The Music Man

Joseph Hooper

In the late 1960s, the renowned French physician Alfred Tomatis was summoned to a Benedictine monastery in the south of France to investigate a mysterious illness that had flattened the unfortunate brothers. “Seventy of the 90 monks were slumping in their cells like wet dishrags,” he later wrote. The cause of their lethargy? A reform-minded new abbot had done away with the traditional monastic routine of singing Gregorian chants for six hours a day. When the regimen was reinstated at the doctor’s suggestion, the listless brothers were soon returned to health.

This is the kind of story that appeals to Mitchell Gaynor, a prominent Manhattan cancer specialist and leader in combining alternative therapies with mainstream medicine. He tells the monks’ tale in the introduction to his newest book, The Healing Power of Sound: Recovery from Life-Threatening Illness Using Sound, Voice, and Music. About a decade ago, he had his own Tomatis-like moment when he was called in as a consulting hematologist to treat a Tibetan monk with a severe, ultimately fatal heart condition. Curious about Eastern spiritual practices, Gaynor asked the monk to share with him some chants. A few days later, the monk arrived at the doctor’s Upper West Side apartment armed with a metal singing bowl of the sort that has enlivened
Tibetan Buddhist chanting and meditation for centuries.

Gaynor, assistant clinical professor of medicine at the Weill Cornell Medical College, was by then no stranger to alternative therapies. He’s an authority on nutritional approaches to cancer—his book Dr. Gaynor’s Cancer Prevention Program was published four years ago—and had already incorporated visualization and guided imagery into his practice. But nothing had prepared him for the sound of the monk moving a small wooden baton lightly around the rim of the beaten metal-alloy bowl. “That rich, deep note with a strong vibrato resembled nothing I had ever heard,” he says. “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.”

A dramatic statement, to be sure. But Gaynor has become convinced that the combination of sound and meditation affects health more profoundly than anyone short of Alfred Tomatis could have imagined. His patients now listen to Tibetan and crystal singing bowls and chant long drawn-out syllables as a routine part of their cancer therapy. That’s not all he has to offer: He uses the high-tech tools of the trade—the latest chemotherapy drugs and monoclonal antibody treatments—to attack cancer cells directly, and the meditative chanting to soothe the minds and bodies of the patients who have to endure the disease. He also doles out nutritional advice, plus emotional counseling to deal with the patients’ fears and anxieties. Don’t ask him to explain exactly how the treatments interact. But the end result, he believes, is healing.

Using music to ease pain and suffering isn’t without precedent. According to Dallas psychologist Mark Rider, one of the modern pioneers of “music therapy,” group sing-alongs first became a popular way to treat psychiatric and geriatric patients after World War II. Today, classical music’s reputedly medicinal properties have also found their way into pain management clinics and hospital operating rooms. But Gaynor has gone a few steps beyond (or, perhaps more accurately, backward), yoking oncology, one of the most high-tech of medical subspecialties, to the ancient Eastern tradition of producing long, droning tones to intensify the meditative state.

Researchers like Rider have measured music’s calming effect on stress hormones and brain waves, but Gaynor prefers to speak in more cosmic terms about what a sound-enhanced state of deep relaxation means to the cancer patient, or for that matter, to anyone coping with everyday life. “At the most fundamental level,” he says, “it’s a matter of shifting your perspective, of looking in a new way at the events and patterns in your life that used to cause stress and fear. I call it finding your ‘inner harmony’ or your ‘inner peace,’ and that has real physiological effects.” Meditation with chanting and bowls is simply the most powerful vehicle he knows to take us outside of our own egos, our own constricting fears. The patient who is at peace with himself, Gaynor believes, puts up the best fight against cancer.

The doctor himself is a kind of walking advertisement for the power of sound. Tanned, relaxed, and quick to smile, Gaynor is more boyish and enthusiastic than a 47-year-old medical specialist has any right to be. After a long day spent seeing patients at his clinic, Gaynor Integrative Oncology, he and his white doctor’s coat look like they’ve both just been pressed, and his stethoscope is jauntily draped over his shoulders like a scarf. When I ask how it is that he has time for a busy oncology practice, writing books (his fourth, on cancer and the environment, will be out next September), plus a wife and two kids, he replies that he goes to bed around midnight, gets up around 5 a.m., and, thanks to his spiritual regimen, doesn’t feel any worse for the wear. “Not a day goes by that I don’t spend 40 minutes meditating and chanting,” he says.

