The 7 Life Lessons of the Tibetan Singing Bowls

by Shana Montesol Johnson

Stepping into the musty shop on a busy street in Kathmandu, I was looking for souvenirs.  I found some – but I also came away with 7 life lessons.

I was in Nepal to facilitate a workshop for The Asia Foundation, and other than a planned mountain flight to see Mt. Everest, this afternoon was my one opportunity for shopping and sightseeing.  The souvenir shop, not far from my hotel, sold items like luxurious pashmina shawls, beautiful Thangka paintings, colorful handmade paper.  What caught my eye, though, were the rows of Tibetan singing bowls.

I didn’t know much about singing bowls, but had seen and heard them used in the US in church services and in yoga classes as a call to meditation.  I remembered their beautiful and calming sound. I immediately decided that, if I could find an affordable one, this would be the perfect memento of my very first trip to Nepal.

When the storekeeper saw that I was serious about buying one, he offered to show me how to make the bowl “sing.” I gladly took him up on the offer.  Although I made the storekeeper – let’s call him my “Zen master” – cringe in the process, I am grateful for the 7 lessons I learned about singing bowls.  I think they also apply to life in general.

1. Loosen Your Grip

First, my teacher demonstrated how to hold the bowl lightly in the palm of one’s hand.  If you clutch it tightly, it won’t sing.

Is there something in my life – career, personal life, relationships, goals – that I am clutching too tightly, and in so doing, preventing the very results I seek?

2. Be Consistent

My teacher instructed me to hold the wooden baton as I would a writing instrument, between my thumb and first two fingers, and circle the rim of the bowl, applying firm and even pressure.  I found that varying the speed or pressure did not yield good results.

In what areas of my life am I inconsistent? How might greater consistency help me, and others in my life?

3. Find a Good Teacher

An eager student, I dutifully followed my teacher’s instructions.  As I circled the bowl’s perimeter with the baton, I thought I was doing pretty well.  I soon noticed, however, that my “Zen master” was cringing.  So much for his equilibrium and inner peace. For him, a master in meditation, watching me in action was probably the equivalent of hearing fingernails on a chalkboard.  He gently and patiently corrected my technique, until I was on the right track.

Who can teach me what I need to learn? Who possesses the knowledge I seek, but also – perhaps more importantly – the patience required to help me learn?

4. Be Patient

After all that instruction and correction, I figured I’d be producing the melodic pitch at any moment.  I figured wrong. I kept circling the bowl with the baton, but produced no sound.  What was I doing wrong?  Why wasn’t it working?  My teacher reassured me that my technique was fine, I just had to be patient. “You will circle the bowl ten times, maybe more, before you hear any sound,” he explained. In the case of this newbie, it was closer to 20 times – but I did eventually hear a sweet tone emanating from the bowl.

Are there areas in my life – career, personal life, relationships, goals – where I am frustrated by the lack of results? Am I ready to give up too quickly?  Should I persevere, and if so, how?

5. Relish the Ride as Much as the Results

I was so intent on doing it “right,” my brows were knit in concentration, my shoulders were tense.  “Breathe,” my teacher reminded me simply.  Oh yeah, this is supposed to be meditative.  The gains are not in merely making the bowl sing.  If anything, the sound is merely a signal that I am fully engaged in the process.

In what areas of my life am I focused more on achieving the results than enjoying the journey? How can I relish the ride a bit more?

6. There Are Multiple Paths to Take — Find the One that Works for You

I also learned that to jump-start the sound, you can tap the side of the bowl, which produces a lovely gong sound, and then circle the rim of the bowl with the baton to prolong and heighten the sound.  I was gratified to find that even in this meditative activity, there are multiple paths to a common destination.

In what areas of my life am I assuming that there is only one way to do things? How might exploring an alternate path be more productive, more freeing, or more effective?

7. Balance Your Commitments

As I held the singing bowl in my left hand, circling it with my right, my wedding ring would occasionally touch the bottom of the bowl.  The contact of metal on metal resulted in a discordant clang.  My teacher again corrected my hold on the bowl.  I wasn’t about to take off my wedding ring, but I had to adjust my approach given that I was wearing one.

How might I need to adjust my approach in various areas of life given that I have certain commitments (be they to spouse, children, friends, certain values, or causes)?

My Tibetan singing bowl now sits on a prominent shelf in my home office, a reminder of the 7 life lessons I learned that afternoon in Kathmandu.

 

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Beth Hoban

Great post and a reminder to get back to the basics. The other piece I would add is to remember to take the bowl off the shelf and practice these skills and ask ourselves these questions on a regular basis.

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Shana

Thanks for the comment, Beth! I like your addition — a great reminder to practice the skills and keep asking ourselves the questions. The process of writing this blog post gave me good reason to take the bowl off the shelf and take a few deep breaths, something I could benefit from doing more often.

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Wes

Another thought provoking and helpful post. Thank you for sharing your insights that allow us to make our lives a bit easier/fulfilling. I trust that you still play that singing bowl now and again.

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Shana

Thanks for your feedback, Wes! Yes, I do play that singing bowl now and again — in fact, my kids (ages 5 and 2) are pretty fascinated by it. It’s a neat way to get them to calm down a bit.

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Anne Marie K

Shana: I just discovered this post and signed up for your weekly newsletter. I have a fond memory of our shopping trip in Kathmandu and love my Tibetan bowl, too. I take these lessons to heart as well. Thanks again for the inspiration!
Anne Marie

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Jessica

I love singing bowls!I love how you were able to allow your lessons with the singing bowl to crossover and teach you things regarding other aspects of your life.

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Shana Montesol Johnson

Thanks, Jessica!

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Chris

I use my bowl every day, twice a day in my meditation practices. As both something for a relaxing sound and something resembling a mantra. Over and over again puts one in a deep state of concentrated meditation. Very refreshing. It brings you down to the little things in life.

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Andreea

Thanks for the wise remarks. I played the bowl for a week and the lesson I’ve learned is that there are no shortcuts to perfection. As soon as I try to play perfect, the bowl will sound scratchy and discourage me. In what areas of my life am I trying to burn stages and get the perfection quickly? And how quickly do I get discouraged if I don’t get it?

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