“Everything in life is vibration.” – Albert Einstein
“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 bodies. One reason sound heals on a physical level is because it so deeply touches and transforms us on the emotional and spiritual planes. Sound can redress imbalances on every level of physiologic functioning and can play a positive role in the treatment of virtually any medical disorder.” — Dr. Mitchell Gaynor, director of Medical Oncology and Integrative Medicine, the Cornell Cancer Prevention Center in New York.
Music is vibrational medicine. If you put water inside a Tibetan singing bowl and run the mallet around the lip of the bowl it vibrates and begins to shoot the water up and out of the bowl. The human body is made of up to 60% water, and sound effectively creates mandala-like patterns in every water molecule of the physical body.
Have you listened to a song that gives you shivers or causes you to start crying when moments before you were in a different mood? Favorite songs from the past invite you to revisit old memories. Nirvana will forever be associated with long drives with my high school girlfriend; the windows rolled down, sandy, warm air blowing our hair back, singing full force. Hearing their songs twenty-five years later brings back the momentary freedom of being in a car without parents, expectations, or anything else pulling at our bodies.
Studies show that Alzheimer’s patients become lucid when played favorite songs from their youth. It returns them to a time when they remember who they are. Often this is joyful, but music can also be used to uncover past emotions that have not been processed through or consciously felt.
Beyond my periodic tendency to self-medicate with alcohol, weed, and acid from the ages of fourteen to sixteen, reading, creating art, writing, and listening to music were my therapeutic outlets. These were my methods for managing emotions that were too intense to feel otherwise. They were my meditation, my access into alpha brainwave states before I knew what any of that was. Unlike how I use mindfulness now, to track and be with the emotional or physical pain in my body, I used these strategies to be outside of my current experience. Sculpting allowed me to hyper-focus on the fingers or face I was molding, and let the narrative at home or school fall away. Books offered me other people’s lives to understand the world through. I could cry for the characters when feeling for myself was too vulnerable. The authors survived to tell these stories so this was proof I could too.
The line between meditation and dissociation, when you have a history of trauma, can be quite thin, a hairline fracture. It’s hard for me to relate to the disconnection from sensation, emotion, and the pleasure of being present that dominated my adolescence. Truly feeling my body was beyond me, and if the music was calling me back into my body it was unconscious. As a teen, going to concerts was more about connection to others than it was to myself. Oddly, I felt safer in a moshpit with aggressive young men than I did at home.
Shortly after being released from a child protection center at fourteen, I saw the Pixies in concert with the Cure. The Pixie’s album, Surfa Rosa, was one of two tapes I brought with me on a trip to visit my birthplace, Nepal when I was sixteen. It was part of the official soundtrack that played incessantly over that two-week trip. Despite not having listened to them since college, when the opportunity to see the Pixies presented itself at the Fox Theater in Oakland, I didn’t hesitate to buy tickets.
At the Pixies concert, I had this weird meta-experience of observing myself the whole evening and watching a roller coaster of emotions and sensations. It was a confusing mindfulness meditation where I noticed what I was feeling more than I fully experienced it. My forty-eight-year-old self has an aversion to noise and enjoys extended periods of silence, yet at the show, waves of well-being vibrated through my bones. It was a dissonant feeling of ease as I was enveloped by loud drums, guitar, and familiar vocals. Bodies were planted like an overgrown forest, too close together, with barely any space between strangers’ limbs. The adult part of me was moved by the connection and joy shared by the family to my left. I watched the parents protect their 12-year-old daughter from the crowd pushing in on her. While on my right, there was a tall slurring drunk man, and behind me, a guy kept inching closer, recording with his camera. I stood with my elbow cocked, my fingers curling into a fist ready to punch if he got too close. This fight response came from the 15-year-old self who lived inside me like an angry Russian doll.
As I ate my post-concert street hotdog wrapped in bacon, I sensed something was out of my consciousness, and kept telling my friend how weirdly peaceful I felt. I woke up the next morning feeling like I’d been hit by a car. Back in spasm, ribs, neck, and sacrum out for no apparent reason. I’ve been through this enough times to know my body was asking me to be present with it. While I regretted not canceling my trainer that morning, I knew I’d feel better leaving than when I went in. On days like this, a workout is replaced by physical therapy.
Laying on a foam roller, I held 2 lb weights to gently wake up my back. In the language of the body, the back body speaks about your connection to the past, and my body was calling me to rest into it. I could feel the emotion building right under the surface. My breasts swelled with grief and rage, growing energetically bigger, the exact opposite of what I’d longed for as a teen. During those years, I regularly envisioned them caving in on themselves, sinking back into my chest cavity, victims of a quicksand incident, never to be seen again.
As my ribs let go and softened, my arms and chest started shaking, involuntarily twerking to a comedic degree. A montage of moments where hands grabbed me, strangers’ words groped me on the street, were shaken out of my tissue. This was familiar enough that I could warn my trainer, “The tears are coming, I can feel them rising.” She awkwardly patted my shoulder, knowing I was okay, and there was nothing for her to do. I just needed to let the stale emotions locked in my fascia flow and move out. The Pixies exhumed it all and brought me back to my teenage self. I cried for the lack of safety, being stuck in a girl’s body, and getting boobs at ten. Here I am with more resources and the capacity to feel through what I dissociated from the first time around. Body memories and flashbacks blow through me and then take shape in my line of sight. It’s like trying to watch a movie on a computer screen in the sun. You can make out the basic storyline and see the outlines of the characters. You have a sense of what is playing even if no one else can see it. This happened off and on throughout the session. More snapshots and feelings would surface and the next layer of physical holding would discharge.
When I walked into the gym that day my spine was locked in a block. It hurt to try and turn my head. Near the end of the session, I was doing arm rotations. There is typically an area where my right arm locks out for a moment before moving around fully. Instead, my arms floated in a circle without a hitch. Something released in my upper back and nervous system, and an uncontrollable cycle of laughter and then crying began.
Constantly bracing and defending as a teen, obscured the mix of emotions that accompanied being in a body others felt entitled to touch and comment on. In high school, all my repressed rage was unleashed in my imagination toward male teachers and students. A movie scene played in my head on a loop. lt was a karate movie, where I am the martial arts master, who can slow down time and anticipate an attacker’s impulse to throw a blow before they consider it. I kicked everyone’s ass.
The strange state of peace, despite the fight response, during the concert not only reminded me of the resource music was but also how useful dissociation can be. I felt grateful for music, grateful for not feeling all those years, and grateful for a body that now feels safe enough to feel it all. After my body released what it was ready to let go of, I was awed by the power of music and my body’s relentless pursuit of freedom from past restrictions. Even a concert becomes an opportunity to heal. All those years I simply thought the angst in the music I listened to had me feel less alone or vicariously empowered because I had no voice of my own. But there is so much more to using music as a healing tool.
I got excited about the possibility of having clients share music they listened to during hard periods from childhood, the music that helped them dissociate from what was unbearable. I envision playing this music while I do bodywork with them. Increasing the pace of breath and the amount of oxygen you take in helps highlight areas in the body that hold chronic tension or numbness, and buried emotions. The music would create a hum in the cells while my fingers invite the connective tissue to spread, open, feel and release the past, creating room for what wants to be felt.
Music is a time machine transporting us back to when we had less choice, less control, less resource, and less safety. It’s not an accident that we say the same old tape is playing in our minds when we have unproductive ruminating thoughts that hold us, hostage. While continuing to listen to the same music for 20 years might support keeping you stuck in a historical state of mind, it can also liberate you when listened to with intention.