To spend any time with Mitch Gaynor is to know that he doesn’t take enlightenment lightly. His early ’90s epiphany with the Tibetan monk was followed seven years later by a meeting with Sakti Narayani Amma, a visiting Hindu guru. Amma, who taught Gaynor the Sanskrit chants that are now an essential part of his sound therapy, has since become the doctor’s primary spiritual teacher.

But Gaynor’s original interest in healing goes back to well before his adult immersion in Eastern religion. His father is a rural West Texas dentist who was deeply involved in the lives of his patients. “He wouldn’t charge the patients who couldn’t pay,” he recalls, “and they would come by the house to bring corn, vegetables, whatever they had. That made an impression on me.” So did his mother’s death from breast cancer when he was nine years old. “I saw from my mother how people could have equanimity and inner peace in the presence of significant physical suffering and illness,” he says. “That gave me a paradigm for what was possible.”

Back in the here and now, the doctor wants to share with me what a Tibetan bowl sounds like. “Put some water in it and rub a stick around the rim,” he tells me, warming up to the subject in his comfortable Upper East Side office, which is dominated by plants and exposed brick walls. “You’ll see the most amazingly beautiful snowflake forms take shape in there,” he says. “Imagine the same geometric harmony taking place on very subtle levels within your body, which is 70 percent water.” He admits his snowflake example is “simplistic” when it comes to suggesting how, exactly, sound heals, but it’s just this readiness to be awed by sonic mysteries, some amenable to scientific investigation, some not, that animates his practice.

So just how does sound work to promote healing? In his book, Gaynor has assembled some fascinating research on the direct effect of sound vibrations on the human body, provocative, maverick stuff that falls outside the pale of the National Institutes of Health. In one 1981 study, he reports, a biologist and a composer in France caused in-vitro uterine cancer cells to explode by singing scales at them; the controversial implication is that certain sounds can stop cancer cells from proliferating. But the most popular line of thinking describes a less spectacular effect: Listening to pleasing sounds can reduce the body’s levels of cortisol and ACTH, stress hormones that can have a dampening effect on the immune system—especially on the “natural killer cells,” which combat proliferating cancer cells.

“This mind/body science is real physiology,” says physician David Felten, executive director of the Susan Samueli Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the University of California at Irvine. And because chemo and radiation have such devastating effects on the body, kinder, gentler alternative therapies may play a role in helping a patient limit the collateral damage. They may even allow the chemo to do its job better. “You’re not going to get as much benefit from drugs if your stress hormones are going through the roof,” Felten says.

But was that really all that was wrong with Tomatis’s sick monks—their stress hormones just needed quieting? Or with some of Gaynor’s patients, whose survival defies the standard oncology probability and statistics tables? Gaynor acknowledges that relaxation is a crucial component of sound therapy, but he believes the chants and bowls also engage his patients at a level that Western science cannot yet begin to grasp. “In Chinese medicine, they call it qi, in India, prana—the life energy that comes in through the breath,” he says. “Chanting and sound work taps into and intensifies that energy.”

It’s this very notion—the idea that spiritual energy is involved—that some experts don’t cotton to. Felten has done his own work in the music therapy field. He found, for instance, that ritual drumming can lower stress hormone levels and enhance some important immune responses. And he has been moved at a few of the meditation sessions Gaynor holds a few evenings a month. “I found them to be a powerful experience,” Felten says, “the way I could feel the vibrations carrying right through me.”

But he’s not convinced they’re anything more than an efficient stress-reduction delivery system. And he’s not sure that Gaynor’s particular brand of sound, the chants and the singing bowls, has a monopoly on all the good things that can come with listening to music in general. “Does that have a more powerful healing effect than listening to a Tchaikovsky symphony?” he asks. “Does it reduce stress levels more than having a good belly laugh watching a Marx Brothers movie or an episode of Seinfeld? Nobody knows. Nobody has done the studies.”

