donation basis. I told everybody that I was a gong player in training and that they could give what they wanted or nothing at all. I was just grateful for their presence.
These sessions were in my living room. It started as a once a month event, and quickly it grew until by the last 6 months of this 3 year period, there were sessions twice a week, on full moons, new moons, solstices, equinoxes, you name it.
By that time, we had sold the living room furniture. Our living room had transformed into 100% a gong room.
I often ask myself why it was that people came to the sessions of those days. I had no idea what I was doing. Why did they come back? Why did they come back with friends?
It was weird.
I had no experience to speak of and the living room was packed every session. And by packed, I literally mean PACKED! The people coming to sessions these days here in Europe would not believe how packed that room was.
Let me give you an idea.
I had people lined up yoga mat to yoga mat, right next to each other, like sardines. Seriously. When it was extra full, I would put the mats on top of each other so that a participant would have 3/4 of a mat and a fellow participant so close that they could hear their breathing.
I can tell you this. Had it been me, the closeness of the participants alone would have kept me from joining.
Still, the people came back. Again and again.
Certainly the gongs have a lot to do with it. Anybody willing to play sensitively for an hour to people laying down will give people a beautiful experience. Just giving yourself a vacation for an hour from devices and responsibilities and laying there while being awake for an hour is already magical.
That explains a lot, I believe.
But, what was it that I did, and what was my approach, that helped make these sessions so magical?
These past few days I have been asking myself this question.
This question first occurred to me few months ago. I had an eye opening conversation with a lovely woman named Joyelle.
She was one of the first people to attend those early sessions.
Joyelle and I had not talked in some years.
In the intervening years, my gong playing had evolved to the point of unrecognizability from those early days. I had practiced hundreds if not thousands of hours. I had given an untold amount of sessions. I had purchased 4 new gongs. I had purchased over a 100 new mallets.
Things were better now. At least, I thought they were.
So there I was on our call, bragging about how great things were today compared to the ‘olden days.’
I said something like, ‘It would blow you away how much better it is.’
She replied instantly and clearly: ‘Our sessions changed my life. Those sessions were powerful enough for me.’
I found her answer to be shocking.
Why was it shocking? Because I am a driven musician who is rarely really satisfied with my playing. Like most musicians I know, I am always onto something new and regard it as ‘THE BEST.”
But here is Joyelle saying those sessions way back when could NOT BE BETTER!
Fast forward to this past weekend.
I was in dialogue with my beloved sister Laura, also a participant from back then.
She wrote: ‘As a recipient of a couple gong sessions in your early times, I found them to be powerfully healing. It would be great to experience a more updated journey experience,’ to which I replied, ‘Laura, Thank you… This is the crazy thing. You were there when I was just starting and the people loved it, and I loved it too… But today, today I have a sense that I would never want to play like that again…’
Then, as an afterthought, I added: ‘But who knows… Maybe Alan of 2023 could learn something from Alan of 2017.’
That got me thinking about an interesting question. What kind of advice could Alan of 2017 share with Alan of 2023? What were his secrets of success, though he had almost no experience and only 2 gongs?
What should today’s Alan do well to remember?
I came up with these five answers.
#1: There’s no substitute for showing up in presence
As I had zero experience playing, you can imagine my playing was rough. And it was rough. It was loud and often discordant.
I often had very few ideas on what to do next.
So what could I rely upon?
I had presence.
I could show up in the now with no thoughts beyond what was in the now. Beyond thoughts, beyond feelings. That is where I lived and living there, I basically had no fear and no mental distortion.
I had the capacity to use the mind rather than get used by the mind to create a compelling sound journey.
Actually the value of presence was more than this. When you play gongs for people you transmit your essence in a most powerful way…with no words getting in between. It is your essence you are expressing, if you are playing true and in presence that is.
And this I could do from day one!
I could transmit the quality of my being into the listening of my audience.
#2: Practice is golden
My junior self might tell my current self, ‘Hey man, I don’t care how skillful you get, you better make time to just be with those gongs and have fun with them, otherwise things will get stale very quickly.’
Actually, perhaps this something maybe today’s Alan would say.
Today, it is true that I can get by for a session or two without practice. I have tons of skills from the years of practice and performance behind me.
But without taking the time to practice, I become increasingly dissatisfied with the sessions…and quickly.
I can feel it. I can feel the focus ebbing. I can feel the frustration of having something to say that I am not quite able to say.
Worse than this, if I just play the gongs in public sessions, without taking time to play alone, I start to get the feeling that it is work and not fun. It loses its essential joy. I start to feel hollow and uninspired.
Practice refills my tank of juicy intoxication. It fills my sails with inspiration. It reminds me of why I am doing what I am doing.
Practice gives me new ideas, new sounds, new overtones, new combinations, new rhythms. It gives me smoothness. It irons out rough spots I hadn’t even known existed until I take time to just be with the gongs.
At the beginning, it wasn’t even a consideration. Practice was my REASON for playing.
It was self-evident that practice was my life’s blood as a gong player. I didn’t just practice for the sake of giving good sessions. It was more the other way around. I gave sessions so that I would have something to practice. That is how much I loved, and still love, practice.
#3: Make sure you’re telling the story you want to be telling
As I was getting going, the story I told was very basic.
I liked it loud. Very loud. At that time, I was enthralled that splashy kind of sound you only could get when the gongs were super activated. I loved shaping the splash sound and making stories about the changes in this splashy sound.
