By her own declaration, Melissa Felsenstein is hardly the archetype that comes to mind when you think of a meditation guru. For starters, she loves bacon. And she can never say no to a good margarita. By all accounts, Felsenstein says that she definitely doesn’t represent what is typical of a figure in the wellness world. But even so, through a series of tough events in her own life, the Berkeley-based sound practitioner found herself slowly drawn to the world of meditation – specifically sound meditation. After discovering the impact that using sound as therapy had on her own life and well-being, Felsenstein now spends her time sharing that form of healing with others through what are known as “sound baths,” or sessions of meditation enhanced by the use of special instruments, including gongs, crystal bowls, and chimes. Here, Felsenstein dives a little deeper into the idea of sound healing and shares a little insight into her upcoming immersive sound bath event, Nesting.
Can you describe the process of sound healing a little more?
So, in California, we actually call it sound meditation or a sound bath instead of sound healing. It’s more like you’re kind of immersed in your senses and the sound around you, and it’s a very healing experience in that way. With a regular meditation, it can actually be pretty hard to get into that. It’s silent, and your mind is often reeling from an experience you just had or maybe some kind of excitement that you feel, or whatever. With that silence, though, it can be hard to slow it all down. And when you don’t really know the way, it can be so abrupt for most people. But with sound meditation, it’s so different because you lay down comfortably with these different props – a mat, a blanket, an eye mask – and you remove yourself from the world and just let yourself listen for an hour or an hour and a half, and you just really go inward and feel a full-body, sensory experience with sound and vibrations.
So it kind of takes over your brain in a way and removes the element of distraction that might exist with a silent meditation.
Right. Your brainwaves naturally slow down through a process called entrainment. It’s similar to bilateral stimulation, where your right and left parts of your brain are being stimulated differently because of how the sound waves are traveling in a circular motion in your ears. A lot of people say it’s kind of like forced relaxation, in a sense. When you use sound as a therapeutic tool, you basically shut out the world and achieve a state of meditation that allows you to release all of the innate stress that you carry with you from your everyday life. When you think about it, sound is so primitive. We’ve been using sound for thousands of years. There’s a part of ourselves that really yearns for that experience.
How did you first come to find sound meditation?
I discovered sound as a form of therapy when I was dealing with a lot of high anxiety. My father had become severely mentally ill and was kind of lost in the system. As a result, a lot of things were affected in my life; it really just contributed to a lot of chronic stress, insomnia, migraines, digestive issues, and, ultimately, depression. I think when your stress levels are chronic for an extended period of time, like two or three years, it really starts to affect you emotionally so that depression came in kind of suddenly and I found myself in a situation that I just couldn’t get out of. I happened to walk into a class one day and, at the end of class, this woman was playing the crystal bowl and it was kind of like in that moment, something clicked and I knew this would work for me. I was able to relax for just a minute and that really instilled this beacon of hope that things could be different. Maybe if I could experiment with this, my life could get better, and I could return to that person I used to be. It was a beautiful experiment. And in the end, it was a fantastic turnaround. It really didn’t take long after introducing myself to these states of meditation to my life – especially considering how long my nervous system had been stuck in those patterns – for me to restore my wellbeing.
So for you, sound meditation obviously played a big role in combating chronic stress and anxiety. What are some of the other benefits of using sound as therapy?
It definitely promotes this calmness, and it can kind of negate anything that you’re dealing with as a result of stress. But beyond that, it can boost endorphins, help restore a healthier sleep cycle, and there’s even been some research around the role that sound therapy can use in dealing with PTSD and trauma. It can also lower blood pressure, though this has been more confirmed by self-reporting than extensive research on the topic. As with any meditation, I think one of the big things is this slow change that you get over time where you see your mood becoming more elevated, and your focus and intuition becoming sharper. Meditation can offer this awesome juxtaposition of seeing the big picture but also seeing the details.
Okay, so your upcoming event is centered around this theme of “nesting.” Can you explain that a bit more?
I feel like there’s a dissonance in wintertime between what’s happening in our natural world and what’s happening in our social world. It’s December, and when we look outside, the trees are becoming more bare, the nights are getting longer, and the days are getting shorter; it’s a season of discard and letting go. Nature is slowing down and protecting its resources. But socially, it’s the opposite. It’s all about filling your schedule and committing to a lot of different parties, and having all of these seasonal experiences, and buying presents for everyone – it’s just a really hectic time. So there’s this tension between the two. And I think there’s this innate part of us that deeply wants to mirror what’s happening around us in nature. We want to slow down and rest and take time to reflect as a year is coming to a close. So I wanted to create this experience as kind of a protective “nest” where people can experience this feeling of stillness and emptiness, in a sense. It invites everyone to set aside some time to restore the innate beauty of winter. It’s an inward experience, versus an outward one.