Gaynor believes to his core that meditative chanting offers a benefit that Mozart, say, cannot. But without some sort of study that compares his patients’ outcomes with those of cancer patients who haven’t practiced meditative chanting, he can’t prove anything. Gaynor, and for that matter Felten, believe that these sorts of studies should and will be done. Still, while it might be tempting to try to zero in on the specifics of sound healing (What’s the most potent chant? The highest-octane singing bowl?), Gaynor thinks that would be a mistake. “First, let’s demonstrate that the holistic package—the nutrition, the emotional counseling, the sound therapy—improves survivability,” he says. “Then later on, we can try to isolate the individual elements.”

Undeterred by the lack of research, Gaynor continues to dole out advice and emotional counsel to his patients against a soothing background of sound. His office feels like it’s at sea, thanks to an $80 gizmo from the Sharper Image that produces the rhythmically relaxing sound of an endlessly surging surf. (Every little bit helps.) Virtually every patient who walks through the door of Gaynor Oncology will take his or her turn lying on the office table, eyes closed with headphones on and breathing deeply, guided by Mitch Gaynor into envisioning various healing images. He agrees to let me experience it for myself.

I lie down in the treatment room and quickly realize I’ve never had so many sources of deep relaxation competing for my attention. Those ambient ocean waves are ebbing and flowing at full volume as Gaynor brings out a handheld crystal singing bowl and plays a few long, lovely tones. Next, the headphones are lowered onto my ears and I’m surrounded by a slow Sanskrit chant, long-held vowel sounds that he translates for me later as, “I surrender to God.”

“I’m going to ask you to breathe deeply through your nose,” the doctor instructs, “with your belly very soft, expanding with each in-breath and gently contracting with each out-breath.”

I have some experience with “following the breath” in Buddhist vipassana meditation, so this feels familiar enough. Then Gaynor tells me to “imagine each inhalation as a waterfall of white light flowing into the lower part of your belly,” which I find not so easy to conjure up on a moment’s notice. Gaynor next turns his attention to his latest pride and joy, a piece of electronic equipment called BioSonic currently sold only in Japan, a transducer that sends a signal in the form of vibrations that can be “heard” directly by the body, bypassing the ears.

While I’m doing what I can with that white waterfall in my belly, the doctor moves the transducer up and down my body, sending that Vedic chant straight into my “major and minor chakras.” Over the years, I have come across plenty of references to the Hindu/kundalini yogic notion of these seven energy centers, but I can’t say I’ve ever had any physical awareness of them. This feels no different—until Gaynor brings the transducer to my forehead (the “third eye” chakra). Immediately I feel the cares of the day, or whatever mush is in there, drain off to be replaced by a solemn Vedic lullaby.

“Are you relaxed?” Gaynor asks. “Yes,” I reply. “But there is a lot going on.” He explains that the BioSonic machine is mainly used for patients who are extremely anxious and stressed. For the everyday person who wants to tap into the restorative power of sound, he suggests experimenting with the traditional Sanskrit bija chant sounds or mantras (handily named lam, vam, ram, yam, ham, om) and finding an easy-to-remember combination to repeat during a meditation session. He is very ecumenical on the subject. “Whether they’re Sanskrit or Gregorian or from the Kabbalah,” he says, “they’re all very similar. They’ve each been perfected over thousands of years, and even if you don’t understand a word, they can have a profound effect on your being.”

The combination of deep, relaxed breathing and the resonant vibration of the sung mantra (and the singing bowl if one is handy) all combine, he believes, to promote “energy, a sense of inner peace, and a greater realization of your own inner harmony.”

The language may be opaquely New Age-y, but Gaynor insists he sees the palpable results every day in his patients. “For most people, seeing an oncologist for the first time may be the most stressful thing they do in their lives,” Gaynor tells me. “They have to find out their prognosis and treatment options, and whether their hair is going to fall out, and who’s going to take care of their children, and are they going to die? And yet on the most stressful day of their lives, my patients invariably say that they have never felt so relaxed.”

This statement might be chalked up to oversell. But I’ve met several of Gaynor’s patients, and they’ve each said something similar. Johanna Jean Simek, 47, a hospital administrator from Brooklyn, has been in remission from her cancer of the small intestine for two years. “When I first got the diagnosis, I wanted to run out in the middle of traffic,” she says. “Anything to get the fear of cancer out of my heart.” She’s now taking classes on Buddhism and looking for ways to serve others. “Cancer was truly a gift,” Simek says.

