I often feel a little silly talking about the heart. Not the muscle, but the idea that we each have a spirit that we can feel at the center of our chest. That we are each a fountain of emotions which connect us to each other. I feel silly because my head doesn’t want to come across like a New Age goofball, but then again, I am a vegetarian yoga teacher living in Vermont, so it’s probably too late.
On that note, last week I went to the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York with my friend Ellen for a daylong workshop called “Ecstatic Chant: The Yoga of Voice.” It was her idea, but I was game even though I had no idea what to expect. Would we chant for the full eight hours of the workshop? Would we enter a different plane of existence? Would we be too blissed out to come home?
Ellen brought throat lozenges along just in case.
By Labor Day weekend, a whole summer’s worth of New Age goofballs had been hanging out at the Omega campus, which is basically summer camp for adults interested in things like meditation, creative expression, yoga, and “Healing Through Mediumship,” which yes, does refer to psychic mediumship. As Ellen and I passed through the grounds, we saw people wearing Indian-style clothing in the flower gardens. For lunch in the dining hall, instead of my usual fretting over finding a healthy option, I could simply enjoy some gingered tofu and greens. I even got brown rice for no extra charge. Already I felt more relaxed and at ease. Even though I had some pressing emails, I decided not to sneak them in before our chanting session.
The first chanters were Deva Premal and Miten, a duo I’d honestly never gotten into. I’d heard recordings of Deva and disliked how she lived up to her name by turning Sanskrit chants into New Age operatic events. Live, however, I was charmed by the pair’s stage patter. Miten, a good-natured Aussie who looked like he’d spent the past 40 years at the beach, cracked jokes about Deva’s German tendency to dominate him, to which she responded with dry, self-deprecating commentary of her own.
But mostly I liked them because after the first Sanskrit chant, they had us close our eyes and meditate on the music. And thank God, because I needed to get out of my head. The night before, I’d been so frazzled by emailing and scheduling that I barely slept. And then when Ellen came to pick me up that morning, I realized that I’d misplaced my expensive watch. I was so tweaked out that I couldn’t even appreciate the symbolism in losing my watch on my way to a retreat. (The watch, by the way, has been recovered.) I know people see yoga teachers as relaxed, peaceful people, but frankly, I need yoga more than anyone, especially if I want to appear relaxed and peaceful. Without yoga, I can be a downright nutcase.
So to just sit with closed eyes and listen to music was welcome. I was surprised by the good musicianship of their band, with two guitars, two keyboards, a percussionist, and a flute, which really supplemented the chanting. I should specify that, like most Westerners, Deva & Miten’s “chanting” was actually “singing,” so “repetitive singing” would be a better descriptor of what we were dong. At any rate, to chant or to sing is to leave the domain of the mind and enter the realm of the heart. This can be easier to do when one’s mind doesn’t recognize the words, as when we chant Sanskrit, but even Deva & Miten’s English lyrics were lovely enough to stir the heart. They did a chant with this quote from the poet Kabir:
Draw near, draw near
And I will whisper in your ear
The name which makes the spheres to dance
Also, there were nearly 300 of us singing these words together, giving them the extra power of our combined energy. The band ended the “meditation” with getting us up on our feet to dance to a reggae number, way more fun than the ten-hour days of silent seated meditation I’d done at my last retreat in the spring.
They proved to be a tough act to follow, and indeed, the next presenter, a man named Radanath Swami, chanted more like what I’d heard in India—flat and low. He also looked the part, with a shaved head and yellow robes. To his credit, he made a joke about his croaky singing. His strength was in the talk he gave us, reminding us that we are spiritual beings. And as spiritual beings, it is our duty to put people first, but we forget as we live in our material world. We forget to the point where we use people to help us get more things instead of using our things to help us connect with people. He noted how many of us seek distractions from our spiritual nature, and these distractions just make us crave more distractions.
It hit home. During those ten-hour days of meditation in the spring, I’d witnessed how much my mind loves to generate distractions for myself, how I am nearly always thinking about the next thing I will do instead of observing the thing I am presently doing. (Even as I type this, I can tell you that when I’m done, I plan to clean out my car and then freeze some corn.)
