Sound in Mind and Body

By Jill Purce
Resurgence Issue 115 Mar-Apr 1986, Editor: Satish Kumar, Ford House, Hartland, Nr Bideford, Devon, UK

My particular interest in sound probably came to me in the womb, because my mother was a pianist and my father was a doctor. It is the healing and transformative power of sound that interests me most.

My work with sound started in the late '60's when I saw a film of the work of a man called Hans Jenny, a Swiss engineer and doctor who was influenced by the work of Rudolph Steiner. He was showing the effect of sound on matter. He had made it his life work to demonstrate what happens when you vibrate matter with sound in a variety of ways, and used all kinds of different substances. He used liquids and pastes and fine powders and subjected them to different sounds and frequencies. I saw that heaps of a matter which had no form, as soon as sound was introduced, took on the precise and exquisite patterns you find in nature and that the more the sound was sustained the more differentiated these patterns became. If the materials or sound changed, so did the patterns. This was extremely significant. If sound can introduce form and pattern into matter then there is something fundamental about sound. I realised that this theme is common to many traditions, and they consider sound to be a great force in the universe.

Creation Through Sound

When I began looking into these traditions I found that even amongst quite widely distant peoples you have the idea that the world itself came into being and continues to come into being through sound, in other words that the coming into being is a sonorous event. You find this in the East and West and can understand this as a metaphorical description of a vibratory universe. Which means that human beings have always known that everything in the world has its identity because of the periodicity and the regularity of its movement and that this is what makes one thing separate from another, and gives it form.

In St John's Gospel it says "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God". You find almost identical words in the Hindu tradition and so you have the beginning as sound, and also as language. In these traditions you find that the beginning comes about not only through sound and the word, but through the allocation of names - as in the Bible, when Adam names everything. When you give a name to a thing it has a separate identity because it has one name and not another name, which means that it is something 'recognisable'. In this way you have the beginning of language and thought. If you want to technologise the world you need language and differentiation, but if you want to be in the present, if you want to experience 'treeness' for example you need to be able to suspend naming and language. Normally when we look at a tree, we say 'tree' to ourselves. Immediately we say 'tree' we remember that yesterday we forgot to do something which means that we have to do it tomorrow and so on - and our mind starts off on its trajectory of inner chatter, of tree associations related to the past and the future. The moment you name something you are thrust into time - you cannot name anything without being in the past or the future. If you want not to be in time, in the sense of past and future, but want to remain in perceptual contact with 'treeness' then you can only do that if you don't name it as tree, which separates it from you as an object. People have devised different ways of tricking the mind so that they can be in a state of perceiving 'treeness' or can be 'tree-ing'.

You have to undo that skill which we have been taught since birth and which we get good examination marks for. You have to be able to use it when you want to and not use it when you don't. Sonorous yogas are devised for just this purpose. They either 'splinter' the attention, giving it so much to do that you forget to think or create a closed circuit of attention. Using the voice and listening to the sound you are making at the same time, enables you to go beyond the dualism of language and separation from the world. We see that something is different from us and that which is different from us is also different from something else, this differentiation arises with language. The separation of us and not us is the separation which all traditions try to overcome so that we can be in a state of unity. Sound is one of the most effective ways of going beyond separation.

Finding a Living Tradition

The magical and healing qualities of sound were taken for granted by most peoples of antiquity, and particularly by the Egyptians, Greeks and Indians. What I wanted to do was to find to where this had survived. And so I found myself studying within various traditions. The place where a more precise understanding of the use of sound and of voice has survived is the Tibetan tradition. This happened because of the peculiar situation in Tibet where a mediaeval spiritual culture had survived. We in Europe had certain similarities in our own spiritual culture, in earlier times, when in caves there lived hermits who performed extraordinary miracles. This, of course, has been entirely lost through the age of so-called enlightenment. But this tradition survived in Tibet, perhaps for geographical reasons, maybe something to do with the rare atmosphere of the high Himalayas. In Tibet for many hundreds of years, there has been a highly sophisticated science of mind. There are large numbers of words in the Tibetan language which are in some way a qualification of mind. For generations and generations Tibetans have studied the mind.

The Tibetans talk about the human being in three ways. They talk of body, of voice and of mind. These have three locations. The position for 'body' is in the head. The 'voice' is in the throat and the position of 'mind' is in the heart. For Tibetans there is no identity between mind and brain, as in the West. So the voice acts as an intermediary between the subtle realm of mind and the more physical realm of body. So it is seen as a bridge between the material and the immaterial. Speech, voice, sound, and subtle breath or prana are all connected. It is not only Tibetans who consider sound as a bridge, the idea is very widespread. For example, sound is often considered as an intermediary for the translation of spirit into matter and then for matter into spirit through the agency of human beings. If spirit can become matter through sound, then matter can become spirit, again through sound. Sound is used in almost all places and times for travelling the path of transcendence - for transforming matter back again into spirit. You can see this somewhat literally in that you can use the sound of an object to break it apart. For example, if you listen to the sound of a wine glass and direct it back to the glass you can smash it with your voice. So you can decompose form with sound. You can do it physically, but also you can bring about transformation through sound, spiritually.

