SOUND YOURSELF WELL
First encounters with both Buqi Therapy and Taijiwuxigong can be strange and bewildering. Why should a therapist make such strange sounds, and why are students in classes so often wild, chaotic and noisy? Actually it seems unnatural that anything claiming to be holistic should not include the voice, and sound. Therefore some understanding of both the spontaneous and deliberate uses of the voice in healing, self-healing, and the development of taiji forces may helpful.
The Chinese symbol for healing contains an image for sound and herbs. Since the earliest times and in most cultures people have used voice and music for healing – Pythagorean monochords, shamanic chants, the repetition of mantras and prayers, workshops to find one’s own voice, and even acupuncture with tuning forks. Then there are formal systems, associating sounds or notes to different organs or chakras, or planets; and they are all different. Why? Perhaps because they are constructs of symbolic and approximate arrangements to guide and support intuition, but probably because we are all tuned somewhat differently. Research has shown that each individual has their own particular muscular reflexes in response to each sound its mother makes, and that this continues after birth. One of the beauties of Dr Shen’s system is that we are all encouraged to do our own individual work, alone and together, while also using sounds which generally work the same for everybody, or could be considered universal.
Buqi practitioners have all studied and practiced sound exercises, and (most) taijiwuxigong teachers have studied Buqi. These are used in our work, and even simple exercises like chanting AAAAA for a while can give a taste or experience of the intrinsic role that sounds can play in the processes of healing and self-healing which are set in motion by exercises and treatments. These extend from the sublime to the delightfully ridiculous.
Sound - a course on Sound in Meditation - was my own way into this work. After some years of practicing mantra in a different style or lineage, Dr Shen’s approach was exciting, refreshing, revitalising and different, using sound as a dynamic physical vibrational force, and perhaps using mind to support energy rather than energy supporting mind. One should not feel alarmed by the possible religious connotations of ‘mantra’! Although Dr Shen learned from Buddhists, Christians, Taoists and Muslims, he ‘did not teach in a religious way’. His approach was more scientific, or a fusion of scientific and mystical, using sound and vibration to open and clear energy channels, to experience our own nature in its full potential, or most vibrant, healthy and natural state. These practices can and do lead to a greater appreciation of spirituality, but you can also think of them as being about physics, empowerment, about work with a sense of play, and play with a purpose.
Dr Shen was a master and poet of sound, and of fine tuning, and was known for distant healing of patients by making a sound down the telephone. Each organ, he said, vibrated at its own frequency and sound is vibration made audible.
OUR VOCAL APPARATUS
One’s voice is a product of one’s body, a measure of one’s energy and the expression of one’s mind and a gateway to the spirit. Voice prints, like finger prints, are part of our identity which we cannot completely change, but we can explore, modify and develop the function of sound through our voices. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the tone of someone’s voice – predominantly singing, laughing, crying, shouting or groaning – shows imbalances of elements and organs; and these qualities may become less exaggerated after treatment. But most of us, consciously or unconsciously use the sound of others’ voices to diagnose (i) what sort of person they are, and (ii) what are they feeling right now. We can usually tell immediately whether they are happy, sad, angry, cut off, depressed, fearful, bored etc. My own voice is lower when I am relaxed, higher when irritated, louder when confident, small and tight when nervous. Voices can also tell us which areas are tight or relaxed. Some talk nasally; old people’s croakiness often indicates contraction and prolapse of cervical vertebrae; rock singers sing from the throat, Indian singers use the throat a lot but focus also on the belly as a centre of movement and feeling, while some voices seem to come from the heart. Actors are trained to use their whole bodies as resonance chambers but very few of us use our whole bodies. After a taijiwuxigong session, we might find our voice is stronger because the habitual contractions of muscles which control the voice have been released, and perhaps we are less tied to social expectation.
Singing of any sort is has physiological benefits and lifts the spirits, but to use our bodies as an instrument as practitioners we need to be aware of the Three Cavities, i.e. the head, the chest and the abdomen and its muscles which all come into play; we need to open these spaces and relax the jaw. We need to focus on breathing and breathing capacity. Many people do not breathe deeply enough, and singing or chanting can loosen any resultant stiffness or the diaphragm. The practice of singing or chanting long slow sounds therefore involves total body awareness, and improves breathing. It might take a while to relax into this, or go beyond self-consciousness, but it is not unusual to find that the hands show the characteristic signs of binqi or sick chi leaving the body after a chanting session, just as it does after an exercise session.
