Music of the Heart
Kirtan master Krishna Das explains how he finds freedom through the joy of chanting.
My main formal practice is chanting the Names of God. These Names that we sing, on the deepest level, are the names of who we truly are. The names of what’s in there—not what we think is in there, which is our story line, but what’s really in there. That place is pure love, pure truth, pure enjoyment. Pure, meaning “as it is.” We don’t make it. It exists naturally as it is inside of us. But because it’s underneath everything, we’re always looking for it in other people and in “stuff.” Until we can connect to that place inside of ourselves, we can’t really find it in another person.
Over time, the practice of chanting has changed the way I feel about the world around me because it is changing the way I feel about myself. Chanting uncovers the happiness, beauty, and love inside of us. It shows us that we have that already.
Chanting awakens an inner strength and confidence and a feeling of well-being as we move deeper into our own hearts.
Chanting is not really about music at all. Maharaj-ji (my guru, Neem Karoli Baba) gave me the medicine. When a child has to take medicine, it has to be hidden in a sweet syrup. In the same way, the medicine of the Name is hidden in the sweet syrup of the music. The result of the medicine working is the happiness we get from the removal of our illness. In the case of chanting, the medicine of the Name removes the illness of looking outside for love, and awakens an inner strength and confidence and a feeling of well-being as we move deeper into our own hearts.
The challenge is to keep taking my medicine.
When I’m really chanting, no matter what is going on in my head, I have to let go of it. Not to think or imagine anything; not to try to make anything happen; not to ruminate about stuff that happened earlier or might happen later…I just have to sing, no matter what.
When I first started to chant, my mind was somewhere else in a second. But that’s the beauty of this practice. We start from where we are. We get lost in thought, and we come back. As soon as we realize that we’re gone, we come back. It’s amazing. Most of us will have to do it 40 billion times a minute, but that’s okay. As soon as we realize we’re gone, we’re already back. Then by the time we realize that, we’re gone again. Thinking I’m back is not the same as being back. Recognizing that we’re lost in thought is the first step in turning within.
Even though our thoughts take us away—and many different memories, fantasies, and impressions continually arise—we can always return again to the repetition of the Name. Every single time we return to the practice, we are overcoming ancient innate tendencies of the mind to flow outward. Every time we come back, we are reminding ourselves where to look, and it gets deeper each time. This is why it’s said that what matters isn’t how many times we go away, but how many times we come back, because each time we come back, we are coming back to the singularity of the Name.
Through practice, a part of us learns what it feels like to let go of whatever takes us away, and we come back—let go, come back, let go, come back. With the constant repetition of that process, we intuitively develop the ability to let go. As time goes on and difficult experiences arise, all that work of letting go kicks in and we find ourselves more present and better able to deal with them. We are able to let go of the destructive habits and thoughts that make dealing with crises so overwhelming for us. It’s the same process.
I approach chanting in a very pragmatic way: I try not to create any fantasies in my head about what is supposed to be happening. I get to this place of simply being inside of myself. Anything that raises anticipation or creates an expectation of what is going to happen is a hindrance. To me it is not about trying to achieve ecstatic states. It is about love. Ecstasy comes and goes. I don’t want to be thinking about love, I want to be in love and eventually become love.
Beyond the Names
All of these Names have come to us through the stories of the various incarnations or manifestations that the Divine has taken in order to destroy suffering in the world. These stories can be found in the sacred writings of India, the Puranas, the Bhagavatam, the Ramayana of Valmiki, and the Ramcaritmanas of Tulsidas, as well as many others.
The deepest meanings of all of these Names and the reality of all of the deities worshiped in all spiritual traditions is beyond the mind, beyond anything that can be understood or experienced intellectually. As Maharaj-ji said, “Whatever we experience and learn through the mind and the senses is not the truth.” All of the deities have their own stories of how they manifest in the world, especially to help at times when there is great darkness and suffering. When I chant, however, I’m not thinking about that.
When I’m chanting, I’m just chanting. That’s all I know. I’m moving into a quieter, more spacious moment, and sometimes I move into the presence of love. The antarayamin, the indwelling presence of love, attracts us through any form that appeals to us, which leads us into our own true heart. It’s like water and ice: ice looks different than water, but actually it’s nothing but water. Krishna, Shiva, and the other deities are like the ice, different forms of the One.
In India, they say that God is beyond any name or form, beyond the mind, neither male nor female. This is the ultimate statement of truth, but it is also said that the very same Ultimate Presence will take a form to answer the loving call of a devotee’s heart. All of these divine beings are doorways into love—into the deepest place in our own heart. After all, God is love and love is God.
The Real Thing
One time I was up in the hills at K.K.’s (the devotee who helped me get to India to meet Maharaj-ji) house during the festival of Holi, and devotees came from all around to sing these love songs throughout the night. These were not professional musicians; they were local people who worked and had families and regular lives, but who also carried on this ancient tradition. The younger guys started about ten at night. It was beautiful! What voices! I remember thinking, It can’t get any better than this.
But as it got later and later and the singers got older and older, the beauty of the voice began to give way to the beauty of the heart. At four in the morning, the eldest of the devotees began to sing. His voice was cracked from a lifetime of smoking bidis (Indian leaf cigarettes), but the vibe when he sang was astounding. He could no longer sing totally in key or with any sweetness of voice, but his singing had become all bhav, all feeling. The young guys sucked me in with the beauty of their music, but as soon as the old guy started to sing, I went, Aha! This is the real stuff.
By repeating the name as wholeheartedly as we can, anything and everything we need to know will be revealed from within.
It is said that everything is contained within the sound of the Name. By repeating the Name as wholeheartedly as we can, anything and everything we need to know will be revealed from within; anything and everything that needs to happen will happen without having to think about it or understand it intellectually. All of the Names come from the same Source. By repeating these Names, we’re directly invoking the indwelling presence in our own hearts.
Everything we do plants seeds. Every action—even every thought—is a seed that sooner or later will bring some kind of fruit. If we act out of fear and sadness, anger and greed, then those are the seeds we are planting. We don’t have to live in fear. The laws of karma are not a prison, they are the key to freedom. We have a choice about what we plant. We are planting the seeds, and we will reap the fruits. When we understand that what we do now has a tremendous effect not only on the rest of our day but the rest of our life, we can exercise some choice about how we greet every moment as it arises.
With chanting, each repetition of a revealed name of God plants a seed.
Repeating the Name plants seeds of real goodness—seeds that can only grow into the sweet fruit of love, love for ourselves and love for others. Most of us are trying to become good human beings, people who don’t want to hurt ourselves or others, but we’re often unconscious slaves to the habits we’ve formed in our lives. It takes time to transform the destructive, hurtful, angry, fearful, and greed-based actions that we perform unconsciously every day.
When we truly understand that the laws of karma are not blind fate, we start to plant seeds that will help us wake up and create the qualities we want to develop. We plant righteous, wholesome seeds of what we want to have in our lives. Less and less, we engage in behaviors that are destructive for us. We’re chanting the Names of God, of Love, and gradually but inevitably, our lives are transformed.
From Chants of a Lifetime: Searching for a Heart of Gold by Krishna Das. (Hay House, 2010.) Reprinted with permission.
Krishna Das travels the world, leading call-and-response kirtans with thousands of people.