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Clearing Your Way to Chant

Excerpt from "Following Sound Into Silence"

by Kailash

The following excerpt is taken from the book Following Sound Into Silence by Kailash. It is published by Hay House (February 2008) and available at all bookstores or online at: www.hayhouse.com

Chanting Across Traditions

The word chant comes from the Latin cantare, “to sing.” Of course, chanting is more than merely singing. It’s using your powers of vocalization and hearing to directly experience and unite with the Great Mystery in sound form. Repeating sacred sounds drives their vibrations deep into your mind and heart, eventually taking you from where you are to where you want to be.

Most systems of spiritual practice—Eastern and Western, ancient and contemporary—employ some form of chanting in their repertoire of techniques for connecting with the sacred. Speaking certain words that describe and honor your highest ideals somehow puts you in touch with a quality of life beyond ordinary experience. Repeating such words with sufficient focus and emotional intensity will help you bridge the gap between yourself and the Divine.

Wherever and whenever you look, you find people repeating the names and praises of the Supreme. For instance, although the ancient Israelites treated the revealed name of God with such reverence that they would never speak it aloud, they were no strangers to repeating Hashem (Hebrew for “the Name”); they substituted a host of honorifics in its place (including Lord, Most High, Holy One, Our Father and King, and Shepherd of Israel). Christians routinely refer to Jesus Christ by a variety of titles (such as God with Us, Lion of Judah, King of Kings, Prince of Peace, and Lamb of God). Muslims celebrate the 99 beautiful names of Allah (such as the Merciful, Granter of Security, Protector, Forgiver, and the Truth), each paying tribute to a different attribute of the Divine.

Despite Buddhists’ nontheistic orientation, it’s a common practice for them to remember both the historical Buddha and a great many other awakened beings and yidams (meditation deities) through the recitation of their names and praises. Among Sikhs, many names of the Divine are featured in hymns and mantras from their scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib. These are regularly chanted to turn the mind toward God and the teaching of their Ten Gurus (“removers of darkness”). Such examples may be multiplied indefinitely across traditions.

Turn your mind toward your own upbringing. You can probably recall times when you repeated words that expressed sacred sentiments, whether during Sunday-school activities, in bedtime prayers, or while celebrating religious holidays—perhaps singing Christmas carols, participating in a Passover seder, or some other festival. These are all practices related to devotional chanting.

While there have been a great variety of texts, languages, melodies, and cultural customs associated with chanting throughout human history and around the world, my primary focus will be on chanting practices based in Sanskrit—an ancient Indian language developed specifically to support spiritual inquiry, exercise, and achievement. I heartily acknowledge the enormous value of other approaches to chanting and continue to benefit from them in my own personal practice. Indeed, most of what I have to say about Sanskrit chanting is applicable to other traditions. But since my own study and experience is anchored in the Sanskrit-based variety, for the purposes of this book I emphasize the methods and understandings that have arisen within it. I leave it to you to explore the similarities and differences between this and other chanting traditions as you see fit.

My Own Chanting Background

My first experience with chanting was the repetition of the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”) in the early 1990s. This is a venerable practice of hesychast (Greek for “silence” or “stillness”) spirituality within Eastern Orthodox Christianity. I was spending a great deal of time at a small monastery in central Texas doing fieldwork for my doctoral dissertation—a close examination of communication among the monks and nuns. I was also relating to them as spiritual family members since I’d converted to Orthodoxy a few years before. Under the direction of a seasoned monk, I repeated this prayer daily for long intervals. I coordinated the repetitions with my breathing, counting them on my chotki (a knotted-cord rosary), while I visualized Jesus hearing me. I did this during times specifically set aside for prayer and also when I found a free moment between other activities—while driving, for example, or on an airplane. Over time, these words and thoughts of Christ permeated my mind. I was surprised to discover that the prayer seemed to be echoing in my mind at all times, often just below the threshold of my awareness, and I could chant along with it when I wished to.

Given my background in conservative Protestantism (famously uncomfortable with formal ritual and liturgy), I was initially concerned about the apparent incompatibility of this practice with Jesus’s dictum “But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking” (Matthew 6:7). However, I soon realized that my use of repetition was not “vain.” Mine wasn’t a hollow or selfish act; it was occasioned by sincere devotion to God. Nor did my attempt to attract God’s ear come through increasing the sheer quantity of my words; rather, I understood that repeating this prayer was about cultivating positive changes in my mind and heart.

In the years since, I’ve incorporated concepts and practices from many of the world’s wisdom traditions. I’ve retained my appreciation for that early chanting experience and my devotion to Jesus Christ and his teachings—even though I no longer identify exclusively with Christianity. So it was with considerable sympathy and understanding that I listened to a participant at a Sanskrit chanting event as she revealed, with obvious discomfort, a grave concern: She loved to chant, but having been raised in a Christian church (her father was a pastor), she was terrified that she might go to hell if she continued. Given the cultural dominance of Christianity in North America, it’s possible that you share this anxiety. You might be worried that chanting the names and praises of ideals from another place, time, and language may be spiritually harmful. I hope to put any such concerns to rest so that you can approach devotional chanting without fear.

