Another session of writing late into the evening. February 21st – the date the editor expects my latest novel – is barrelling down the tracks towards me. The driveway project is due to start around then too, requiring masses of attention to detail, like how to get a large telegraph pole off our property down a tiny, narrow alleyway. The dog needs a walk and guests are coming to stay for the weekend. I should probably go grocery shopping. And get a haircut.
Facebook Messenger pings. ‘Want to join me for a gong bath?’ Ugh. Another hacked account. There are some right weirdos out there. No, it’s really Jill.
‘A what bath? Not that it matters. I don’t know you nearly well enough to take any kind of bath with you. Count me out.’
‘No, silly,’ Jill says. ‘A gong bath. It’s like mediation. You bring your blanket, mat and pillow, stretch out on the floor of the ancient Tithe Barn in Dunster and chill while bathed in sounds from various gongs.’
‘Are you serious?’ I’ve never heard of such a thing and, unfortunately, I collect the kind of friends likely to prank me with something just like this. The refusal builds on my lips…
‘We could have a drink at the Luttrell Arms first.’
‘I’m listening.’ Even my friends wouldn’t fake offer a drink out for a joke after so long in less-than-splendid isolation. They also know Dunster is one of my favourite Exmoor villages. I wouldn’t have named my fictional Exmoor pony after just anywhere.
Only one problem: I’m not a meditating kind of person. I probably should be as, goodness knows, my mind could do with switching off. It’s typically pounding the pavement at a hundred miles an hour; mostly heading places I don’t need to go because I can’t control the things I worry about anyway. But I’ve tried the kind of meditation that requires quiet and focus on the breath and I typically end up composing my mental grocery list and worrying about the itch on my foot and whether Sandra Bullock and Judi Dench will ever make a film together or if that boy from high school ever got his comeuppance for getting the whole class detention, making me miss my bus home – forty-two years ago. See? This is why I can’t do the quiet, stare-at-the-wall stuff. I’m not hopeful this gong bath will be any different, but the Luttrell Arms is on offer and I really need a break.
‘I’m in,’ I hear myself say. ‘Just once, though.’
Wednesday night, I find myself supping my first Baileys on the rocks in many moons. Standing at a bar now feels somewhat dizzying in its strangeness. The quiet clink of glasses from still socially distanced tables speaks a foreign language, like it’s out of context somehow.
The Baileys disappears all too quickly and Hubby, Jill and I walk the quiet lane from the hotel in Dunster High Street. We chat. Don’t remember about what. We walk through the Tithe Barn car park noticing little around us.
Once inside, strands of intertwined fairy lights line the wall at the far end. There’s just enough light to take in the wooded beams of this sympathetically restored space. Whitewashed walls turn an orangey-yellow in the dim lights. Reflecting the speckled glow, the gongs wait in majestic splendour. Hanging in wooden or metal frames, some the size of cream tea shop tables, they look … intimidating. I learn later each one, including those not on display tonight, has a fantastical name, like Nepalese Singing Wind Gong, Flower of Life Gong, The Queen Gong, The Head Chakra Gong and the planets: Neptune, Jupiter, Pluto.
I focus on not tripping over other participants already settled on the floor. We spread our mats in empty spaces and settle under blankets. Shuffling my towel pillow, I wonder how comfortable I’ll be after a few minutes. Will I cough, or disturb others as I write my mental grocery list? I vow to hold my breath and get through this as best I can without embarrassing Jill. It’s only an hour and I don’t need to come back. Ever.
Our leader, Alex, speaks gently, of what to expect, of how to behave, it’s okay to sit up and watch if you care to, to leave if it’s not for you (Does she read minds? I attempt to block my thoughts like in that 1960s film, Village of the Damned, where the teacher must fill his mind with the stone wall so the alien schoolkids can’t suss he’s trying to blow them up. See?! Here I go, completely off track again. But Alex’s voice is soothing. I can’t make out all the instructions as the barn absorbs the low acoustics of her vocal patterns. Hope I can hear the gongs.
Needn’t have worried on that score. A bell tone begins the session, produced in a bowl with a mortar-type object. I know because, unlike everyone else who’s lying flat, face up with eyes closed, I’m tilting my face forward so I can watch. Alex moves silently to the first gong and with sweeping, circular choreography of arms and drum mallets she fills the space with gentle sound. Vibrations cross the floor, closer and closer to my mat, touching my toes first and seeping into my chest cavity. It’s instantly overwhelming. All else moves aside to make space for this new creature, because the vibration feels like that: a being unto itself, something warm and cuddly that snuggles somewhere deep inside you, wrapping you in a hug. Like James Earl Jones’ voice. When he’s not Darth Vader.
The sounds build, additional gongs add layer after layer, much like a painter layers the brush with multiple hues. I’m mesmerized, by the sounds and the movements of the gongs, the rings of molten colour in each of them ever changing in the twinkling glow as sound and light collide. My head lowers, my eyes close, there is no discomfort, no grocery list, no film reels, no high school bully. Just vibration. Sometimes as intense as crashing waves on Bossington Beach shingle, sometimes as gentle as a kitten’s purr against a collarbone.
I’ve studied the ear intensely as part of my life as a speech-language pathologist but I learned nothing about this. Nothing about the way those tiny bones and a curled cochlear can work together to produce an entire body-encompassing reaction that stills the mind, like the most beautiful music you’ve ever heard. Occasionally I open my eyes, lose myself in the ceiling beams again, wonder about the sounds they have absorbed through the centuries, the voices, the worries, the celebrations and the commiserations. I drift back to the gongs, absorbing the present, the here and now, exactly what I should have done during all those other attempts at stilling the mind. I’m in. Completely in.
A calming voice guides me slowly back from wherever I’ve been. An hour? Over an hour, actually. How could that be? Did time fly or did it freeze, trapped in the song of the gongs? I haul myself up to a sitting position, a little dazed. Alex hands me tea and a chocolate-covered date. Warmth and sweetness slot in next to calm and quiet, like little flowers in a solid stone wall. Exquisite.
We wrap up our mats and without talking, make our way out of the barn. The full moon catches us in the face, every star in the inky sky a pinprick of revelation and serenity. The moon turns the Bristol Channel to molten silver. Even the distant lights of Hinkley Point seem softer, a glistening mirage shimmering as though floating above the shiny water. No sound registers. Or maybe the gongs are still pulling that part of the brain back to them, blocking all else. Fine by me. This view and this peaceful world were here when we arrived earlier. We just didn’t notice them. We pause to admire it all now.
Is this what a gong bath does? Reboots the senses, relinquishes head space formerly given over to the groceries, the dog walks, the haircuts? Does it free up memory for the absorption of new stimuli, shut out old-world noise allowing for new-world sensations? If it does, I need it. More than I ever knew.
I’m coming again next month. Won’t even need to stop for a drink first.
Many thanks to Alexandra Simson for the wonderful evening. And to Jill, for opening my ears and mind to this adventure. For more information on gong baths in the Southwest of England, check out https://www.sound-well.co.uk/services/gong-well. Quality online gong baths are also available, currently enjoyed by listeners across the UK, Ireland, Denmark and Germany.
Image: Alexandra Simson