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Chants of a Lifetime offers an intimate collection of stories, teachings, and insights from Krishna Das, who has been called “the chant master of American yoga” by the New York Times. Since 1994, the sound of his voice singing traditional Indian chants with a Western flavor has brought the spiritual experience of chanting to audiences all over the world. He has previously shared some of his spiritual journey through talks and workshops, but now he offers a unique book-and-CD combination that explores his ...
Chants of a Lifetime offers an intimate collection of stories, teachings, and insights from Krishna Das, who has been called “the chant master of American yoga” by the New York Times. Since 1994, the sound of his voice singing traditional Indian chants with a Western flavor has brought the spiritual experience of chanting to audiences all over the world. He has previously shared some of his spiritual journey through talks and workshops, but now he offers a unique book-and-CD combination that explores his fascinating path and creates an opportunity for just about anyone to experience chanting in a unique and special way.
Chants of a Lifetime includes photos from Krishna Das’s years in India and also from his life as a kirtan leader—and the CD that is offered exclusively in the book consists of a number of “private” chanting sessions with the author. Instead of just being performances of chants for listening, the recordings make it seem as if Krishna Das himself is present for a one-on-one chanting session. The idea is for the listener to explore his or her own practice of chanting and develop a deepening connection with the entire chanting experience.
Chanting brings me into the space of love within, which to me is my guru, Neem Karoli Baba. From the outside, he was a little old man wrapped in a blanket in whose presence I felt unconditionally loved. On the inside, there was (and is) nothing in him that wasn't love. I have to talk about my guru because everything I have that is of true, lasting value comes from my relationship with him. I'm not trying to sell him to you. There is no group to join; we already joined it. It's called "the human race." Maharaj-ji, who was beyond any sectarian beliefs, said over and over again that we're all part of one family and that the same blood runs through our veins.
"Guru" is a hard concept for most Westerners to grasp, but very simply, the guru is whoever or whatever removes the darkness from our being. For me, the guru is love-the space I enter when I chant. That space can be called anything: God, soul, presence, vastness, awareness. To me, it is guru.
The guru is the living presence in our own hearts. That presence and love might show up in our lives in different ways. Whenever it does show up, it is very powerful, because for a moment we see a flash of our ownbeauty. We see ourselves through the eyes of love. Whenever Maharaj-ji looked at me, I would have to look down; I couldn't bear that much love. Now I look for his eyes everywhere. For me, even after he left his body, he lives as the loving, vast, all-embracing presence in which everything exists. He is the all-encompassing sky that holds the earth, the stars, the clouds, and the pollution. There's no place outside of Maharaj-ji for me.
You could call this presence God, too, but the bottom line is that I don't really relate to that word. It kind of tenses me up. Growing up in the West, "God" was always something outside of me, something distant and fierce. I could never relate to what people called "God." In Hindi and Sanskrit, there are a million names of God, and they all mean God. But they're softer and sweeter, and they embody different qualities of love and give our hearts room to embrace and be embraced in many different ways.
Even so, it's not about the concept of God for me. The path is about love; it's about being connected, feeling that presence, and being in that love. That's the place I sing to. And that place is always here because it's not outside-it's inside. So all I have to do is remember to look for it and move into it.
Making the Connection
Many of us who came of age in the '60s wanted to change the world, a task that was not as easy as we then dreamed it might be. Instead, we found that we had to change ourselves first.
The Vietnam War was going on during the years before I went to India, and my life could have been very different. After I'd quit college for the second time, I was drafted. I'd been going to see a shrink because I was depressed and had been on and off antidepressants. The psychiatrist wrote a note for me to take to the draft board-I figured that they wouldn't want me, but I still had to go to the intake center so that the Army could test me. The protocol was that first you peed into a cup, and then you had a hearing test. I sat across from a tester who handed me a pair of headphones and said, "When you hear a sound, raise your hand and touch the earpiece that the sound is in. Then lower your hand when it stops. Do it again and again as you hear the sounds." I put on the headphones and closed my eyes. Almost immediately
I heard a sound in my left ear and touched that ear. It ended and I brought my hand down. Then I heard a sound in my right ear. I touched that ear. Before that sound ended, I heard a sound in my left ear, so I touched that one as well. Then I heard more sounds. So I was raising and lowering my hands pretty quickly. It was hard to keep up. Then I glanced over at the guy, and he was just sitting there staring at me. He hadn't even started the test! He looked through my paperwork, saw the note from the shrink, and that was that. The Army rejected me.
The message was clear: "We're not going to let you kill anyone-you're crazy."
