Sara Auster on Fine-Tuning Your Life Through Sound Therapy
For Sara Auster, being receptive and listening to the world around you—both literally and metaphorically—are essential to the good life. The Brooklyn-based sound therapist and meditation teacher has followed this M.O. in the aftermath of two traumatic, life-transforming experiences: the death of her older sister, who had been chronically ill, when Auster was just 10, and a major back injury when she was 23 from when the floor of her second-story artist studio collapsed. Making space through sound has completely changed her life.
In the decade since Auster began pursuing work as a sound therapist full-time, she has become one of the most notable voices in the field, as well as in health and well-being more broadly. The author of the book Sound Bath: Meditate, Heal, and Connect Through Listening, she has guided group meditations at the Museum of Modern Art, Lincoln Center, Madison Square Garden, and the Oculus transportation hub in Lower Manhattan. She has also created sound baths at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, done events in cities around the world such as London and Amsterdam, and facilitated retreats in Italy and Morocco. This past year, she’s also collaborated on events with the New York Philharmonic.
Here, Auster speaks about sound as a tool for overcoming pain and trauma, her various instruments and the tools of her trade, and why the words ritual and reverence reverberate in her mind when thinking about her work.
I was hoping you might slowly bring us into this interview with a sonic interlude.
That sounds good. Yeah, let’s do it.
[Plays crystal singing bowls for roughly three minutes]
That was the most calming start to an interview ever. [Laughs]
It’s a good way in.
So, tell me a little bit about your path to sound therapy and meditation. Do you have a musical background? Was it a long, slow evolution? Did you have some “aha” moment that led you here? Was it both?
Yes. It was all of those things. When I was very young, my oldest sister had a chronic illness, and she was in and out of hospitals a lot. Between 7 and 10, I, too, spent a lot of time in and out of hospitals, because that’s where my family was. I have a strong sensory memory of the experience of being in the hospital, noticing the sounds and the lights, and being very attuned to what my family was going through.
Actually, music was always a way that we communicated with my sister, who became noncommunicative at a certain point. We would bring in a [Sony] Walkman with headphones and her favorite cassettes and play music for her. Even though we couldn’t communicate with words, there was a connection happening that was beyond words. If I trace [my path] back, that’s the first moment.
Do you remember what the songs were?
Oh, yeah. She loved the Jackson 5. She was a super Chicago fan. She was the type to listen to a song over and over again—obviously, before the internet—and write down the lyrics. She knew every word to every song. That was her thing.
When she was 16, and I was 10, she passed away. After that, I really wanted to explore what it meant to have a failing body. As an artist, I started to create mixed-media work around that, with the body and especially inside the body as an influence. It was always multisensory—mixed media, installations, artist books—things people could touch and smell to fall back onto their own experience.
Another key moment along the journey was working as an artist in New York City. I was awarded a free studio space to make my art. I was really “doing it.” I was on my way. Then, one night, I was working in my studio and heard loud banging sounds. And the banging sound was not crazy actors rehearsing at six in the morning; it was the floor breaking underneath me.
I was 23. I fell through the floor and broke my back. It actually was a pretty poetic moment, falling with all of my work from the second floor into the first floor and flipping through the catalog of my life and all those things people talk about. I came out of that moment with temporary paralysis and chronic pain, and that reset my thinking about what I was doing as an artist. Could I even make work? Obviously, I needed to get out of pain, so that was the first way in. Needing to get out of pain, I was willing to try anything, albeit reluctantly. I went to the chiropractor for the first time. I tried acupuncture. These things, about twenty years ago, were not so mainstream. I was a born skeptic, but willing to try anything to get out of pain.
Then, through those different explorations of trying to get out of the physical pain in my body, I started to realize a lot was going on in there, emotionally and psychologically. I was dealing with the loss of my sister, my healthy body, and my ability to make work. It was through my reluctant practice of meditation that I started to make these connections. For a while, I had two separate lives: the artist-musician Sara and the yoga-meditation-green juice Sara that were two very different personalities. And I didn’t feel fully invited into either world because of the other one. It was a slow integration of both interests and curiosities that took me to what I’m doing now.
So much of what you do is about healing. I know you intentionally steer away from the word “healer”—and we can touch on that—but I wanted to bring this up, because it seems that so much of what you’re doing is about addressing pain. Not coming to terms with it, but helping with trauma, creating a space for relaxation, making space for yourself and others, slowing down, and being more present in your body.
