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The Sound Bath Is The New Meditation

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“It’s kind of like tripping,” one of my friends says.

“Or like napping,” assures another. “With music.”

We’re standing in the shade of a particularly bushy Joshua tree in the Mojave desert, taking refuge from California’s heat wave and the baking midday sun. Nearby, a man with a long, white beard and a cowboy hat, who goes by the name of Boo, carries a clipboard and herds a few new arrivals around the enclosed space. An elderly woman with bright-purple hair inspects a table laden with piles of rocks and crystals. Two teenage girls, clearly also from Los Angeles, look around nervously before making their way to the “Hammock Village” and folding themselves neatly inside the blanket-esque pods. In the near distance, a large white dome blooms on the horizon: The Integratron, an otherworldly structure built essentially in the middle of nowhere (OK, near Joshua Tree National Park), is the reason we’ve driven roughly two hours at 9am on a Saturday, with some of us quite hung-over. The purpose of our visit? To experience a “sound bath' like no other.

Here’s how I was sold on the excursion: I had texted my friend Stacey to let her know that I would be escaping the New York cold and visiting Los Angeles for a couple of days. I asked what she was up to on Saturday. “I think we're going to the desert for a ‘sound bath,’ which we really love in LA,” she wrote back. Intuiting my next question she texted: “Basically you nap while a woman plays gongs and bowls, but there's one in the desert in this dome called the Integratron where the acoustics are extra special.”

In fact, the structure is claimed to be the “only all-wood, acoustically perfect sound chamber in the US.” It was built over the span of nearly 20 years by author, inventor, and controversial UFO enthusiast George Van Tassel, who claimed to have received the instruction from aliens. There is no metal in the structure; the beams that hold up the ceiling do so by friction alone. Boo explains that the Integratron was originally designed to be a machine of some kind; the website describes its intended purpose as “an electrostatic generator for the purpose of rejuvenation and time travel.” However, Van Tassel died suddenly in 1978, before he was able to implement the time-travel part. Boo tells me that all of Van Tassel’s models mysteriously disappeared shortly after his death. According to the Integratron’s site, his FBI file is still classified.

After Van Tassel’s death, the structure changed hands a few times before being purchased in 2000 by current owners, sisters Nancy, Joanne, and Patty Karl, who developed its use for sound baths and opened the space up to the public. Guests can book private sound baths (six-to-ten weeks in advance) or make a reservation for a “pop-up sound bath,” which can hold up to 25 people and cost between $25 and $35 per person, depending on the day. Sound bath devotees claim the experience can induce everything from transcendental meditation to hallucinations, visions, and an out-of-body feeling.

Just then, Boo’s walkie talkie crackles to life. “The sound bath is over,” says the slow, disembodied voice, adding cryptically, “and the almond trees are blooming.” My friends and I exchange furtive glances. Was that some kind of code? As we watched the dazed sound bathers file out of the previous session, we prepare for a serious trip.

Nancy Karl, who is leading our session, greets us inside the Integratron’s first floor. We are asked to take off our shoes and to climb (strictly one at a time) up the ladder to the second floor of the parabolic sound chamber. Upstairs and under the dome are rows of carefully folded blankets—like the kind you get in a yoga class. I lie down on my back, staring at the blue sky through the oculus in the beamed, wooden ceiling. Even before the sound bath begins, I’m starting to feel Zen.

Karl takes up her position before the quartz bowls, arranged in varying sizes in a circle. Each one is keyed, she explains, to a different chakra. She will be making them “sing” by the same technique used to make a wine glass hum. She also explains a little bit more about the structure, like the fact that it lies atop a geomagnetic anomaly. “That isn’t woo-woo fairy dust,” says Karl. “It’s science.” After more preambles—no talking, no snoring—she begins to play the quartz bowls. The deep vibrational sound immediately puts me at ease; I settle in, waiting to be transported. But about half way through, I begin to feel anxious, unsure of how much time has gone by, and if I’m doing this right. I realize that my feet and calves have fallen completely asleep. I turn on my side and worry that I’ve committed a serious faux pas. I tell myself to mellow out and, slowly, I slip into the zone again.

The sound bath is over before I know it. At first I’m disappointed (though a few visions had flitted through my brain, I could hardly have called it tripping), but then I take stock of my body. It still feels like I’m vibrating, and I’m hyper-aware of the silence in the room—like I have heightened senses. When I walk out of the dome—into the bright sunlight—I feel relaxed, rejuvenated, and oddly peaceful. Maybe it isn’t like taking ‘shrooms. It’s more like popping a Xanax.

Afterward, Boo asks us how it went. I tell him I feel very relaxed and refreshed. Finally, I ask him what his colleague meant on the walkie talkie, about the almond trees blooming.

He looks at me blankly. “We have almond trees near the dome, and they’ve just started to bloom.”

Oh.

—Hayley Phelan

Hayley Phelan is a freelance writer living and working in New York. Formerly, she was Features Editor at Lucky and Senior Editor at Fashionista.com . She's a fan of Agatha Christie, cinnamon toast, and Wikipedia. She's always trying to get beach waves, without the beach. Photos courtesy of the author.

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