Welcome to our new interview series, where we'll share conversations with meditation teachers, members of our community, and more.
Jesse Flower-Ambroch recently led a sound meditation at The Standard, East Village that was as enchanting as it was centering. With a variety of instruments (more on those below) and guided vocalizations, Jesse creates an immersive, creative meditation experience. A polymath in the realm of sound, Jesse is attuned to things the rest of us might not consider, such as the nuances of a room's acoustics.
Read on for his insights on meditation's power to enhance your listening ability, how sound got him hooked on meditation, and an unexpected encounter with a flute.
The Path: What brought you to meditation?
I got into meditation through sound. I’d tried to meditate before finding sound meditation and had a lot of difficulty and couldn’t get past the initial “I’m not doing this right” phase. I tried Vipassana, Zen, other kinds, and it was good, but I never got past that initial phase. Then I was invited through a friend of mine to a sound meditation by a friend who ended up becoming like a mentor for me. It was an “ah-ha” moment - it showed me the feeling and broke through that “I’m not doing it right” phase for me. After that, I was able to revisit those practices and be more successful because I knew where I was headed and was able to get past a lot of the noise.
The Path: It’s very cool you found it that way, and it speaks to how meditation can be personalized. You don’t have to find and stick with the most popular or established “types.” You can seek out what works for you.
I’ve always been very sound and music-centric - it’s the way I’m wired, so it makes sense that that’s how I would be able to approach it.
What are your favorite instruments to use in sound meditation, and why?
I love the gong. It’s an exceptionally powerful instrument, one you can play quietly or loudly and it has an equally magnetic effect both ways. You can feel it in your body which I feel is very powerful, especially if you’re close to it. The tones that come out of it are so low that you feel your own body resonating, which I think is a powerful effect. It reminds me of a piano in a sense that it’s one of these instruments you can sit down in front of and easily make sound. But there’s more to it. I could see myself playing my gong for decades and still finding new sounds to get out of it. It allows you to paint with sound, you could say. And because you can create different textures with it, it offers endless possibilities.
I also love the shri box because it allows you to work more easily with vocalization, especially in groups. People that don’t consider themselves able to sing or vocalize will kind of let go of that feeling and work with the vocalization more easily. As far as expression and being able to work with sound personally, vocalization is really powerful because you are the instrument. It allows the group to steer the meditation one way or another. Inevitably people are going to sing or vocalize in a unique way and that allows me to give up a little power. It’s a very creative experience, and it’s a very freeing experience as a leader because you give up some of your power to the group so they can direct the meditation.
Bowls are fun too - also really versatile. You can play them on people, too. Any time you can put direction directly into someone, it’s really powerful.
For people who are drawn to this type of sound meditation, what can they do at home to tap deeper into it or cultivate a greater awareness of their listening abilities?
Ultimately you can aways work with your listening ability. Even if you’re in a place - such as a city street, a forest or any environment, you can use the nonjudgmental, passive listening ability we all have to tap into a bit of that kind of mentality. Even if it’s not listening to something musical, you can listen, and the whole world starts to slow down. Even if it means just sitting in your apartment and listening to the floors creaking or the radiator’s hiss, the birds outside, the soundscape you’re in is a constantly changing object so you can allow yourself to use that to keep yourself in the moment.
As far as the senses go, we’ve had our listening ability for a long time when you look at our biology. So the wiring it takes to get a sound processed into your brain is very simple compared to what it takes to see an object and then translate that object into if oration your brain puts together. It’s almost like a shortcut - the wiring is shorter so to speak.
To keep things fun… have you ever had something sort of embarrassing happen to you while you were teaching or meditating?
All the time, haha. I had one meditation I was doing at a Unitarian church and maybe 45 minutes in a flute recital started across the hallway - that we didn’t know was going to happen. And it was ten-year-olds playing the flute, so it was really painful. I had to think on the fly and just roll with it, but those kinds of things happen all the time.