I don't know if I was in fact crazy, but I'd always been searching for a way out of my life as it had been going so far. I had my first powerful experience of a way out in the summer before my senior year in high school, when a friend and I took peyote together. As the drug began to take effect, I looked around and thought, Oh my God. Now I understand. This is the way it is. Everything became perfectly clear; and I saw that my closed-up, hard, cranky, neurotic, depressed state was totally unnecessary, totally wrong. I was filled with bliss. Of course, I was also driving around with "one hand waving free" and my head in the sky and almost drove into the pond by the library! Although the lights went out again at the end of the trip, I'd seen something that I could never forget. The problem then became: How can I get back there?
At the beginning of my sophomore year in college, I scored ten capsules of very pure LSD. I split the first one, which was 1,000 micrograms, with a friend, and took the next nine by myself. As the chemical took effect, I'd be propelled immediately into the world of "play." It was like being a kid again and not having a worry in the world. The heaviness of my personality was gone, replaced by a lightness of being that I had never known.
On one trip I was lying in my bed, totally lost in blissful visions, when far out in the distance (the inner distance) I felt something coming toward me from the horizon. Even though I couldn't see anything, the feeling kept getting stronger. Then I saw it coming-like a wave, ready to crash over me: A thought! Oh noooooooo! Then I was thinking again. After a while I felt the thoughts slipping away from me. Oh no! Don't go! Then thinking left me and I was back in bliss. After some time, I felt something coming toward me again from the distance. Oh no! Crash! I was thinking again. This kept happening faster and faster until the space between thoughts had completely disappeared and I was just a flow of thoughts-"myself" again.
Okay, so maybe I am a little crazy!
Who "I" was began to change. When I took that first tab of acid, I was in college and going to classes. I had a job and played on the basketball team. By the time I took the tenth tab, I was living alone in the mountains of Pennsylvania, taking care of a broken-down farm with two dogs, a cat, two goats, and a horse, with no human beings in sight. There really was nothing to do up at the farm except sit around and make sure that the coal furnace didn't go out. If it did, I'd freeze for 24 hours until the house got warm again. Being up there on my own taught me a lot. And it was an incredibly beautiful setting. Every evening I'd wrap myself in a warm blanket, sit in a rocking chair on the porch with my feet up on the railing, and watch the sun set over the mountains. Although I was fragmented from the drugs and all of the stuff that had been going on in my life, out there on the farm, the pieces slowly started coming back together.
Late at night, when the local airwaves quieted down, I could tune in to WNEW from New York City on my little transistor radio and listen to rock 'n' roll all night long. It was the winter of 1967-68, and Scott Muni and a few other DJs were starting to play "album rock." It was a wonderful time. Although I was lonely and unhappy, I was safe. People made me crazy; I couldn't handle being around too many of them. I felt exposed and fragile. I couldn't stand anyone wanting anything from me. Up on the farm, I felt free of those worries and free of the burden of having to be anybody for anyone. I read Autobiography of a Yogi and let my hair grow.
The next fall I transferred to the State University of New York (SUNY) New Paltz because I'd decided to study Indian philosophy at the new Asian Studies Institute there. But when I met the director of the program, I was so disappointed and disillusioned by his manner that I quit right away. He'd rudely dismissed all of my spiritual interests, naïve as they were, so I was once again lost with no direction. I started driving a school bus for the local junior- and senior-high-school kids. They called me the hippie bus driver and we had a great time, but otherwise I was experiencing a deep depression. Then my girlfriend slept with a friend of hers who was going off to become a monk in some religious sect, and I sank into a really deep hole.
In the winter of 1968, the two Jungian acidhead mountain climbers who owned the farm that I was living on heard that Richard Alpert had recently returned from India with the name Ram Dass, meaning "servant of God." Ram Dass had been a Harvard psychology professor and, along with Timothy Leary, had been fired for experimenting with LSD with his students. He'd gone to India and met Maharaj-ji, which completely changed his whole life. Ram Dass was now living on his father's estate in New Hampshire, and my friends were going up to see him. They asked me if I wanted to come along, but I said that I wasn't interested in meeting any American yogis. I only wanted the real thing.
Off they went. They were supposed to come back the following day, but they didn't come back for three days. I remember the moment they returned. I had just finished milking the two goats-Alice Bailey and Madame Blavatsky-when I saw their old green Jaguar sedan making its way across the dirt road that cut through the field in front of the house. The car pulled around and one of my friends got out, and I swear that light was shooting out of him. He gave me a look of total, insane, wild joy. As I ran back to my house to get my stuff, I yelled, "Write down the directions. I'm leaving now!"
