For years I've wanted to create t-shirts with the words "Thinking Kills Kirtan" emblazoned across the front. The phrase came out of our Level 2 (Learn to Share Kirtan with Others) group intensives we ran multiple times per year in Boulder prior to Covid, and hope to run again someday soon. And, it's applicable for each of the levels in our school.
How Thinking Kills Kirtan (and the Remedy), for Level 2 Students
John, an intensive participant from the East Coast, was rehearsing a chant with our percussion instructor and a pair of response singers. The air was thick with urgency as this was practice and preparation for a Kirtan event we would hold the following evening where each participant would lead a chant with our drummer, response singers, a professional sound system, and a real life audience! What I was sharing with him was not just interesting information, but highly relevant guidance that would help him successfully navigate through his chant the following evening, and avoid "crashing and burning!"
John was trying to coordinate with the drummer and response singers while navigating his right hand (chords), left hand (pumping the harmonium), and singing melodies and lyrics... all at the same time. That's a lot! What was getting in his way was that he was ALSO trying to think at the same time. John was attempting to lead a chant that he'd recently learned, and the vast majority of his attention was going towards navigating the fingers and notes required to keep the chords going. Given that he'd not yet embodied the chords (defined by the ability to play the chords in perfect time while holding a conversation), he was trying to think about what to play, and when, in real time.
The remedy? I invited John to surrender the notion of playing this new (and technically complicated) chant, and to lead a chant he was very familiar with. He shifted to the first one he'd learned - Om Shanti Om - and for which the chords were embodied. Immediately he was able to shift the majority of his attention from his right hand (chords) to HOW he was playing the chant, and whether or not that was clear to his band. John was able to stop thinking, so Kirtan started happening.
John was not an outlier. In our Level 2 programs a good majority of the students find themselves in the position of having their thinking getting in the way of "making" Kirtan. Overcoming this pitfall is one of the big benefits students gain by participating in this program.
How Thinking Kills Kirtan (and the Remedy), for Level 1 Students
There are several ways thinking kills Kirtan when students begin to learn chants. Here are a few...
1. Michelle arrived at our Level 1 class having purchased a harmonium several years earlier. Unfortunately, the training she engaged with required that she learn chants using the Sargam (Indian Classical Music) system of musical notation. The training program put learning to read music in this way (which is confusing) as a necessary pre-condition for learning chants. Trying to navigate her way through these systems put her in her head, generated frustration, and prevented Michelle from dropping deeper. The remedy? Dropping these frustrating learning systems and stepping into our super user friendly ran Kirtan learning system.
2. Though our Kirtan learning system is super user friendly (and doesn't require students to learn to read/understanding Western music or Sargam), a percentage of students get "wedded" to the chant sheet, and fail to drop deeper into their hearts. Diane was a successful lawyer who gained great praise and achievement by using her intellect to "figure things out." While she was drawn to Kirtan precisely because she wished to put her intellect down, she found herself leaning on her head center when trying to "figure out" the chant. What's the remedy?
Diane was an extreme example. And yet, many students need guidance to drop the chant from their head center to their heart center, where the good stuff lives. Once she was able to drop into her heart, an emotional connection to the mantra and energy emerged for Diane, and she was finally able to "taste" the essence of the chant.
3. Anyone with whom I've spent time has heard me talk about the Three Centers of Intelligence - our head, heart and body. Above we discussed how to move from our head to our heart center with our chants. We can continue to deepen by really "burning the chant" into our body and nervous system. One great way this happens is by sharing the chant with others. Doing so feels "really real." Since we don't want to "crash and burn" in front of others, we typically spend enough time practicing to get to the point where we don't have to think while playing the chant. We can drop in, relax, go deeper... and really experience the chant at a deep energetic and spiritual level. Doing multiple repetitions of the chant helps, as does sharing with others. There's something about doing chants WITH others that drives them deeper into our body. At a certain point we may feel like THE CHANT is chanting and playing us (on the harmonium). We may describe this third level as (i) being in the flow, (ii) being chanted, (iii) experiencing the essence of the mantra and (iv) being with the energy of Quality of Presence for the mantra (i.e. Unconditional Love for the Lalita Invocation).
It takes time and practice, but we can move a new chant from our head, to our heart, and even deeper into our body. At this point, we can truly relax and enjoy the energy of the mantra. This is where Kirtan truly happens!