This article first appeared in Nova Holistic Journal.
I can’t remember exactly how I ended up at Govinda’s in Darlinghurst, Sydney one Sunday evening in 2014 for their Sacred Sound Meditation. But looking back, it was one of those events that changes your whole life. About a year later I opened a book the Hare Krishnas had handed me in the street. It had been sitting quietly unopened in my bookshelf for a long time. Out fell a flyer for Sacred Sound Meditation. A shiver went up my spine.
Three years on I can say it’s truly a part of my life and I still find it magical to reflect on how that Sunday night, seemingly like any other, was the start of something life changing.
Sacred Sound Meditation, also known as Kirtan, is a yogic practice which involves call and response chanting of Sanskrit mantras.
When I talk to people in the general population about kirtan, I usually refer to it as meditation rather than chanting because many people have a negative connotation to the word “chanting” as if we sit there like robots or something.
Although the words themselves are considered sacred, it’s not really the meaning of the words, but the sounds themselves that are considered sacred vibrations, just as the sound Om is said to be the original and sacred sound that created the Universe.
In the West, kirtan has been made popular by the Hare Krishnas, who we recognise all over the world, singing joyously in the streets in their orange robes, accompanied by the clanging of bells and drums. Today, there are kirtan groups all over Australia, gathering in private homes, yoga centres and makeshift sanghas to meditate and lift their voices and hearts in gratitude, joy and love.
Just as singing kirtan is vibrational, I can say that the impact of kirtan in my life has also been vibrational. But it didn’t happen instantaneously. At first I had some uncomfortable feelings of guilt and resistance, as if I was betraying my birth faith. It took me a while to let go of the old and welcome the new into my life without these feelings of guilt.
Thanks to kirtan I have had a complete shift when it comes to stress. It’s as if the mantras have re-coded my DNA so that I’m incapable of tuning into that frequency anymore. I know, that’s a big call.
Every time I go to kirtan, I fill a reservoir of calm and tranquillity inside me that I can draw on day to day.
I also find that singing the mantras by myself has a reinforcing effect. For those of us who have trouble with sitting meditation, this is such a good option. For me, it’s the combination of beautiful voices, talented musicians and the collective vibration of the group that creates the beautiful soul-replenishing experience of kirtan.
But it’s not just stress relief. It really has been like a love affair.
It has made my heart centre warm and full, it has made me shed tears, and it has brought me to states of pure joy and ecstasy. It has brought me closer than anything else, to the Source within and without. There’s a reason why it’s been called the fast track to God. And the slogans like “chant and be happy” are simply true. That has been my experience.
In the kirtan community there are some well known kirtan artists including Krishna Das and Dave Stringer in the US and Kevin James here in Australia. If you haven’t heard of kirtan, google them to get a taste. Last year I attended Deva Premal and Miten’s ecstatic chant retreat in Mullumbimby, three days of uplifting and soul replenishing kirtan. Deva’s voice is divine.
I have also recently participated in the self development program Path of Love. Although kirtanisn’t part of the program, it is a celebration of love, movement and joy and at one point I found myself singing a mantra in front of the whole group. I was nervous, in the way you are nervous when you know you’re doing something you were born to do and you’re actually doing it. It was a pivotal moment for me when I realised that the joy and love I felt in singing was being transferred and felt by those listening. Just as Buddha said there is no doer, in kirtan, there is no singer. There is only the collective vibration created by the group.
It gave me a profound insight into why we shouldn’t dodge our gifts in fear or modesty.
That’s why we have those gifts in the first place! So we can share the love.
And so the natural progression for me has been to learn how to lead kirtan. I am learning to play the harmonium, one of the main kirtan accompanying instruments.As my teacher has said, it’s not about performing, but about harnessing the energy and emotion so that the whole group is uplifted by that energy and emotion. It takes a lot of personal pressure away when you see it this way. And last night I got up there and led my first kirtan! I was surprisingly calm, and felt full of buzzing energy as I sat back down in the group again at the end. The feeling of having done it was incredible. It’s such a beautiful environment to allow yourself to be vulnerable, knowing you won’t be judged. And now that I’ve broken the ice, I feel ready to do it again!
If you want to be uplifted in a new way and you’re curious about sacred sound meditation, find a group and go along. Search for kirtan in Facebook and you’ll find a group near you. They are always open, welcoming and inclusive gatherings. Who knows, it could become one of those life changing moments for you too.