Each time I turn my head, I catch the scent of incense from my hair and coat. They are replete with the incense from last night’s kirtan event led by Mike Cohen, and I’m still rather wired from the experience. Each whiff of the incense takes me back to two hours of music, chant, connection, and meditation. It feels, well, somewhat illicit.
Kirtan, a call and response chanting originating from India, crosses religious lines, although its strong eastern flavor and Sanskrit mantras probably limits its appeal, but chant practice occurs in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions as well. While I doubt it will hit the humanist scene, chant is a diverse practice with a vast range of sound that can reach across religions.
Last night was my first kirtan session. A month back, I attended an adult education session at church on chant. Twelve of us, led by Unitarian Universalist minister Alex Riegel, spent an hour and a half learning some of the basics of chant including a sample of the call-and-response variety that is kirtan. Even with that small number, minimal experience, and no instrumental accompaniment, the evening left me hungry for more. The chants themselves quickly left my mind, but the experience left its mark. I wanted more.
My prior experience with chant was limited to CDs from Benedictine Monks. While the music provided a pleasant backdrop for other pursuits, it never elicited a spiritual response for me. It simply didn’t resonate, spiritually or physically. Other religious music did resonate, however, although the lyrics were always far more involved than chant, occupying the mind with images and ideas.
Chant allows all but the chant to drop away, allowing one to center. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m one with a very active monkey mind, and I’ve had little success with silent meditation. Not that I’ve given it the time I’m sure it requires, but quieting my body and mind together’s been a stretch. Chant, on the other hand, allows my body and mind a small, repetitive task. The monkey seems entertained into silence, at least until my brain and body surface again. It’s a start. A powerful start.
But there’s more. Kirtan brought me an energy unlike other energy I’ve known. Even that first class left me vibrating spiritually (and I learned that chanting in the car isn’t conducive to cautious driving). That small taste left me hungry for more, yet I found myself a bit anxious about delving further into kirtan. The power was a bit overwhelming, and the letting go of so much thought and motion to feel the pull of the spiritual gave me pause.
And the night was a bit overwhelming at times, but quite good. The energy generated by fifty people voicing that first om ran right up my spine. I found myself mentally pulling out quite often, surveying my surroundings and returning to my mind’s wanderings, but the chant process made re-entry to a single focal point easier to begin and maintain. My mind raced as did my mouth on the thirty minute drive home. I just couldn’t stop talking, although it was a wandering talk, as I recall.
Sleep eluded me. My energy level was too high to maintain sleep, and I awoke several times during the night. Come morning, I was still wired. If anything, my sense of energy had increased from the prior night. Admittedly, downloading and listening to Cohen’s CD, Om Dattatreya Journey to the West, helped the buzz along, but some residual energy was certainly left from Saturday night. And I’m not clear how I feel about that. For me, this is intoxicating stuff, a practice I could really lose myself in (which is often a goal of meditation and chant: lose the ego and be one with the divine). However, like many, I identify strongly with my mind and the power of rational thought, although I’m also quite intuitive. Setting down the thought, the monkey mind, challenges me. Thus my somewhat conflicted feelings about my experience. It seems like too much letting go to be good, right, or even legal, at least for this rational being. On the other hand, it allowed me to pull further from constant thought, and that’s a goal I’ve had for some time.
For now, I’m delving into deeper into chant and the power it has in contepletive life and a spiritual practice. Russill Paul’s The Yoga of Sound should bring me further along of understanding the practice forms further than kirtan, and I’ll share what I find here. But now it’s time to wash my hair, knowing erasing the scent of the evening will do nothing to dampen the sound residing within me.