The space is great for this theme, too. It’s a lot of wood, it actually has the feeling of a nest – and the floors are heated, which is an added bonus. It has that warm, cozy, nurturing feeling to it.
What are some of the instruments and tools you use during a typical sound meditation?
My sound meditations are fairly simple. I definitely use the same instruments that worked to restore and rebalance my own nervous system. That includes quartz crystal bowls, which are man-made with silica and water, and then created in a mold and heated to 400 degrees. Then, as they cool, they become a particular note. It’s actually fascinating because it’s not like you can intentionally create a particular note. It’s more just that certain bowls, under certain conditions, will happen to cool to a particular note. But it’s interesting because as the bowls cool, they don’t really become notes that we’re familiar with. So it’s not like it’s just a D-note or something like that; it’s maybe a little bit flatter or a little bit sharper. It’s a sound that you don’t know and have no association with, unlike music, which we have a lot of emotional charge connected to and which we use it to affect our mood. That’s what I use in the beginning to assist in removing everyday thoughts; removing yourself from the world. They sort of create this protective place. They kind of erase all of the things that we’re always thinking about. It kind of. I like to start with the crystal bowls because they help wipe your mind clear and it loosen your thoughts, so you can have a little oasis for a while. These bowls are good at doing that because of low frequency wavelengths; that bilateral stimulation, binaural stimulation, the wobbling vibration of the tone, etc.
I also use gongs – either Meinl or Paiste, which are the two leading gong brands. They’re both handmade, and they’re tuned to the orbital properties of each planet. I also use Koshi chimes. They’re circular chimes which means that they have a circular tone to them, so it’s not like a cascade. It keeps going around and around. It’s very magical and almost fairy-like. I also have some ocean wave drums – these are drums with a bunch of little pellets inside of them that sound like an ocean wave when you rock the drum back and forth – and some metal Tibetan bowls, too.
How does the theme of a meditation – in this case, nesting – inform the tools and instruments you use during the meditation? Or doesn’t it?
Definitely. What I choose to work with and how different tools and notes get along creates a very different experience every time. With nesting, the goal is to create an environment that’s very relaxing and calm. Meanwhile, with a meditation centered around the theme of manifestation, for example, that would tap into a sound that’s a little more energizing.
So in the case of the gongs, I’ll definitely use Mercury, which has a very watery sound, as well as Jupiter and Uranus, because those together will create a softer feeling. Mars, on the other hand, has this very deep earthy tone to it, so it’s not really what you want for this. Each of the instruments have their own personalities and I spend a lot of time getting to know them and learning how to use them to create a unique sound meditation every time.
Why do you think meditation is such an important component of improving wellness?
It can be very difficult to divorce ourselves from the devices in our lives and the pace of life. We can do things faster but there’s a lot more to do, so we oddly have less time than ever. We’ve lost that ability to just rest. Even when you’re just resting before bed, you’re usually doing something. You’re reading, or you’re on your phone, or you’re watching TV. There are all of these different ways that we unwind but it’s rare that we just lay down and listen to music or relax in a more meditative way. So this can offer that environment that we really need. We need to be more in balance, but we have such a hard time creating space for that in our lives. Especially meditation.
What would you say is one of the biggest misconceptions around meditation that you wish more people knew?
Meditation is dynamic. I think that’s what people are missing. You expect it to be this static, 2-dimensional experience. But it’s so alive and dynamic. You unpack these things within yourself and get in touch with these feelings, like sadness or panic; you see them, and notice them, and you can release them and let them change. It’s such a dynamic space. And I love that sound meditation, in particular, can so elegantly – without and force and without words – give you a form of therapy that’s talkless. It’s all about your experience, which changes every time. It’s about having that unique time with yourself, alone. It’s magical, and I feel so lucky for those dark experiences that brought me here. When I look back at my old self and how I used to be, it feels like a stranger and I feel so lucky that I came to something that could not just help me but allow me to help others, too.
Meditation basically teaches you about your capacity to handle any situation that’s happening to or around you. And that’s huge. You have this big, beautiful well inside of you that I can’t explain because it’s a feeling. But when you experience sound, you dip into that naturally and all of the sudden, that state of being feels natural to you. You kind of remember this feeling of your inner world, and it’s almost like coming home.
To learn more about Melissa Felsenstein and her work in the sound meditation space, visit www.innersoundsmeditation.com.