For many years I harbored serious qualms with organized religion. In all honesty, I still do. But when I moved to Thailand in 2010 I began to study various Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism, which has had an incredibly positive impact on my life and which helped me to view religion in a different and more positive light Yet even among the helpful practices I learned I still shunned overt displays of religiosity and specific religious subsets that advocated theism and smacked of dogma.
Suffice it to say that I certainly did not ever imagine myself writing a post extolling the benefits of an overtly religious practice such as kirtan, which is a Hindu musical ritual of religious worship, involving chanting and singing directed towards praising the Divine.
However, recently I attended a retreat with Ram Dass and Friends that helped me to reframe religious devotional practices such as chanting and singing in a new light: as an effective and efficient technique for accessing higher states of consciousness and for cultivating positive mindsets and habits.
How can a practice as overtly religious as chanting to God possibly have something to offer for religious skeptics?
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells us that bhakti (devotion) is the easiest path of yoga, by which he means union with the Divine. If we think of a hack as a shortcut or the most efficient route then a bhakti yogic technique like kirtan has much insight to offer for anyone interested in accessing expanded states of consciousness.
Yet of all the paths of yoga–jnana (knowledge), karma (service) and bhakti (devotion)–Krishna tells us that bhakti is the easiest. While the Gita is a foundational text for fervent Hindu theists it has also served as a highly valued source of wisdom to nondualist intellectuals such as the Kashmiri polymath Abhinivagupta.
Religious thought and practice in India is vast and diverse. When I first learned of Bhakti it was the path that mapped most easily onto what I knew from my own understanding of religion in the West: it emphasized devotional practices and worship of God. From my vantage point, it seemed heavy on faith and light on rationality. In other words, it was the least appealing.
The path of jnana yoga (knowledge) offered techniques like meditation for getting to the same truths but without compromising intellectual honesty about what I can honestly know or not know about the nature of reality. This approach also appealed to my preference for arriving at conclusions through rigorous study and reasoned arguments.
But this Bhakti love fest in Hawaii helped me to understand what Krishna meant when he praised the path of bhakti yoga, or devotion; I came to understand what he meant when he said that bhakti was the easiest path. I began to recognize through experience value in devotional practices such as kirtan, which involves chanting or singing praise to the Divine.
Previously, kirtan seemed like the last thing in which I was interested: overt displays of religiosity to God by another name. While the Hindu conception of the Divine certainly resonates more with me than my Protestant upbringing praising God was certainly not why I started studying Eastern religions.
Krishna Das and his crew, as well as the entire community of beautiful people who regularly attend Ram Dass’ retreats, helped me to appreciate devotion in a new way.
The Ram Dass Satsang cultivated a loving, cohesive community that accommodated a conception of the Divine with which I can find some sort of relationship: God (though still not a word that I care to use) in a non dual sense, in which one can equate “God” with consciousness or the universe or the source of all that is–rather than in a dualistic sense of a creator deity.
Thus I have come to view the most overtly religious of practices–religious chanting or singing–as a sort of consciousness hack.
I’ve come to see that chanting or singing in this context is similar to meditation or asana: it’s another technique for training the mind. Many meditation techniques teach people to keep coming back to a point of attention–the breath, a mantra, a visualized object–as a way to cultivate attention.
Similarly, in kirtan, we continually come back to familiar words–often only a few throughout a song–as an anchor for our attention. In this way, singing or chanting is a form of meditation. What makes this different is that this is meditation in motion. Of course, yoga asana is also a practice of mindfulness-based movement.
However, the combination of the chanting with the movement and the music in a group setting makes for a uniquely potent experience. If you want to reframe religious chanting here it is to all my fellow Westerners with ADHD: you get to move AND listen to music while you’re meditating. Sounds good to people constantly on the go?
Here’s another good reason: if you’re sitting all day long at a desk, it’s worth considering that you might want to find some sort of mindfulness training that encourages movement, rather than more sitting.
A key characteristic Kirtan is that it’s a collective mindfulness practice that fosters connection and community. No less an advanced meditator than the Buddha himself is purported to have said that of the three facets of his teachings the most important was the Sangha or the spiritual community.
Having heard this jewel of Buddhist wisdom before I felt I experienced it for the first time in Hawaii with Ram Dass and Friends. I came to understand one of the most important teachings from Krishna in the Gita: that the path of devotion (bhakti) is the easiest path of yoga or union with the divine.
For me, that “union with the divine” is a state that arises when the mind stills and begins to rest in a space of pure consciousness, rather than from constructing a relationship with the supernatural. In that space of internal stillness we let go of clinging to memories of the past, we’re not fretting about the future or fantasizing that things might be better under an alternative set of circumstances.
Too much of religious devotion has gravitated towards simplistic responses to this fundamental dilemma of the human condition: in the face of overwhelming fear and uncertainty around life ceasing at death, religion offers to assuage our anxiety by offering people certainty where simply none exists.
But I’ve come to appreciate that religion has much to offer, and even those elements of religion which I once shunned have value, including a tool like chanting that can refine one’s own consciousness, leaving one feeling happier and promoting greater group harmony.
So there you have it folks: the post that I never predicted that I would have written while I was reading the entire collected works of Sam Harris: religious chanting as a consciousness hack.
Ultimately, you have to pick whatever is right for you. If you’re still totally thinking “bullshit” I can empathize with your position, even though I no longer share it. Personally, I chose to test out the bhakti path not because I thought it would be a natural fit for my personality but for precisely the opposite reason: I wanted to step outside of my comfort zone.
In the process, I discovered what people often find when they finally relent and try something they’ve been resisting: that their experience is, in fact, quite different from their preconceived notions, and that much wisdom can be gained through examining a question from multiple perspectives.
As the Sufi poet, Rumi writes:
“There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground; there a thousand ways to come home.”