The power of sound
Sound waves are a form of energy; energy moves matter and moves through matter and can reorganise matter. For instance the last chord of the Halleluia Chorus moves iron filings into a mandala shape. In 1665 Christian Huygens recognised something called entrainment: that if two oscillations are close, they will lock into each other and pulse at the same rate. Our bodies are 70% water, which is good at conducting sound. Water is thought to retrain memory. For better and for worse we are influenced by sounds. Some sounds make us ill, others can make us well but through the voice we have the power to retune our bodies and our beings, to harmonise them and keep them in tune. A depressed person or a depressed area of a person does not vibrate very strongly. Sound can reactivate and expel this stagnation. It goes beyond the ear and affects our whole energy field.
1. DELIBERATE SOUNDS – MANTRAS AND SYLLABLES
Mantras are not to be recited mechanically, counting with rosaries in a religious way. Yes, they are useful like a password to connect a student to their teacher/lineage or transmission and other practitioners; they can lead to a state of contemplation; and they induce, invoke or summon positive qualities, like light or compassion, to create what one might call an intentionality field to clear through mental murk and doubt and create a cause or fertile ground for positive things to happen. (As Hamlet remarked, our native hue of resolution can become “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought”, and our natural spontaneous decisiveness can be blocked by the sick binqi of the ifs and buts of thought forms.) Above all we focus on producing and feeling the actual sound, being present with that, with a general idea perhaps but definitely not thinking.
One mantra Dr Shen taught could be translated as something like Hail to the Buddha of Boundless Light, who as Amitabha was slim in India, immensely fat in China and solid and stocky in Japan. But it isn’t necessary to think of some foreign god and his regional variations to visualise and invoke light and clarity while sounding the syllables OM NA MO O MI DO VE (this is the Shanghainese version!). It is common practice to start sounding the syllables loud and clear, and then, once it has become established, to reduce the volume to a background hum or resonance, not so audible to others. This mantra is good for calming the mind, creating positive and clear vibration, and clearing spirit disturbance and anxiety.
This sort of mantra is often chanted as a group, or in meditation classes. This brings a togetherness and generates a collective group energy field which supports the individual.
Directions and Movement
Chanting mantra alone or in a group can bring about a sense of stillness, but mantras can also support movement or direction. The NA MO O MI DO VE mantra for instance can also be sounded with direction, by sounding each syllable in a different bodily centre from the head to the ground, giving us the feeling of being a conduit between “heaven” and “earth”, drawing down a steady stream of light from above to below, and as a purification. Other mantras may be sounded to produce a rotation or circuit.
In fact any sound or syllables may be used as a mantra, with different direction, intention, or breathing. Recognising the effectiveness of the men sound in Amen to resonate and clear the head, Dr Shen adapted this sound to produce his personal mantra!
The syllable HA is part of a much longer Tibetan purification mantra which is said to connect to all of our subtle energy channels, but it can be used in various ways.
A forceful HA accompanies, and enhances a downward movement of the hand(s), synchronised with a strong downward movement of the diaphragm. This can be effective as part of a buqi treatment, as the sound waves spread out and open contracted areas. It is also part of a taijiwuxigong exercise synchronised with pushing down with sitting hands. This prevents negative energy from rising to the head, it clears anger and generates determination as well as helping to develop downward force. Those who are timid might need some encouragement to do this exercise, not liking to make loud noises, or to glare, but if they can it is a great way to discharge frustrations and unacknowledged anger. It might help the timid or elderly or those with shoulder pains to do this in a less staccato but equally deliberate way.
HA is a component part of another mantra (HA TING) to generate power and heat in the lower dantien (or belly), to activate our energy system and dispel cold. One sounds the HA with a forcible downward movement while at the same time pulling up a little from the perineum; while during the TING there is some sense of expansion. (According to Jamie D’Angelo, who runs voice workshops, this warmth stimulates the glands and particularly the thymus as it rises upwards.)
HA maybe also pronounced softly as in Huh like a sigh, and this contracts the cardiac muscles and benefits the heart.
So, a sound can energise or help accomplish a movement, making it easier, more effective and with more unity of purpose because we are focussing all of or faculties on it. While HA is used for downward movements, there other syllables are used to facilitate upward, forward, and backward directions. Sudden loud sounds are sometimes used by teachers and therapists, not only to facilitate directing energy in a certain direction or empower an action, but because the slight shock can break through obstacles or thought bubbles and bring a sense of immediacy.
HA as in HA HA HA is also connected with laughter of course. Laughter is good; it happens when the central channel is open. Seeing the absurd releases from attachments and identification with this or that, it is joyful, stimulates the immune system and generates happiness. So HA HA HA HA as laughter mantra rarely fails to produce the desired result.
As well as using sound with direction or movement, a sound can be used to resonate or rest contemplatively in a bodily energy centre. Most people are familiar with Heaven and Earth or Opening Daoyin, when we sound the syllables of the mantra OM AH HUM at the levels of the upper Dantien (or forehead, representing the Body), at the throat (representing Speech or energy) and at the heart or middle dantien (representing the Mind).
