The Secret Life of Kirtan by Krishna Das | Omega

Kirtan master Krishna Das talks about what happens when he chants, what the mantras mean, and why sound is a powerful medium on the spiritual path.

People ask me, “What is your experience when you chant?” I don’t know what to tell them. What I do is a little mystical and mysterious, even to me. I can’t explain it. When I sing I start to release my thoughts and feelings and the stuff of the day. I start to get quieter inside. I am singing to that loving presence that is represented for me by my guru Neem Karoli Baba. I don’t necessarily think about him, Maharaj-ji, as a person when I’m singing. It goes deeper than that.

The whole idea of chant is to release ourselves from the obsessive thinking that holds us prisoner. It is not only to be focused on what we are experiencing in that moment. It is to simply chant and allow the practice to work on us. Three hours go by and I can’t tell you what happened. I am just the instrument. Maharaj-ji picks up this rusty old pipe and plays beautiful music on it. He puts it down when he’s finished, and I go home and watch television.

Every repetition of the divine names I sing, every single one, is a seed that gets planted. I am scattering seeds. In some sense, Maharaj-ji is using me to plant the seed of the name in everyone who comes. That seed will take root and grow according to its own time, when the situation is ripe. I believe that’s Maharaj-ji’s way of blessing people and transmitting his love and presence to them. It’s completely under the radar and different from what we might experience at the moment. We might feel high or we might feel open or relaxed, but he is transmitting his presence to us through the repetition of the name. My only responsibility is to sing to him and sing to that loving presence with as much intensity and as much sincerity as I can.

What the Mantras (& the Practice) Are About

Nam, or name, is not necessarily names the way we think of names. These names are roots, root causes of further manifestation. As we repeat these names, or mantras, or make sound with a certain intention, we follow that flow back and in. Through the repetition the flow of thought begins to take the shape of the sound, which is a deeper, more real shape. We gradually become, or realize we are already, in a deeper level, closer to this sound. Nam is the name, the Word, and “in the beginning was the Word.” So this sound is what the original name is.

When I sang rock and roll, folk music, blues, I was assuming a persona that I felt I needed because I didn’t like myself. I was trying very desperately to be someone else. That fulfilled a purpose for me at the time because it allowed me to feel better about myself. I could emulate these blues guys and these rockers and be a person like that. Chanting is about as opposite from that as you can possibly get. The whole purpose of the chanting is to let go of all those personas, to let go of any thoughts about anything, and simply bring your attention back to the sound of the name.

We train ourselves that way, to have that ability to let go of functions throughout the day. We get used to that movement of letting go, that feeling of letting go and coming back to the chant as the object of attention. We acquaint ourselves with the feeling of being released from the obsessive stuff over and over and over and over again. So when we get a heavy blast of some negative emotion, we have this functioning in us already. That negative emotion may not last a year and a half, it may only last three months. We don’t know why we’re not feeling as bad as we used to as often as we used to. It is a process that keeps going on. We train ourselves to let go and come back to a deeper and quieter place over and over and over and over and over again.

How Sound & Silence Heal

At the end of an evening of kirtan, there is a deep silence that arises naturally and spontaneously. Saint John of the Cross wrote, “In the Beginning the Father uttered one Word. That Word is His Son and He utters him forever in everlasting silence. It is in silence that the heart must hear.” The silence in the sound is always there. The silence is the absence of the small “self.” The silence is the reality.

When people sing and really get into it, they are disappearing. They are enjoying. They’re not enjoying that they are enjoying. They are just enjoying. They have left that meta-judgmental thing behind. So when they stop singing, that silence just mushrooms out and blossoms immediately because of the absence of ego-centeredness in the room. That’s what sound does.

Sound is a very powerful medium. Our molecules are vibrating and making a sound. The universe is vibrating and making a sound. Creation is sound. That sound is the movement. It is the beginning of vibration. The first sound is vibration. That is the Om, or Ah (the beginning of Om). This cuts right through any kind of psychological bullshit, any kind of version of ourselves that we have. We are essentially a vibration. We are all mixtures of vibration. When we focus on sound itself, it opens up the possibility of dropping down into that deeper level of reality, leaving this one behind.

How to Pop the Little Bubbles of Ego

Intention is really the only thing that matters. We are all in these little bubbles of ego. The intention in kirtan is for the bubble to disappear. When the bubble, the encasing, pops, what happens? The temporary wall between the outside and the inside is gone. Now the outside is the inside and the inside is the outside. The space is one. Oneness is recognized. However it happens, it happens. It’s described in different ways by every different being.

We are all moving in the same direction. We are all part of that one being whether we recognize it yet or not. Anything that helps us relax into our true nature is a good path.

Why Are We Our Own Worst Enemy?

Joy is something that Westerners don’t have a lot of experience with. We have a lot of experience with pleasure and its opposite, pain. But joy, the simple feeling of well-being, is something that Westerners are really starving for.

This is the essence of the spiritual path, the feeling of well-being that already lives in each one of us. It’s just so damaged and covered over by our Western psychological shape that it’s very hard to do a practice with joy. We are fighting our own tendency to treat ourselves harshly. When we try to do something that is good for ourselves, we recognize that we are our own worst enemy.

It is called practice because you’ve got to do it. You’ve got to do it when you feel like doing it. You’ve got to do it when you don’t feel like doing it. Because if we only follow our superficial likes and dislikes, we’ll never get beyond them. Practice is something we have to do regularly over a period of time in order to relax into a deeper shape, a more real space that lives within us. The best practice is the one that you will do and continue to do because you have to do it.

From The Practice of Nada Yoga by Baird Hersey. Copyright © 2014 by Baird Hersey. Reprinted by permission of Inner Traditions.

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