Part of the point of kirtan (or meditation or Yoga) is to transform our consciousness from being preoccupied with the little self, or even our preoccupation with our little ideas about God, to an awakening of a bigger Self or Truth or experience of God; pick how you say it, the end result is the same though may be experienced as slightly different depending on one’s history and “lens.” This shift happens by concentrating, and thus quieting, the wandering mind so that it can more easily be “seen through” (to the “other side”). This shift is greatly aided when we can be with souls “more evolved” than us, with quieter minds than ours, and with less (or no) preoccupation with their little self than we have (and yes, in many cases, they can be very human). Everybody we choose to be with affects us energetically (and otherwise). As we all know and have experience with, some lift us up and some drag us down, some influence us positively and some negatively. No judgement, just a fact. For spiritual aspirants, we need to take special care to “be with those who help [our] being,” to borrow from Rumi.
“What you practice gets stronger,” as Vinai Tom Gillette had observed. So when I sing kirtan, I endeavor to focus my mind and entire Being on God/the Divine Mother and to sing to That and as being in the Presence of That. It does seem that the experience and process is deepening over the years of practice.
Besides the other chanting and meditations that I offer at Loving Kindness, this is one of the few times when I am practicing the same thing and at the same time as everyone else. In asana class I am doing something other than what the practitioners are doing. In kirtan, we are sharing our energy, and at the end, everyone shares their “divine name,” as a way to meet the “band” = “everyone that participates”, even if that participation was in silence.
There are a core group of folks who come to kirtan regularly, and interestingly most of them are not asana practitioners (currently). Many times when the kirtan ends, we just want to sit there and be quiet, though we have grown to be a tight little community who enjoy being together talking as well. And to not have money be a hang-up for the energy, the suggested donation for our kirtan has always been $1-10. As with all the other classes at the studio, no one is watching to see who gives what or anything.
Most songs are in Sanskrit because that’s what I like the most, but some are in English. Sometimes NOT knowing what the words “mean” is more helpful than knowing what they mean, i.e. sometimes the “knowing” limits the possibilities. I sing various names of the Divine, various mantras because that’s what I was taught and each “works” on us differently, like different yoga asanas. I have my favorites and least favorites, of course. Some will say you should only do certain names, which is a fundamentalist view and is unnecessary and possibly harmful, as far as I can tell. Some will argue about the end result of the practice, not having been to the End of the practice, which I think is doctrinal and silly at best and harmful, to oneself and others, at worst. Let’s just chant with as much focus, love and devotion as we can and see what happens ourselves! The practice either works or it doesn’t and if it does, we’ll know it from our own experience where it leads! If our practice and the teachings we have received have us arguing more, it’s not working!
Asana practice uses the body to get IN. We take the body as a door and hopefully don’t get stuck in the door but go through it. Meditation is the “next step,” but as Amma said in the initial quote, kirtan-devotional, focused singing- can be a good intermediate step. Just as with asana, we use movement to get into stillness, in kirtan, we use sound to get into Silence. The sound physically vibrates the body and nervous system which FEELS GOOD and can be quite healing unto itself. The energetic vibration caused by focusing the mind helps quiet the nervous system and the thoughts, and in my experience helps to build the reservoir of spiritual energy that we can later draw on. The practice of surrender to the Divine, or at least to the process, and to the deeper parts of ourself opens doors that we didn’t know are there. The focused vibrations, say Amma and other great souls, are healing not only to ourselves the singers, but to others and all of Nature. As with asana practice, kirtan is a process of “less”, meaning it’s a cleansing and removal of the non-essential to get to the Essence.
I’ll end with a quote from Lizzie Martin, one of our long-time kirtan regulars: “Through the regular practice of chanting kirtan I’ve noticed many phenomena, like energy shifts in my body, insights into how to live a good life, realizations about what I really want/need, and the presence of the divine in my heart and in the space. I remember the first time I chanted with Ti and his family. I kept thinking, “God is Love and God is Here.” Since that time about 4 years ago, I’ve returned every Friday night that I’ve been able. When Ti leads the chants, I know he is connected with a bigger source. His devotion is palpable, contagious, and genuine. Ti’s studio is a wonderful space for kirtan because it’s filled with so much good energy from all the yoga and meditation that’s practiced there. When the chants gain momentum, the energy in the room is so awesome. Sometimes I get up and dance. Every week my practice of kirtan deepens. I’ve memorized all of the chants at this point. The more familiar they become, the more wisdom they reveal to me as I sing. It’s a beautiful and vital practice for me.”
If you’d like to join us, kirtan happens every Friday at 7:20-ish until 8:35-45-ish. All are welcome, including kids.