SOUND DAOYIN form one of the core components of the Buqi Therapy course. These are sounds accompanied by ways of breathing to treat or heal the liver, lungs, heart, kidneys spleen and spine. There are various Taoist systems of “healing sounds” for healing organs and the negative emotions associated with them, and Dr Shen’s were slightly different. In fact each time he taught the course, he introduced something new or some variation. Much fun was had by all, but these really need to be taught rather than just described.
2. SPONTANEOUS SOUNDS
As we exercise and work with postural alignment, physical movement, voice, and energy, we start to open and free ourselves from mental and physical tension and our “auto-regulation” or self-healing function can kick in. We might find ourselves shaking or even moving in unaccustomed, unpremeditated, and surprising ways, which we call “spontaneous movement”, whose function is to energize and release areas which have been blocked.
Much the same thing happens with the voice. Taijiwuxigong sessions can be noisy because people can find themselves laughing, crying, shouting, yawning or even burping uncontrollably. This might not happen at first, or at all, or there might be an instant release or catharsis of whatever long buried emotion is surfacing. More often though, people go through phases and gradually work through things, and giving voice to a pain or discomfort helps to clear or exorcise it.
The hypnotherapist Rodger Woolger found that patients often rediscovered past life experiences as being the root of current problems. If experiences surfaced only as image or vision, there was no recognisable therapeutic benefit, and sometimes even an increased sense of ego, as an attachment of identification with that experience. However when this recognition was accompanied by spontaneous and involuntary body and vocal movements, patients became liberated from the tyranny of dysfunctional patterns associated with those memories.
Spontaneity is also an expression of playfulness, climbing out of the cage of the habitual and body armour: disinhibited, one can explore possibilities because they feel right. It can also lead to a flow of creativity, like dancing and singing or tuning into higher harmonies and joyful states.
It is natural, especially for older people, to feel a little shy or awkward about making noises, either deliberate or spontaneous. On the other hand it isn’t compulsory or necessary to make noise for the sake of it or from mere exhibitionism. Master Shen Jin warns of the danger of becoming attached to one’s vocal behaviour when what should have been a stage has become a habit which has outlived its usefulness. But on the whole spontaneous sounds are normally helpful, indicating that things are moving or flowing, and sound is accelerating and helping this process.
Body learning takes longer as we grow older and unlearning body learning is even harder. Singing, by using the whole body and breath and engaging the feelings in a joyful way accelerates and facilitates this learning and unlearning. Some sound exercises sound silly or ridiculous, and allowing oneself to feel laughable and ridiculous helps enormously in going beyond conditioning. Producing sound is a very bodily function. When I was teaching English as a foreign language, I found that only making people make continuous noises they thought were silly, i.e. sounds which were not part of their repertoire, allowed them to finally recognise and reproduce the sounds they had disallowed and to go beyond their conditioning.
Using the voice can help with self-diagnosis. When singing or making sounds you feel which areas of the body are resonating and which are closed, tight or contracted, and you can work with this, directing sound to tight areas, and let it do its job as a tool.
Our voices are instruments for communication of course, and a vibrant voice appears more sincere, and generates a more positive response from others, which increases confidence. When someone talks with a half-hearted or choked voice, they sound less sincere, as if they are holding back, or opting out of full authenticity, expressing reservations, or not wanting to share joy. So working on the voice benefits interpersonal relations.
Mental health practitioners and medics are starting to recognise the benefits of singing. An article in The Guardian reported that “singing is the best free drug, good for mental health, cognitive function and social confidence”. Golden Oldies choirs are said to be an effective cure for ‘involutionary melancholia’ – the isolation and loneliness of old age. It generates endorphins: it is harder to feel depressed when the body is vibrating and open. Singing is said to release more oxytocin, the relaxation hormone, in women. Research at the Royal Brompton Hospital showed that singing improved Parkinson’s symptoms. Breathing from the diaphragm brings a better supply of oxygen and is said to be helpful for those with emphysema and pulmonary fibrosis. The Telegraph reported that stroke victims with damaged speech centres in the left brain can use the singing centre in the right brain to rebuild capacity.
Those who can sing, let them sing! But even if we are not musicians and singers, doing this work, either alone or in a group, freeing the voice and using sound in the ways described above improves emotional and physical health and allows us to tap into the latent power of the voice, to explore and appreciate the music which plays us. (Of course even the practice of breathing, and the practice of taiji create their own quiet harmony or music, a sort of invisible or sub- or super audible sound, a stable background rhythm or pulse of alternating in and out, full and empty, up and down, yin and yang – but this is another, more subtle area to be discovered in quietness.)