Within the Tibetan tradition of Dzogchen the aim is to relax into a state of contemplation and to live our lives with integrity so that the implications of our actions are apparent in the clarity of every moment. So that we live, like a fish in water. Like riding the waves of the Tao, we leave no traces, and lead impeccable existences causing no disturbances. If you cannot do it for whatever reason perhaps you have some blockage or disturbance in your energy or problem of some kind in your mind which prevents you from doing this. In this case there are certain things you can do which can make it easier.

There are many kinds of practices and sound is often used to bring about a state of clarity and contemplation.

Mantra

In India too the voice is very important for transformation. Perhaps the most common form in India - and it is also of course common in Tibet - is its use of Mantra. Mantras are sacred sounds conserved in the ancient languages, even in languages which are no longer understood. There are certain sounds for specific illnesses or problems caused by particular beings, or mantras to bring you into a state of clarity or emptiness. Other mantras tune you into the lineage of teachers in which you are participating and if you use these particular sounds which have been used by masters of the lineage then you tune into and share their attainment. You are tuning into all the other people who have ever used this mantra.

Mantra is used throughout the world, for example, amongst the Sufis, the mystics of Islam, forms of mantric chanting are combined with rhythmic movements of the body, and with rhythmic breathing to bring you into a state of transcendental ecstacy or spiritual bliss. Most liturgies are chanted or sung and this also applies to the liturgy of the Christian church. The Sunday services of matins, communion and evensong are a form of spiritual entrainment when we chant psalms together, sing hymns and intone prayers. So you have everyone tuning together. When you change from speaking to singing something very interesting happens. Through singing you can unite with everybody. That is why all countries have a national anthem.

Shamanic Ground

The great world religions have super-imposed themselves over the indigenous shamanistic traditions which existed for hundreds of thousands of years beforehand. Many of the sonic yogas of Tibet and India already existed long before Buddhism. They were very ancient. These exercises of chanting, rhythmical bodily movement, rhythmical breathing and so on are very ancient practices which were incorporated into the great religions. You find practices like the Whirling of the Dervishes. They spiral and rotate while breathing and praying in combination with the voice of the flute which is very similar to the voice of a human being. They say that the body of the dervish is like the body of the flute through whom God is blowing.

What I Teach

After studying in a number of different traditions I eventually decided to teach . I had begun to see that there were certain similarities in the principles behind the way sound was used. Certain things seemed to be held in common, and it seemed important to try and understand the principles, and teach them in a way which could help people who felt alienated from their own spiritual tradition. If we understood the way in which we could use our voice then we would benefit from the understanding of all those who had done it before and rediscover this magnificent tool which we carry around with us all the time. We use our voice most of the time totally unconsciously but we could use it in a way that all traditions have understood- for our own transformation.

If you can liberate the voice then you can liberate the human being. It is our means of expression. It is the way in which our breath is made conscious and our breath is the way we have of exchanging ourselves with the world. We breath the world in and we breath ourselves out into the world, and it is a constant relationship which goes on mostly unconsciously. The use of the voice is one way in which this becomes conscious. If you know what you are doing then you can change this relationship completely. I teach people certain ways of breathing, because breathing in itself is an art of great precision. Depending on the kind of state that you want to have or the part of yourself that you want to make contact with, you use different kinds of breathing. It is very precise. So the first thing is to teach people how to breath. In addition you are trying to change the breath for chanting and you are chanting in order to change the breath and then you are trying to do both of those in order to change the nature of your being so you can go beyond the chattering mind and be in the nature of the mind itself. If you are trying to go beyond thought , you need to lower the breathing. Usually breathing is fast and high and tends to emphasise the inbreath. Now a fast, high concentrated inbreath is fine for re-birthing or work with hyperventilation or if you want to uncover emotional material. To go beyond emotional material, and go beyond the activity of the thinking mind you lower the breath and work with the outbreath. There are many ways to lengthen the breath to change your whole pattern of breathing. After the breathing I get people to listen. It is not just making sound that is important, but it is being able to listen to it which is essential. You are completing a circuit of attention and it is this circuit of attention which enables you to go beyond the thinking mind. Secondly I teach people to listen and to make sound at the same time. Then I teach how to use sound to liberate oneself from the pattern of anxieties which is stimulated and nourished by every perceptual experience. Each perception initiates naming (language and thought) and therefore comparison in time with past and future. We are immediately excluded from the present by our regrets and dreads. The persistence of these negative thought patterns starts by affecting our emotions and energy and then brings about material changes at the body's weak points which ultimately become pathological.