Tackling Religious Chauvinism

Because of our minds’ limits, we can never comprehend God. Everyone’s notions of the Divine are partial, emphasizing certain aspects of the Supreme that are understood to be essential, while excluding others. Our emphases typically correspond to the concept of Divinity that we’ve inherited as a member of a particular family and faith community. Treating our own religious legacy as the one and only truth for all people and times may provide a reassuring sense of certainty, but it requires that we dismiss as mistaken any idea, value, or practice that has its origin outside of the narrow confines of our inherited belief system.

Human beings have been asking the big questions for a very long time: Who am I? Why am I here? Where did I and everything else come from? How can I live in order to be happy? In earnestly attempting to answer these questions, we’ve accumulated a great storehouse of wisdom. But because most of the solutions differ from what we’re used to, we may mistake much of this treasure for rubbish. The answers that we find acceptable and those we’re likely to reject are matters that are usually decided very early in our life experience following a simple rubric: The familiar is good; the strange is bad. We define ourselves with reference to that tiny portion of the universe we find ourselves attached to through routine exposure. And we often do this without any conscious choice. This is the basis for our feelings of sympathy for some answers and our indifference or even hatred toward others.

Recall times when you’ve reacted judgmentally to other people’s religious beliefs and practices just because they were different from your own. This kind of bias is commonplace and may escape your notice—unless you happen to be on the receiving end of it. Have you ever been judged harshly in this way? How did it make you feel?

We tend to react fearfully to the unknown—the foreign and unfamiliar. This is an automatic, defensive reaction that proves helpful to us much of the time, since it maintains the comfortable, safe status quo of our lives, shielding us from potential dangers. After all, when we’re in strange surroundings, we don’t know our way; without a sense of the “rules” in a given situation, it’s easy to make a costly mistake. But in the matter of spirituality as elsewhere, excluding any particular idea or approach, just because it’s different from what we’re used to, is a kind of prejudice. It cuts us off not merely from others who are unlike us, but also from all their answers to those perennial questions that human beings face.

Every concept of the Divine most likely has some merit; it probably conveys valuable intuitive information regarding ultimate reality. But no description of the Supreme is exhaustive. Our limited minds can’t comprehend infinity, and every effort to grasp Deity involves abstraction (a process that leaves some things out, while privileging others); reification (treating complex, subtle features of reality as if they were simple, concrete things); and analogy (understanding one thing in terms of another). Your picture of the Divine is surely different from mine, but that doesn’t mean that either of us is incorrect—just that each image is anchored in, and conditioned by, our respective personal and cultural histories.

Our tendency is to approach spiritual exercises such as devotional chanting within the boundaries of our customary, familiar religious tradition—and that’s a terrific place to start. We can cultivate our spiritual abilities through devotion to whatever form of the Divine is most inspiring to us. As our capacity for concentration and care grow through practice, we may discover that other people’s ideas are also valuable. Although these portraits of Deity may initially seem foreign, or even to be false gods or goddesses, they too are the fruit of honest efforts to glimpse Perfection, just like our familiar conceptions. This is a Perfection that’s so vast and inconceivable that many forms and names are required even to hint at its many-faceted excellence. Indeed, as we’ve seen, even those who believe in a single, almighty Creator (as in the great monotheisms—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) address, praise, and describe the Divine using many names, each of which captures a distinct dimension of Deity.

Every sincere answer to the perennial questions humans face is valuable. Each offers insight not only into the Great Mystery itself, but into the history and values of the very people who are asking the questions. We all have ideas about the “shape” of ultimate reality—some conceptions are more fluid, others are more fixed; some are clearer, others are more ambiguous; some are more complex, others are less elaborate. Our notions reveal something about our own development. Each of us has an impression of what Perfection must be like, and that sense is likely to be expressed in a manner that’s consistent with our experience and interests.

Our ordinary way of experiencing the world is dualistic: We see ourselves as distinct from whatever we encounter through our perceptions and in our thoughts. Even our ideal is visualized (at least initially) as distinct from ourselves. Since our concept of the Supreme has been forged in the context of relationship with other human beings, it’s not surprising that we tend to understand the infinite in the familiar, finite terms of individuals in relationship.

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine how a deity of, say, peace might appear. Chances are that when you’re finished, you probably will have assigned a gender, certain physical attributes, accessories, attitudes, and personality features to this figure.

Conceived in this way, the Divine occurs to us like a human being, albeit greatly magnified and considerably less limited. With a steadfast spiritual exercise such as devotional chanting, we may realize that these personified Perfections are transcendent dimensions of our own highest selves. But at first it’s easier for us to get our heads around the infinite if we imagine it in the more manageable proportions of a finite form, described in words or rendered in some artistic medium.

We may suppose that our notion of the Divine is complete, but when we honestly review our efforts, the partial character of the labels and images we’ve used becomes obvious. Every effort to express the inexpressible must fall short of its goal. It’s dangerous when we mistake our limited portrayals of the Divine for God—as if mere words or pictures could contain the Supreme. We can actually hinder our spiritual growth if we suppose that our depiction of the infinite is sufficient. This prideful perspective calls a halt to learning, since we’re satisfied that we already possess the ultimate answer.

A stubborn insistence that ours is the only legitimate portrayal of the Supreme is another closely related hazard. When we’re convinced of the exclusivity of our grasp on God, we’re unlikely to extend compassion—the genuine measure of authentic spiritual maturity—to those whose concepts differ from our own.

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