Stan Altman, 62, a dean at the City University of New York’s Baruch College, has practiced Buddhist meditation for most of his adult life, so when he began seeing Gaynor after his thyroid cancer surgery four months ago, he was hardly a spiritual naïf. But in that brief period of time, he says, the sound and imagery work, and the ensuing discussions with Gaynor, have also had the benefit of bringing up long-dormant memories of physical abuse that he had successfully kept buried since childhood. “The whole experience has opened up my heart,” he says.

He sits near me when I take Gaynor up on an invitation to join him one summer evening at a group session held in the spacious Central Park West living room of one of his patients. Looking characteristically spa-fresh, the doctor assembles his collection of full-sized quartz and metal singing bowls in front of some 40 seated patients and prepares to go to work. It is, all things considered, a remarkably vivacious and healthy-looking group.

When the doctor finally plays the largest crystal bowl, the sound he unleashes is startlingly vivid and penetrating. Then he leads us through a series of Sanskrit chants. They’re familiar to me from my office visits, but this time 40 different voices have joined me in trying to find a common frequency, and the sound expands in the room like a living thing. I confess I feel a power that I hadn’t felt in the office while hooked up to the machine with the headphones on. And I’m acutely aware that almost everyone in this room has been fighting for their lives, and by the looks of it, winning.

I also have the feeling that every one of Gaynor’s teachers is in the room with us: his mother, whose grace in the face of suffering filled him with the passion to be a doctor; his dentist father, who taught him about patient care; the Tibetan Buddhist monk who bequeathed to him the gift of the singing bowls; Sakti Narayani Amma, the proximate source of the Hindu-flavored beatitudes that tumble from his lips.

After the group session comes to a formal close and Gaynor is cheerfully schmoozing the room, I catch up with Stan Altman under the Central Park West streetlights. “The thing about Mitch is that he’s a spiritual teacher in oncologist’s clothing,” he says. Altman, a real New Yorker, can’t help adding, “It’s a little incongruous, but who am I to complain?”

Adding music to your life
Whether it be Prokofiev or Pearl Jam, there’s no wrong way to use sound when the goal is to restore mind and spirit. Listening to whatever you find soothing and revivifying will do you some good. In fact, for all the talk about a so-called Mozart effect boosting the intelligence of a child, “nobody’s ever proved that one kind of music is better than another,” says music therapy researcher Mark Rider.

Still, some believe that combining sound with meditation can take the whole experience to a higher level, and not only calm your mind but promote physical healing.

For people who want to explore meditative sound work, Krishna Das, an eminent American-born advocate for Eastern spiritual chant, advises starting slowly, meditating as little as ten minutes a day, and then building up to whatever amount of time feels comfortable. Before you begin, he says, it’s crucial to find a mantra. It can be just one syllable or a combination. Gregorian or Tibetan—the language doesn’t matter. What is important is that it resonates with you. Physician Mitch Gaynor calls it finding your “life song.”

Props can be very useful: Gaynor suggests patients add intensity to meditation practice by using the sound of a Tibetan bowl to begin and end a chanting session, or even by chanting along with the bowl tone. Listening to or singing along with a meditative CD can have the same effect.

• Meditative sound tracks: To learn the Sanskrit vowel sounds that Gaynor and Krishna Das favor, you can practice along with a Krishna Das CD like Pilgrim Heart or Breath of the Heart (at http://www.amazon.com/ or http://www.karunamusic.com/). Or consult Gaynor’s book The Healing Power of Sound, which includes a chart of
the Sanskrit mantras, or his companion CD of the same title (at http://www.gaynoroncology.com/). But Sanskrit isn’t a requirement for sound work, and other sources of meditative music abound.
One place that offers a broad selection of CDs is the Synchronicity Foundation (http://www.synchronicity.org/; 800.962.2033).

• Tibetan and crystal singing bowls: Gaynor swears by his singing bowls, but before you consider shelling out anywhere from $100 to $900 for one, listen to a recording of singing bowls to see if you like them. One nice CD is Crystal Bowl Healing by New Age musician Steven Halpern (http://www.innerpeacemusic.com/), a modern master of the bowls.