If you can use sound to work on the morphogenetic field of the person, in other words the resonant potentiality of their own healthy state, then you can maintain that person in a state of health. In language to be healthy is to be sound - we talk about being sound in body and mind, to be of sound mind and to have ideas which ring true. I work at this level to try and tune the instrument which the human being is. To maintain a person in tune is to maintain them in a state of health.

It is possible to find you own sound. Each person has their own sound quite distinct from another person and I demonstrate ways which develop that and bring your whole being into resonance. In this way your voice should get lower, fully resonant and much richer, so the whole of you is resonating when you use your voice. Then I teach how to go within your sound to reveal the inside of the sound through harmonic or overtone chanting. This way of working with sound is of ancient shamanistic origin. It brings out the internal core of the sound as separate notes over and above the note which you are singing. This is a magical thing to do either on your own or with a group of people. You have a sense that you are evoking angelic beings - which of course in antiquity and even medieval times were thought to be sonorous. At the same time because tongue movements are linked directly to thinking, by using the tongue to differentiate and make audible parts of your own voice, which before were undifferentiated and unconscious, you are also stimulating little used neural pathways.

My Overall Aim

My aim in not modest. I see that nothing short of the transformation of humanity is what is necessary at this point in time and I will do anything I can to change that possibility into a reality. Since the voice is an instrument of transformation that we carry about with us all the time, it is one of the most powerful and also readily available means for this. My way is to open peoples' ears, so that they can hear their own voice. Then their own voice can become a means of transformation. When I say transformation I mean that we may live our life in a way which is harmonious with our environment and other people, facilitating the illumination of others, the illumination of life on earth.

An Experiment with Children

Recently, I was teaching in a summer school for school teachers of the Arts. We discussed how in schools the period of assembly has become a problem for teachers. Schools still have an assembly and there are quite strict instructions, even a law in England, that there should be Christian prayers of some kind. Most teachers, mainly because they were educated in the humanistic period of modernism, are embarrassed. They do not know what to do with this period but are not allowed to abolish it. The real aim of the assembly is to tune the pupils and teachers of the school into something higher than themselves so that the activities of the school can be harmonious, so that the development of the children can carry on smoothly. Therefore it is a very important period and the importance of it has really been forgotten, partly because of the overwhelming tide of humanism which once started as an interesting fashion amongst a few intellectuals and which is now ubiquitous, and also because of the inter-denominational and intercultural nature of schools now. Christian prayers would not be appropriate for a Hindu, a Jew or a Muslim. As a result of this confusion the original intention has been lost.

I had the idea that it might be possible to encourage schools to use the assembly once again as a period for tuning together using sound in a way that it has always been used, yet in a way which was non-denominational. I mentioned it to various people there and they thought it might be possible with certain age groups. I put the idea to one side. I came back to London and in my very next workshop, there were five schoolteachers. It was as if I had had the intention one minute and in the next it was materialising. There were two people who taught music in schools in North London, there was another person who supervised music in central London, there wa a teacher of mentally handicapped children and a teacher of Montessori, all in that one workshop. I was so surprised by this that we began to talk about the possibilities and I talked about this idea.

A week later I was invited to teach in a Primary School in North London. The Headmistress had been told about it and was very interested. The two teachers of the forms I was asked to teach, ten-year olds in the morning and seven-year olds in the afternoon, and somebody who went around different schools helping with music teaching and various other interested people all came and sat in on the experiment.

As it was the first time I had ever taught children anything, it was quite alarming to have so many witnesses. And I must say it was most thrilling. The children were immediately transfixed. They asked the most precise and brilliant questions. They got right to the central point immediately. They knew exactly what was going on. They were completely spontaneous. I asked them to describe their experiences on listening to certain kinds of sounds, harmonic chanting and so on, and what they told us were visions rather than descriptions. I expected them to imitate each other, to say, well, I had that too, and so on. Not a bit of it. Everyone was quite different and yet rooted ina common source of experience. They were truly cosmic visions that the children were having and they themselves were thrilled.

In the second half we had a period of painting in which they painted what they had experienced. The teachers who came were amazed by what had happened. They said that they had never seen the children so spontaneous. Children who rarely spoke, spoke up about their experience. And then when it came to painting that was incredible. My own beginnings were through painting and to see the paintings of these children was very moving. Out of the darkness sprang brilliant rainbow colours, appeared luminous waves and beams with balls of light floating in space. Absolutely extraordinary paintings - and even after that the children were so excited they wouldn't stop, so they started to write poetry about it too and showed me the poems. There was one poem which made me cry.

The reports, later, of the parents were surprising too - they said that the children came home ebullient - bursting with what had happened to them. So if you can bring this out in children from an early age than it really might be possible to transform society.


Sign Up to Newsletter