You’ve said that sound baths offer an opportunity to travel without moving. That’s pretty interesting to think about, a sound bath being an opportunity into all those ways of accessing yourself. So I wanted to ask: What are your thoughts on this healing aspect of what you do? And why do you steer away from the “sound healer” term, even if so much of what you do is about healing?
You mentioned pain. This is something we can all relate to. Each one of us has been through difficult times, difficult experiences, whether it’s injury, loss, physical pain, emotional pain, or all those things. It is not so much the pain, the situation, or the thing that happened that defines us as much as what we choose to do with it.
Sound baths create space around the pain. Which, when you think about it, pain is a contracted feeling. When you’re in it—the loss and the discomfort—it’s difficult to see a connection. It’s difficult to see a lesson. It’s difficult to know how to move forward. So, yes, a sound bath provides an opportunity to create space around pain, discomfort, trauma, and all the difficult things you want to talk about so that you can have a little distance between you and it. That, to me, is where healing happens.
One of the reasons I make a conscious choice not to call myself a healer is because I feel it implies that I am healing you or doing something to you. Therefore, I have power over you that doesn’t live within you. To be a healer is the opposite. To be a healer is to hold space around a person so that they can make the connections, see the openings, and navigate through the pain.
Tell me about your approach to a sound bath. Taking a step back, how do you go about deciding what to play and which instruments to use? How do you meet your audience, listeners, sound bathers—if I can call them that—where they’re at?
I tried to get that term going, by the way, and it failed. “Sound bathers.” [Laughs]
You should make towels.
I’m always in conversation with what’s in front of me. I’m always listening. Wherever I’m facilitating a sound bath experience very much informs how I’m playing, what I choose to say, and how I guide people in. Some of it is preexisting: my study of sound, acoustics, and meditation and how these things work. However, you do need to let that all go in the moment and be present with what’s happening. I’ve facilitated sound baths for people of all ages, backgrounds, and industries, and in locations from public schools to museums and even on an airplane once. I’m always interested in just being in conversation with the environment.
You use a range of tools and instruments, including crystal bowls, tuning forks, and a shruti box. Run me through your toolbox and tell me about the alchemy you create by combining all of these.
Over the years, I’ve put together this very specific palette of sound. How I got there was pretty organic. I started with every instrument under the sun. I still have an arsenal of instruments. But a lot of it is about working and getting feedback. When I facilitate sound experiences, I’m always looking to get feedback from people, because we all have a very unique relationship to sound. Different people have different experiences with the same sound. I’m always curious to learn more from people about what affects them and in which ways, and then I use that as I move forward.
Of course, you can’t please all the people all the time, but the experience is not about pleasure. It’s not about bliss. It’s about creating space for what needs to happen. The tools I use are highly resonant instruments that allow spaciousness and an opportunity for the listener, the participant, or the sound bather to be held in the nuance of sound, in the layers of what’s sonically happening. That’s why I choose to play these instruments.
From what you’ve learned, what impact does the act of deep, immersed, meditative listening have on someone?
We know that sounds affect us on every level. Physiologically, psychologically, and emotionally, sound touches all of us. We can use sound as a tool to go beyond the mind and body, and to what I often refer to as the “sensing self.” The sensing self is your intuition. More than the emotional body, it’s an awareness that goes beyond the physical and psychological. Listening to these types of sounds is also very similar to savoring. There’s a slowness in how you’re invited to listen. I think this is a powerful way for people to access that other internal place.
I love this idea of music as a tool to make sense of yourself. There is this bodily experience when you’re playing a musical instrument. I was wondering if you could talk about how you feel as you’re playing and performing.
People ask me all the time, “Do you feel the same way I feel when I’m listening?” And the answer is definitely no. I’m using my brain. I’m making choices in the moment. I’m very aware and awake as to what I’m doing, but there is an almost heightened sensitivity in the way that I listen. In particular, I’m very conscious of being responsive to the moment. I’m in conversation with the moment.
I think it’s worth bringing up that before we started recording this interview, there was this really awful noise out on the street. I’m sure that you had a reaction to that. I know I did. Every noise you hear has an effect on your body. Do sound baths offer some sort of balm to this? They’re away from the noise, away from the screens, away from technology. In a way, they are kind of anti-technology. Perhaps, they’re connected to this return to nature, land, Indigenous technologies, ancestral thinking, and even traditional ecological knowledge. Do you see the sound bath in that context?
