Mitchell L. Gaynor, MD
Can music - chanting? singing? or simply the sound made by rubbng a bowl's
rim - prompt us to heal? these five cancer patients think so.
Copyright Country Living's Healthy Living July/August 1999
Serenity, vitality, joy. The expressions on the faces in the quiet room are beautiful. And surprising: After all, these women have confronted the terror of a cancer diagnosis and have endured the discomforts of aggressive chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
The reason they've gathered-and the source, perhaps, of their serenity-is meditation with Mitchell L. Gaynor, M.D., the director of oncology and integrative medicine at the Strang Cancer Prevention Center in New York City. Gaynor sets in front of him a cluster of bowls and with a wooden mallet rubs the rim of a small metal one round and round, as you might rub a wineglass with a finger to make it sing. A pure, pulsating tone fills the air. "Breathe slowly, deeply," he urges, "and imagine infinite healing." With the tone still ringing, he hums the note. The women join in, and together they hum and chant for 20 minutes or so, creating a sense of peace. Afterward, Rosemarie Hernandez, whose ocular melanoma is in remission, explains the effect these biweekly sessions have on her: "Ever since I started to use the bowls as meditation, I am much more rooted in the present. I've learned to savor each day." For Marisa Harris, who has been dealing with metastasized ovarian cancer, singing-bowl meditation has "put everything in perspective," she says. "My picture keeps getting larger." This is no small gift, considering that she was told last April that she probably wouldn"t see another spring. "Fear started to well up inside me on the anniversary of that pronouncement," she remembers. "But during meditation the fear is reduced to a minor irritant, like a speck of dust I can blow away."
Whether We like to Sing along to a snappy tune or listen to a Mozart sonata, we all recognize the power music has to energize or calm us, pull us into the present, or sweeten a sour mood. Babies soothed into sleep with lullabies breathe in rhythm to the song"s gentle pulse. Teenagers fall into similar soporific states to the blasting beat of a bass guitar. Most adults you might ask could name a tune they consider uplifting. All of which proves that music makes a pleasurable soundtrack to our lives. But is it healing?
Nothing in Gaynor's medical education would have led him to think so. The 43-year-old oncologist began his training at the University of Texas-Southwestern Medical School, an institution so competitive that class rankings and grade point averages are figured to the thousandth of a decimal point, and ended it as the chief medical resident at New York Hospital. Even with such rigorous preparation, Gaynor still felt that "something was missing" from his instruction, he writes in his new book, Sounds of Healing: A Physician Reveals the Therapeutic Power of Sound, Voice, and Music* And that something, he came to understand, was the mix of "psychology and spirituality that would satisfy my patients" needs to be treated as whole human beings."
Ten years ago, when he arrived at New York Hospital, Gaynor began making notes about patients who appeared to be experiencing "miraculous recoveries": Donna, a breast-cancer patient, who worked with an energy healer; Hiroko, whose colon cancer was treated by a master of Qi Gong.
Building on these cases, Gaynor started urging patients to use meditation, guided imagery, and deep-relaxation exercises. Then in 1991, he met Odsal, a Tibetan monk in his late thirties who suffered from a rare heart condition called cardiomyopa-thy. Odsal gave Gaynor a singing bowl, a tool used by Tibetan Buddhists to accompany their chanting and meditation. Gaynor's response to the bowl's tones was profound: "I could feel the vibration physically resonating through my body, touching my core in such a way that I felt in harmony with the universe," he writes. "I immediately intuited that playing the bowls would change my life and the lives of many of my patients."
How does sound heal? Good question-and one that "the scientist in me" wanted answered, Gaynor says. When he delved into research he found that people worldwide-including Sufis, Hindus, Native Americans, and Catholic monks- have long relied on sound to heal, and while their practices differ the principle is the same. Gaynor explains it this way: There is "a tendency toward harmony in nature. Consider the example of two metronomes
in the same room beating at different rhythms. Eventually, of their own accord, they will begin to beat in synchrony with each other."
The human body seeks harmony, too, scientific studies show. "If we accept that sound is vibration, and we know that vibration touches every part of our physical being, then we understand that sound is "heard" not only through our ears but through every cell in our body," writes Gaynor, who reminds us that the human body is 90 percent water-the perfect medium for carrying sound.
He is not the only Western-trained scientist who believes in sound healing. In the early 1950s, French physician Alfred A. Tomatis found that certain sounds enhanced or drained the brain's energy. Working with a diverse array of aural stimuli-a mother's voice, Gregorian chants, and classical music, for example-Tomatis reversed learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder in his young patients. (Today there are some 250 Tomatis listening centers around the world.) In a more recent study, 30 minutes of music therapy produced the same effect as 10 milligrams of Valium on critical-care heart patients, reports Raymond Bahr, M.D., the director of coronary care at St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore.
The experiences of the women around the meditation table serve as a very human kind of substantiation to these studies. "I was 6 years old when a heart-sickening thought seized hold of my consciousness My mother was going to die. My vision ... was chalked up to the typical fears about monsters in the closet or snakes under the bed that children often suffer. Then, a year later, my mother began to feel ill. She consulted our doctor and underwent a series of tests. The diagnosis came back: She had cancer.
The pain of that event-and my mother's death when I was 9 years old-made me unconsciously shut down the intuitive part of myself- I had learned my lesson; I didn't want to intuit any more about those closest to me. It was only after I'd practiced medicine for several years, and began delving more deeply into spiritual traditions and practices, that I started to realize the importance of the intuition I'd abandoned in childhood. I no longer saw the people who came to me for treatment simply as patients who had cancer. Now I wanted to better understand ... what freight they were carrying from their past, what disharmonious tapes they were unknowingly replaying in their unconscious. This understanding, I realized, would come not only from a thorough study of the mind/body literature but also from developing my creativity and honing my intuition. - From Sounds of Healing, by Mitchell L Gaynor, M.D.
Tibetan bowls can be purchased from the Inner Dimension catalog (888-446-7622); www.innerdimensions.com
find it terribly difficult to relax," says Rose Lalla, a breast-cancer patient who is now in remission, "and stress is like fertilizer for my illness. After these meditations with sound, I"m deeply peaceful." Dorothy Golebuski, whose breast cancer is also in remission, adds that she often felt ground down by stress at work. "But my stress doesn"t rule me anymore. I feel healthier and happier now than I did before my diagnosis."
Happiness, centeredness, emotional stability-Gaynor is quick to point out that the benefits conferred by sound-based meditation could help anyone. And there"s no need to buy bowls, he says: Simply choose sounds that mean something to you. Try a dose of Debussy, belt out your favorite show tune in the shower, ring a bell and listen-really listen-to its song as it grows faint and finally fades.
*To order Gaynor"s book, call 800-266-5 766, department 1630.