Perhaps I want to distract myself from my spiritual nature because I’m embarrassed by it, because I still equate “spiritual” with Bible-beating Christian or, ahem, New Age goofball. Or maybe I expect too much from my “spiritual” self, thinking I have to give all my money away or spend all day feeding the poor. What if being “spiritual” is just being aware of our own spirit, the part of us that delights to hear a bird sing or to feel a breeze on the skin? Yes, this spirit wants to love others and do good, but first it might just need to take a breath. And this spirit need not have anything to do with either a vengeful Christian God or with tofu and brown rice.
On our break, Ellen and I got situated in our cabin and had dinner at a picnic table outside the dining hall. We were sharing stories about our lives over our pizza and salads on that muggy evening, and dawdled when it was time to go back to the chanting hall. When we got there, we saw the group watching a large television screen displaying a live video feed of Ram Das from his home in Hawaii. (Back in the 70s, Ram Das authored a famous book called Be Here Now and is still revered as a spiritual teacher.) Instead of heading right in, we took a detour and got some ice cream from the café.
Fortunately, our sugar craving didn’t keep us from missing much. Having suffered a stroke, Ram Das now speaks with long pauses between his thoughts. Each of his grand pauses seemed to contain a lifetime of deep thought. So Ram Das was still on the screen when we returned, having a dialogue with Krishna Das, another luminary on the chanting scene, who was seated alone on the stage. From the patient way Krishna Das sat through the pauses, it was evident that the two men had a deep connection, and in fact, they had been in India together in the 60s, spending time with their shared guru, Neem Karoli Baba. (Ram Das told a slow story about being in India with a group and having to decide between driving to town for ice cream and driving to the place where holy men gathered. Unlike us, they chose the holy men.)
“We spend,” Ram Das said, “too much time in our ego,” referring to our limited being of self-focused desires and concerns. “We need,” he paused, “to focus on our soul.”
Back to the idea of nourishing our spiritual self. But this time, we got some visuals to work with. Ram Das tapped his forehead. “Ego,” he said, “is here.”
Then he tapped his heart. “Soul,” he said, “is here.”
“To go,” he said, “from the ego to the soul,” and paused, " you can say this." And a pause. Then: “I am loving awareness.”
He said it again: “I am loving awareness.”
And again: “I am loving awareness.”
As he continued to say it, gradually most all of us in the room of 300 people said it aloud with him: “I am loving awareness.”
I am loving awareness.
Ram Das then spoke about how one can transcend to a state where she or he sees everything as love: trees are love, a stream is love, other people around us are love. It was the sappy sort of thing I tend to dismiss, but later it came in handy. We’d begun chanting again, a more mellow set with Jai Uttal, another chanter famous in the West, when I heard two young people in their late teens near me talking to each other and playing on their phones instead of singing with the rest of us. My mind, my ego, got annoyed, as it usually does with distracting people. But then I decided to play with the idea that everything is love. Instead of labeling these two chatty texters as assholes, I decided to see them as love. And it helped. It occurred to me that they probably weren’t there voluntarily and were doing what they needed to avoid the suffering of boredom. Because hell, eight hours of chanting and lectures about love can make for a long day.
Krishna Das came back for the final set. His band, which included Krishna on harmonium, a keyboardist, a guitarist, a violin, and two percussionists along with a tabla player, rocked. The highlight may have been when he mixed in the Foreigner riff—I wanna know what love is. I know you can show me—with Sanskrit verse. And by the end, he got three hundred people singing at top capacity—even the texters—and Ellen and I up dancing with the people in the back, twirling and whirling and raising our arms in ecstatic love. Minds gone. Spirits bursting. Energized so high that sleep came late, even though we finished at 1 am.
Over a week later, the buzz has worn off, but I hold these lessons close. My “to-do” list now has two columns: one for mind/ego and one for heart/soul, so that I remember to structure my days to nourish both.