This is hard to describe, and certainly nobody coming to a session today hears the splash sound very much, but any gong player who has ‘gone there,’ knows what I’m talking about.
I would take the volume up to loud levels and this sort of static and splashy sound would emerge. I loved this sound. I could improvise these splashes and make music out of it and even though things were loud, the actual playing was soft and gentle.
The way the gong came to the splashy sound, how the splash changed and grew and deminished and then disappeared as the gongs slowly went quieter and then silent, that was my story.
That was pretty much the only story I told. I went up to a climax and down to a quiet 3 or 4 times in a session at the beginning.
As time went on, the story structure changed as my interests, feeling and priorities changed. I started playing with more dynamics and more subtlety and quiet became a lot more important.
Then I started getting enthralled by the power of quiet playing where sound gives way to pure vibration. Almost like a homeopathic essence of a sound.
Also, I got a whole bunch of new gongs, each with different voices, each having different relationships with the other gongs I had.
Then I learned how to play friction mallets and that gave me a whole other aspect to consider in my story structure.
At the beginning, I was obsessed with maintaining a consistent thread. It was like religion to me. It is the reason I chose to play only gongs, and not just that, I even decided to limit myself to only one gong maker. I decided that in a sea of infinite possibilities, if I wanted to tell a good story I better choose one language and only one language.
I believe this helped people relax as they sort of knew that I knew where we were going.
Today, things are way more complex, and since I have so many more possibilities of expression at my fingertips, it is also much harder to keep a coherent thread, from the beginning to the end of a session.
Still, my favorite sessions these days are the ones in which I feel a told a good story.
#4: Every little thing you do contributes to the quality of your gong bath
In the old days a gong bath started the moment I woke up that day. Being new to giving public sessions, a gong bath was huge.
Not having skills to rely upon, or knowledge about what was going to happen, I was superstitious about my behaviour all day.
What I ate, how I ate, how I conducted myself on social media, what I read, what I looked at, listened to, the matcha I drank 90 minutes before each session, how I cleaned the space, how I set up the space, how I showered, what soap I used, the scent I put on the body, the incense I chose, the candles I lit. These are examples off the top of my head of how I used non-gong playing actions to contribute to a ‘great gong bath.’
How did I prepare for the session? I made the whole day the session.
Today, I am still somewhat like this, but a lot calmer about it. I have more perspective, let’s say. I know that no matter how the session will go, I will go home afterwards. I don’t get too wound up about it.
Still, isn’t it fantastic to have something in which everything detail of life relates to a single moment, the gong bath, and you can make choices intentionally that directly impact that moment.
#5: Be your own authority and teacher
When I started, like most players, I searched the internet for guidance.
I found Youtube videos.
I found teachers that would make me a ‘gong master’ in a weekend, for a price.
I found teachers who gave all kinds of strange, to me, instruction such as ‘Don’t hit the gong in this place, or that place. Don’t play too loud, don’t play too quietly.’ Things like this.
There was a lot of what seemed to me like mumbo jumbo. Ideas about where you hit the gong corresponding to where it affected a person’s chakras. Stuff like that.
There was one guy, a very nice looking old guy, who called himself a great gong master, who claimed that gongs were going to usher in a new age.
All of that was, to me, simply amusing at best, distracting at worst.
I am not here to criticize anybody for their beliefs.
I am only saying that as I was looking for guidance, I encountered a whole lot of would-be influencers, teachers, guides, meanings, and NONE of it resonated with me.
So I stopped looking outward and did what I knew best.
I followed my own advice and started learning how to learn, and also how to teach. Teach myself.
This approach was, for a naturally born renegade like myself, a saving grace. Perhaps it took me longer than I would have taken to learn certain skills and such, but what I got in return was my own unique style of playing gongs. I play them my way. It is my art process, and I love this process. What more could I want?
Now, I am starting to get gong students. The irony of this does not escape me.
I have come to recognize that being your own authority doesn’t mean to avoid teachers necessarily. It means to process all information and experience through the filter of your intuition and to make sure that at the end of that process, you are the boss of you.
I don’t teach my students anything. They are the ones doing the learning.
And each in their own way.
Unsurprisingly, I seem to attract mavericks. These are people who already know that they are their ultimate first authority.
This is good, because if you get caught up in the marketplace of public opinion, it is easy to become like a winged bird that is stuck in a cage.
Here is a funny example.
In the gong world on Facebook, there is someone who calls himself ‘The Gong Police.’ This person daily posts judgmental opinions about how the gong should and should not be played. His opinions are not bad in themselves, but the forceful moralistic/dogmatic/authoritarian approach has the potential to scare those with less confidence in their own authority.
The thing is, even if this person is right about what is beautiful and what is ugly, he has made himself the authority of ‘right and wrong’ to the point of calling himself the police!
The police scare people into following the law, but when it comes to gongs, there are no laws!
The basic point is that if a person has a fear of displeasing the so called gong police, it could stifle the exploration of many a would be genius.
And this is a dramatic example.
The point I am trying to make here is the most important opinion is your opinion, if it is truthful.
Gong playing is primarily a mystery unfolding. A gong player must learn to connect with their own inner teacher, using their own intuition, following their own aesthetic taste of beauty and ugly, for them to have any true power…at least this is my opinion, and should be taken as such. 🙂
Luckily this particular piece of advice is not something I need to worry about following.
Most of my life, I have walked alone. I do so as equally today as I did back on that particular Wednesday when the UPS man showed up at my door.