There was no thought involved; it was a total hit. I drove straight up to New Hampshire, taking all night because my old Volvo wouldn't go very fast. It was windy and snowing, and it was so cold that the heater wouldn't even work. There was a hole in the muffler, so the car was really loud, too. Finally, in the morning I pulled up into a beautiful long driveway surrounded by snow-covered woods and turned off the engine. I stepped out of the car into complete silence. My heart literally skipped a beat, as if it had been touched by an unseen hand.
I walked up to the house and knocked. A guy with a big beard opened the door with a funny grin on his face. He smiled and pointed up the stairs. I thought, Ah hell, this place is too weird. I should get outta here. But I walked up the stairs and into the room where Ram Dass was sitting on a mattress on the floor. He was dressed in a long white robe and was wearing lots of beads. The moment I walked into the room, something happened inside of me. Immediately, instantly, without a word being spoken, I knew that whatever it was I was looking for-and I didn't know what it was-was absolutely real. In every molecule of my being, I knew that it existed in the world and that it could be found. I didn't know if I could find it, but this moment changed my life.
Up until then, everything I knew about spiritual life came from books. I'd read The Gospel of Ramakrishna, Zen and Japanese Culture, and Autobiography of a Yogi and hung on their every word, yet in my heart I didn't know if what I was reading was really true. After all, they were only books. I was doing hatha yoga and trying to meditate, but walking into the room with Ram Dass made what I'd read real. Without a doubt, my heart knew that there was something to live for.
He motioned for me to sit down in front of him and said, "We're going to play a game."
"Oh?" I replied. What I was really thinking was, Uh-oh.
"We're going to look in each other's eyes." (Oooohhhh?) "Anything that comes to mind that you don't want to say ... say."
We sat for about five or six hours, staring into each other's eyes. I'd never done that with anyone, and it was a very powerful experience. Of course, I didn't say the real stuff I didn't want to say, but I did become very aware of it. At some point, Ram Dass gave me a mantra to repeat. Then he looked at his watch and noted, "It's time to get ready for supper. If you'd like to stay, you can stay. Otherwise, if you're going to go, you should go now."
I said, "Thank you," and thought I am gone! I had to get back home to drive the school bus. I knew that I was going to have to drive the entire night to make it back in time to pick the kids up. So I answered, "Unfortunately, I've got to go."
"You're going to go? Well, don't worry, your mantra will protect you." Hmm. Another weird thing he said. This whole thing is weird.
I got in my car and started driving. I hadn't slept at all the night before, and after about an hour, I got so tired that I couldn't keep my eyes open. I pulled over to the side of the road and took out my old Baby Ben alarm clock. I wound it, set it, put it on the dashboard, leaned back in the driver's seat, and went to sleep. The next thing I knew, I woke up. I had no idea where I was or what I was doing. All of sudden I realized, Oh shit! I'm driving! I'd woken up to realize that I was driving down the right side of the road, not going too fast. The next thought that came into my head was: Your mantra will protect you. I screamed that mantra every inch of the road back down to New York.
A new life was beginning.
For a brief moment, the lights had come on again and I'd seen that there was a way, a path ... that it was real. It made my longing for that a million times more intense. It also got me more depressed because now I knew that it existed and that I didn't have it. My life got better ... and it got worse. It got better because I understood that what I was seeking was real. It got worse because I knew that I had to find it and didn't know how to do that.
All I knew was that Ram Dass had it, and I wanted it.
A Dream Come True
I finally had something to live for. I'd found there was a path that existed in the world. It existed right here, where I was. Although I didn't know it at the time, my whole way of living began to change.
After meeting Ram Dass, I kept going back to New Hampshire to see him. I wanted to be with him as often as possible because what I felt when I was with him was something I'd never felt before. I was very scared that I'd lose this new connection, so nothing was going to stop me from getting up to his place. Nothing. This was one time when my stubbornness was a really useful quality.
That spring of 1969, Ram Dass came down to New York and did two weeks in a row of nighttime gatherings at a place called the Sculpture Studio on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Every day after dropping the school bus off, I'd get into my car and speed down to the city. I'd walk in as Ram Dass was beginning to sing some Indian song, accompanying himself on an Indian instrument. The room would be full; the only place to sit tended to be right up front, at the side of the stage. I'd sit with my back against the wall and immediately check out, going completely unconscious. After two or three hours of silence and talking-of which I didn't hear one single word-he'd begin to sing again as the gathering ended, and I'd wake up. This happened every night without fail. By the end of that two-week period, I felt like my insides had been completely rewired.
Excerpted from Chants of a Lifetime by Krishna Das Copyright © 2010 by Krishna Das. Excerpted by permission.
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