Devotional singing with a kick-ass group of musicians & seekers in order to reach a spiritual connection.
SPIRITUALLY REBELLIOUS VARIATION
Soulful singing in your car, at home, or lying in your sun-filled backyard with virtual friends courtesy of Youtube.
In my most desperate years, I acted as Mad Random DJ a couple nights each week. Not a talented DJ at a hot club. No, this was a private thing in a tiny New York City studio apartment, much to the dismay of my neighbors. Lacking coping skills for dealing with anger, I relied on cheap Merlot and a 400-disc CD player to soothe my discomfort. Unfortunately, I had never labeled even one of the CDs in the player, so I had no idea which disc was in which slot. Nights would devolve into me dumping the player upside down, freeing the CDs into a mess on the floor, and rummaging through to find the desired disc. Once I’d found it, I’d feed it back into the player and commence singing loudly whatever maudlin lyrics fit the resentment festering inside me. (Jagged Little Pill flashback, anyone?)
The innovative and delightfully humorous Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi taught, “The mind is like tofu. By itself, it has no taste. Everything depends on the flavor of the marinade it steeps in.” Likewise, Thich Nhat Hanh recommends that we be mindful about everything we consume, including what we watch and listen to, only consuming what “can water the seed of understanding, compassion, joy, and happiness in us.”
When I played Mad Random DJ, I fed angst with musical anger, sadness with tearful melodies. I dug an emotional rut. Of course, the iPod made this chaotic night ritual obsolete. And soon the cheap Merlot was a thing of the past, as I learned how to manage life without relying on wine as a miraculous elixir. Yet through the years I’ve missed those loud, passionate, lyrical nights and the emotional release they provided.
That is, until I found kirtan (pronounced KEER-tahn). Evolving from the Vedic traditions, kirtan is a call-and-response type of chanting. Usually done in groups, the performers and audience co-create a spiritual space, establishing wholeness from individual, disparate voices. Tactically, it means you sit on the floor and repeat each line the leader sings, as the musi- cians provide the melodious base. Yet it’s nothing like kindergarten music class.
First, you’ll likely be singing in Sanskrit (since the practice originated in India over 2,500 years ago). Second, no one will laugh at you for getting the lyrics (or tone) wrong. Sometimes the words are provided on paper or appear on a screen. More likely, you’ll follow along by ear. But don’t worry, you don’t need to know Sanskrit. Just repeat what you hear. The vibration of the sound is more important than the meaning of the words. (If you develop a kirtan practice, the understanding will come—a core set of mantras, phrases, names, and words are often repeated.) You can even try just humming along to each tone. The rhythmic vibration of the sounds can calm your mind, help reduce stress, and provide more balance to your nervous system.
Author Anodea Judith has a good deal to say on the pow- er of sound on our bodies, in her amazingly thorough book Eastern Body, Western Mind: “We experience resonating wave forms in many ways. When we listen to a chorus of voices or a troupe of drummers, we are immersed in a field of resonance that vibrates every cell in our body. Such a field influences the subtler vibration of consciousness and we feel pleasure, expansiveness, and rhythmic connection with the pulse of life itself.” Have you ever chanted “Om” at the end of a yoga class? Kirtan is like that sound immersion—multiplied.
Here in the U.S., most conversations about kirtan eventually contain the name Krishna Das, the “Rockstar of Yoga,” so dubbed when nominated for a 2013 Grammy Award. This nick- name is well deserved. Krishna Das’s life-changing 1970s journey to India led directly to the popularization of the chant style in the States. In his memoir, Chants of a Lifetime: Searching for a Heart of Gold, Krishna Das notes that one of the goals of kirtan is to experience the Oneness, the pure awareness, that connects all of us: “We can’t think our way out of feeling desperate, but when we do a practice, the walls we’ve constructed around our hearts begin to get broken down. We become more ourselves, not less. What do we lose except fear and unhappiness? Everything that has held us back or limited us begins to disappear from our lives. We become peace.”
Excerpt from Spiritual Rebel: A Positively Addictive Guide to Finding Deeper Perspective and Higher Purpose by Sarah Bowen. Get book.
HOW IT WORKS
Determine your optimal listening set-up. This is about sound—so you’ll need speakers or headphones connected to a device that can connect to the internet.
Find a space where you can make noise without offending anyone. (Full house? A parked car makes an excellent listening chamber.)
Select a link below to access one of our favorite kirtan tunes.
Get your chant on. The tracks include a chorus of imaginary friends who will help you along. Close your eyes. Meld into the sound. Sing along as you feel comfortable. The longer you chant, the more likely you are to enter into the vibrations.
Notice and reflect. After the song is finished, sit for a bit in silence. Notice how your body feels. Notice what’s going on in your mind. Jot down any profound thoughts.