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Chasing The Spirit Through Song

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Growing up in Long Island, NY, and coming through the 60s, Rock and Roll was the soundtrack of my life. Music was a way of moving in to new places in my head and in the world. Friends were formed around musical tastes and I used to go to many concerts in NYC. I loved the Blues and at that time many of the old Blues masters were being rediscovered and brought up to NY to play. Music led me out of the small world in which I grew up and out into the big wide world of the social, political and spiritual changes that were exploding all around.

I wanted to be a singer in a band at that time, but I was too depressed and unstable to really get it together. I was very unhappy and was withdrawing from the world, unable to get what I wanted from life.

Then I met Ram Dass when he returned from his first trip to India and everything changed for me. Through him, I met my Guru, Neem Karoli Baba, and soon went to India to be with him. I was leaving everything behind, I thought, forever, and had no plans to return to the West. But no matter where we go, we carry the seeds of our unfulfilled desires with us, so after two and a half years, my Guru sent me back to West, saying that I had attachment there. When I asked him what I should do in the West he told me, "Do what you want."

This eventually led me to chanting with people, and it has evolved into a full-time life experience. Traditionally, devotional music has two aspects. One is the simple repetition of the Name. This practice has the innate power to bring us into a deeper place in our own hearts, into a deeper awareness, beyond emotion or conceptual thought. It is said that through the constant repetition of the Name, gradually but inevitably, the Presence that lives within us, the core of our own True Being, is uncovered and revealed. This is the essence of Bhakti, or devotional, Yoga.

The second type of devotional practice involves the use of conceptual thought to create an atmosphere in which the remembrance of the Name can truly blossom. Reading of Holy books and sacred texts can help us develop a better sense of direction; to open new pathways into our hearts.

When I first began to chant with people, I sang the melodies I had heard and learned in India. As time went on I began to come up with new melodies for the chants that reflected more deeply my personal musical history. I never studied Indian Music, which is a complete musical and spiritual practice, with very specific rules about what can be sung and how, so I had no restrictions on how I could sing. It seems to me that the deeper the chants got in me, the more they began to take a shape in a way that was more natural to my Western incarnation.

When I was just beginning to get into spiritual stuff, I read the Ramacharitamansa of Tulsi Das. This is a devotional retelling of the Ramayana. The story would be going along, 'horizontally' so to speak, when someone would look at Rama and begin to trip out on his beauty. The next two pages would be totally 'vertical', shooting up into space, as the person would go into bliss describing the incredible qualities of Rama. Reading these devotional outbursts totally rewired my brain. The circuitry for this love just didn't exist in my head before this.

This type of practice can be found in all spiritual traditions. Gospel music and Sufi poetry are two examples. In India songs called Bhajans are composed describing this intense love of God. These songs help keep the mind focused on the deeper reality.

So what about here in the West? Many of us just want to do our practice and "get off." Most of us find a lot of difficulty bringing the peace and joy we get from chanting into our daily lives. We can't extend those feelings to the so-called "Real" world. I think this is because we have not been brought up to love ourselves. My parents didn't love themselves, so how could they show me how to love myself? We might be able to touch the "Loving Presence" when we chant, but we lose it when we "live". This is because of the way our minds work. We keep reacting the same way to the same situations, over and over again. "We" have learned to hide behind the wall of "me," and we will only let love in under very specific circumstances.

This is what ultimately led to my new CD, "Heart As Wide As the World". This, my 12th CD, is on one hand, a departure from my previous recordings and on the other, a natural evolution. Why? Because there is a lot more English on this CD than there is on my earlier ones.

A few years ago, I was chanting on Maui. A friend of mine who is a musician came to chant for the first time. Afterwards he came up and said, "We gotta do a garage band recording of these chants." When he said that I realized that what I was hearing in my head when I chanted was just that: Rock and Roll arrangements of the chants.

David Nichtern, who produced "Heart as Wide," wanted to be able to do a lot of overdubs, so we decided to record in a studio so we could have that kind of control.

There was another issue: I was afraid that might lose the devotional feeling of chanting in the Rock format. But it was David who pushed me and pulled me and encouraged me to go on and do it the way I wanted.

Until recently I have had tremendous resistance to singing devotional songs in English. I just couldn't find a way to do it. Maybe I feel exposed in a different way than when I am chanting in another language. English has been, historically, the language of my suffering and unhappiness. It is easy for me to sing in Hindi or Sanskrit, but expressing the love in English is hard for me. I feel so exposed and vulnerable. I am still being pushed around by the negative emotions that I have suffered with in my life. The positive, lighter emotions have a hard time puncturing the hard shell around my heart.

I have been chanting for 40 years and it is only now that I am beginning to feel strong enough to allow myself to express that love in English. It's as if the circle is finally being completed. All the years of chanting have purified my heart enough to be able to stand on both feet.

Also chanting the Name takes you beyond thoughts and emotions, so why would I use a language composed of concepts and limited thought forms in a chant. The answer is that I didn't for along time. But after writing a book this year, "Chants of A Lifetime," I was feeling a lot more comfortable with using English as a way of opening up to and intensifying the devotional experience. I think it also has a lot to do with the fact that I am a lot more comfortable with being myself as I am ... and a large part of this is the result of Chanting. So a lot of English just seemed to come though around these chants. "For your Love" just came out in soundcheck one day. The others took a little coaxing from within.

Westerners who do practices from "Eastern" traditions tend to try to create a persona around that practice. "I'm a Yogi" "I'm a Chanter" etc., but it's not like that. We are always who we are. We are not what we do. These practices will give us the strength to love totally and completely -- to offer ourselves to Love wholeheartedly and sincerely. But we have to let them work in our psychological and emotional bodies, to create pathways for the love to flow to our own hearts. If we don't love ourselves, who can we love? How can we love?

We need to find a way to bring more loving thoughts into our daily life. We need to find a method for bringing more light into the dark corners of our hearts.

Layering traditional Hindu kirtan with instantly accessible melodies and modern instrumentation, Krishna Das has been called yoga's "rock star." Krishna Das - known to friends, family, and fans as simply KD - has taken the call-and-response chanting out of yoga centers and into concert halls, becoming a worldwide icon and the best-selling chant artist of all time, with over 300,000 records sold. His first studio recording in a decade is "HEART AS WIDE AS THE WORLD".