Yes, in all of those contexts. Although a sound bath won’t make the jackhammer stop or protect your ears from a jackhammer either, it helps shift your relationship to sound and listening. It provides the opportunity to feel safe. On a basic level, it is permission to turn your phone off, all the way off, not even on vibrate. That’s what I instruct people to do in every experience. It is permission to leave your stress aside for a moment and let yourself be without needing to do, react, or respond, which is what we’re being asked to do all the time.
I also wanted to bring up the community aspect of what you do. There’s a ritualistic component. It’s not religious, but there’s a churchlike feel. When you’re in some of the rooms you perform in, there are hundreds of people, probably thousands. Tell me about the community you’ve been able to engage and connect with through your work.
You said “religious” or “churchlike.” The words I use a lot around my work are “ritual” and “reverence.” Those are two words that are associated with those other two words because there is a yearning and longing for connection. In a time when I feel like many people of our generation have pushed away organized religion, we’re craving experiences around ritual, connection, and something a little more spiritual. But because there’s no framework or order through which religion might present these experiences, they’re more difficult to access. Hence, the rising trends of sound baths and ceremonies. I think people are seeking that connection.
What I witnessed happen in the middle of [my performance at] the Oculus [transportation hub at the World Trade Center] during rush hour…. The building wasn’t closed down. We had about seven hundred people sitting in the circular formation in the middle of Oculus. And that group of people made a choice to get quiet, intentionally being together for a moment to pause. They invited other people to slow all the way down—security officers, people who were shopping, people who were running to catch a train. The pace of the whole place slowed all the way down. Even if people weren’t participating, they were standing there, still, watching. They didn’t have to know what was going on. They felt what was going on. I’m interested in the ability of sounds and listening to transform space and environment, not only the external environment but also the internal.
Let’s close on the subject of sleep. You recently partnered with Audible to create a series of sound bath recordings specifically designed to help listeners have a deeper, more restful sleep. Do you consider what you do as sleep music, sort of in the vein of Max Richter’s Sleep album?
Hmm. Well, there’s a difference between rest and sleep. Very often, we are in a constant state of reactivity throughout the day. Then, if we’re lucky, we drop into unconscious, dreamless sleep. We’re usually missing that space in between in our daily lives. A sound bath, or the type of sound I’m facilitating, helps us get into that liminal space, the restful space before sleep, which ultimately then helps people drop into sleep. It depends, just like the way that different people find different things soothing.
Another thing that’s offered in the Audible series is P. Diddy reading a bedtime story. I don’t think that would put me to sleep. [Laughs] I would be hyped to hear Diddy read me a bedtime story. You see what I’m saying.
You also have a new project with the New York Philharmonic.. [Editor’s note: This interview was recorded in the fall of 2022.] Can you share a little bit about it and what you’re hoping to achieve through this collaboration?
It’s really interesting how they approached me. They said, “We want to explore a series designed around health, well-being, and especially mental health. We really want to offer that to our community.” I said, “Of course, I would love to meet and talk to you about what you had in mind.” Right away, they were speaking about how they really admired my work bringing people together in a meaningful space of shared experience. I asked them to stop for a second. I said, “I would like to be a mirror for you, New York Philharmonic. This is actually something you’ve always done, that you always do. You are designing sonic experiences and inviting people to come into them and have a shared moment of sound that helps them to access their emotions, experience joy, and step away from their phones for a moment.” I said, “In a lot of ways, our work is very similar, and you’re already providing an opportunity around mental health and well-being, so I feel that the partnership is really complementary.”
I will be working with different members of the orchestra. I don’t want to give too much away because it hasn’t happened yet, but I’m going to be facilitating a sound bath and integrating some of the members of the orchestra into the experience. I’m honored to be collaborating with them.
We’ve covered a lot of terrain today, and I really appreciate you sharing your personal story. It’s an incredible story of growth and exploration through sound. I was hoping to finish on one last question: What is the good life to you? How would you define it?
To me, having a good life is to be receptive, and listening. If we do that, then we have the opportunity to savor each moment. There’s nothing better than really being in the moment, savoring whatever it is, whether it’s pain, joy, or all those things. Being able to savor each moment is what gives us that good life, that connected life.
Well, in the interest of savoring this moment, I would love for you to finish this conversation by playing whatever you want for as long as you want for me and the listeners to enjoy as we interpret this conversation, this moment, and our time together.
Yeah, we don’t just talk about it. We’re going to be about it.
[Sara plays singing bowls for roughly four minutes]
Sara, thank you.
You told me to play as long as I wanted. [Laughs]
This interview was recorded on September 16, 2022. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity.