Chant Tales I: “Canti, Bambini!”

Saranya and Navashen chant at a kirtan in the courtyard of the Mountain View, CA Ananda Community.

I wrote this article to help those who might be similarly challenged with chanting; but I also wrote it to share a truth that has become increasingly clear to me in my 56 years as a writer and observer: that there are as many spiritual paths as there are people; that the principles are the same for us all, but our expression of them is unique, and that God is very creative in the way He will use any and all available tools to help us.

How can we open our hearts in devotion to God by chanting? Perhaps we can orient ourselves in the right direction by pondering the attitudes of the heart that bring us most reliably into inner communion with God.

Paramhansa Yogananda said that the most important qualities on the spiritual path are “devotion, and deep sincerity.” Chanting can help us develop those qualities.

Where is the deepest, most sincere part of the heart? In what condition of the heart is devotion most powerfully felt, and most readily accepted by the Divine?

In the final years of his life, Swami Kriyananda talked of the need on the spiritual path for “childlike devotion” and “humble service.” A friend once gave Swamiji a small statue of a little boy kneeling in prayer. Someone remarked about the figurine, “Well, that’s kind of kitschy!” Swami answered in his calm, inwardly detached way: “That’s how I feel when I pray to Divine Mother.”

What kind of chanting will take us into an attitude of childlike devotion? The innermost, pure feelings of the heart are sincere. Those deepest, innermost feelings are tender, soft, and receptive. They are the feelings a small child has for its mother. How can we get there, now that we are grown-up, sophisticated, logical-rational, big-boned Western cowboys and cowgals? Perhaps we can take a hint from cultures where devotion is widely practiced, and where it has been pressed into the soil, century after century.

Here in the West, the culture that most readily springs to mind is Italy. In a talk that he gave in the 1980s, Swami Kriyananda observed that Italians have a gift for deep feeling, which they most often express in outwardly exuberant ways, but which, he said, if they can turn it toward God, enables them to advance quickly on the path. Swamiji noted that Italy is the country in the West where there have been the most saints.

He pointed to the many popular American singers with Italian roots. (Just for fun, here’s a list of 110 of them. Lest their numbers overwhelm, I’ve highlighted some of the better-known names.)

ITALIAN-AMERICAN-SINGERS (PDF)

Swamiji laughed, “I don’t know what kind of heart Frank Sinatra had – but he did sing with heart!” I remember being so intrigued that I bought an album of Sinatra’s earliest hits, and how amazed I was by the sheer amount of romantic feeling he managed to pack into a song. I thought, “No wonder he had young women swooning in the aisles!” We hardly ever hear that kind of feeling in pop songs today, and maybe it’s a shame, because as Swami added, if we haven’t got any feeling in our hearts, we have nothing to be proud of.

When Paramhansa Yogananda was chanting with Dr. M. W. Lewis, his first disciple in America, he urged him, “Whip up feeling in the heart, Doctor!”

Swamiji remarked, “That’s emotion, isn’t it?” Surely the message is that when we sing to God, we need to kick-start our efforts by summoning real feeling, even if it’s of an emotional kind, so that we can turn those feelings toward devotion.

When I was in SRF, one of the monks who regularly gave Sunday services at our little Redondo Beach church was Brahmachari Daniel. (Dan Hart remained a staunch friend of Swamiji’s and Ananda’s to the end of his days.) I remember Dan telling us how he was strolling on the grounds at Mt. Washington, happily whistling a popular tune, when he caught sight of an elderly nun at an office window, whereupon he hastily cheesed the whistling.

The nun stuck her head out the window and called, “Come here – I want to talk to you!” Dan duly climbed the stairs to the office, feeling sheepish.

The nun said, “That wasn’t Master’s way! You can take a popular song and spiritualize it, if it speaks to the aspiration of your heart!” (I suspect it might have been Durga Mata.)

In the early years of Ananda, probably in 1976, I asked Swamiji how I could get more devotion. He didn’t hesitate – he said, “You should chant!”

I had tried chanting and hadn’t been able to go deep in the practice. So I said, “I don’t think I’m a chanter by nature, Swamiji.” To which he replied, “Well, you should!” It was one of only two times I can remember him ever giving me anything like a direct order.

In time, I took up chanting. At first, I chanted for at least an hour and a half every day for five years, and it changed my life. My Kriya practice was deeper, and I began to appreciate the tremendous role that feeling must play if we are to live as balanced human beings.

It was a wonderful time, with many lovely experiences of God’s presence. Yet, all along, even as I drove myself to chant for hours, I felt that I hadn’t plumbed the depths of chanting as a spiritual practice. Somehow, I felt that I was missing the point. Always, there was an unseen barrier, which I visualized as an enormous boulder that had fallen in my path, leaving me no discernible way around it.

Something I noticed in my more lucid moments was that it was only when I was less serious and willfully driven in my practice that I tended to have the richest experiences of God’s presence. The most remarkable of them happened while I was driving my truck down Alma Street in Palo Alto one day. I was singing Paramhansa Yogananda’s chant, “Will That Day Come to Me, Ma?” and at a certain point as I sang, I wondered what it would feel like really to sing to God as a little child. I remembered the days when I was seven or eight and I would spend time in the kitchen with my mother while she cooked and cleaned, and how she would tell me stories, often very funny ones, of her South American family, which had its share of odd-balls and eccentrics.

As I sang, I succeeded in transporting myself into my seven-year-old self. And then I suddenly felt the skies parting, and from a vast distance, Divine Mother Herself smiling in blessing. It was a deep experience – for hours afterward I was in an exalted state, knowing that I was a seamless part of the one thing that was sustaining all creation. When I stopped at our East West Bookstore, I felt no difference between myself and the customers browsing in the store, because I knew that we were expressions of the same divine fabric. A Buddhist teacher happened to be visiting, and it was clear that he knew I’d had an unusual experience – he was very loving and kind. Divine reality knows no artificial separations of religion.

The experience showed me that if I wanted to have an inner relationship with the Divine Mother, I must indeed “become as a little child.” The problem was, I had no clear idea of how to go about it. I knew that my strong rational mind and my will power were obstacles to that deep inner self-offering; yet I didn’t know how to get past them.

Swamiji had urged me to sing. The first time was in my first days at Ananda Village – it was probably 1976 – when I went to his home to deliver some papers. As I was about to leave, some of the community’s singers arrived, and Swami invited them to come to the piano and sing a song that he’d just finished writing. He invited me to join the singers, but I demurred, since I didn’t know the first thing about singing, and I didn’t want to spoil the fun or be a distraction. He repeated the kindly invitation several times, and in later years I knew that he was telling me that singing his songs would be good for me.

Many years later, I walked onto the stage at our temple during a Sunday morning choir rehearsal, and soon I was singing in the choir and two small groups.

After five or six happy years of serving with the music ministry, the number of opportunities to rehearse and perform began to diminish, as a swelling number of young people joined us.

I envied the choir at our center in Assisi, Italy, where the retreat is busy, and the singers give a small concert for the guests every Thursday evening, in addition to performing on Sundays and at occasional concerts at other churches. Reflecting on how wonderful it would be to dive more deeply into Swamiji’s music, I reserved a spot in our community’s music studio and began singing every morning, generally for an hour.

At the start, I turned inwardly to Swamiji and asked which songs I should begin with. Should I attack the serious, heavy-hitter songs from the Oratorio, “Christ Lives”? Should I sing his “spiritualized folks songs”? I was surprised when a clear guidance urged me to learn the songs he’d written for Shakespeare’s lyrics.

Swamiji recommended that everyone at Ananda sing his music, and that we consider it a central part of our spiritual practice. But, golly! Surely the Shakespeare songs, with their themes of romantic love and sometimes bawdy lyrics, couldn’t possibly be called spiritual? Yet, after a month or so, I found that I was definitely becoming a more cheerful, happy person.

Swamiji often said that he had received every note of his music from God. How strange to find that even the lighthearted Shakespeare songs held a life-changing power.

You spotted snakes with double tongue,
Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen;
Newts and blind-worms, do no wrong,
Come not near our fairy queen.

Despite the lyrics, the melodies and harmonies carried smile-inducing vibrations.

Later, I browsed the vast acreage of the Ananda repertoire, singing everything from soprano Oratorio solos to the children’s songs and spiritualized folk tunes.

After another three years, I began to feel that a change was in order, so I prayed, “What’s next?” I then heard Swamiji’s inward directive: “I don’t want to hear any music coming out of that studio in the early morning except chanting!”

I thought, “Ha-ha. Oooo-kay.” But my checkered past with chanting weighed heavily on me – I had stopped chanting regularly years before, feeling that I was no longer making progress, and seeing no clear way ahead. It was at about the time I joined the choir, and I was able to feel continued inspiration in sharing the music with others.

The experience with “Will That Day Come to Me?” loomed as the gold standard for how I ought to be able to chant. But, darn it, it was a very great a stretch to transport myself back seventy years in time to my eight-year-old self.

What approach should I take? I knew that the goal was to sing with childlike devotion – but how? I dutifully loaded the sheet music for all of the chants onto my iPad and began singing them every morning. And, as I expected, it wasn’t a smooth road.

For two years I struggled, fending-off frequent feelings of despair. Too much mind! Too much will power! Where is my heart?

I had loved singing with my Ananda friends as a service to the congregation. Always, I had prayed before we sang: “Divine Mother, sing through us. You can help these people; we cannot. Help us to open our hearts so that we can serve as instruments of Your love and Your kindness, inspiration, and joy.” Unfailingly, She responded. And now, oh so gradually, like a slow inner rising of the sun, I began to understand.

During an all-community meeting at Swamiji’s home at Ananda Village in the early 1980s, he answered an important question that a long-time devotee, Lila Devi, asked: “How can we relate to you in the right way?”

He gave an extended, careful, detailed answer, making it clear that it was an important issue that he needed to address. As he probed the ramifications of the guru-disciple relationship, and our relationship with him as Master’s direct disciple, he told us that he didn’t like to have people around him who would be yes-men, hanging on his every word, with a feeling, as he put it, that he was a kind of spiritual jukebox – put in a quarter and receive a lecture, a vision, or a pat on the head.

He spoke of his relationship with Master, and how it was only when his attitude was wholly of giving – giving Master his service, giving him joy – that he was able to rise to the level of consciousness on which Master lived, and how he always gained far more than if he’d been thinking only of what he could receive.

Obviously, I needed to learn to give myself to God from my heart’s own natural love.

In the beginning of my search, I asked Brother Bhaktananda, who served as the SRF men’s correspondent and was the monastic who’d been with Master the longest, how I could get more devotion. Bhaktananda replied in a letter: “Fathomless depths of love for God lie hidden in the human heart, waiting to be uncovered by the Guru’s liberating discipline.”

So, I pondered, it wasn’t a question of manufacturing devotion, or of feigning it until I could feel it – “Fake it till you make it.” My need was to find the devotion that lived already in the deepest, innermost circle of my heart.

How to find that pure devotion? “Whip up feeling in the heart, Doctor!” And, hmm, I wondered what that kind of emotional feeling might feel like? Where could I find examples of it that I could listen to and emulate?

The answer came: Italy. The next step was an internet search – first for Frank Sinatra’s early songs, although I found surprisingly few of them, and none that touched my heart. I then searched for “Italian pop songs,” and found a wonderful song, “Viale d’autunno” – “An Autumn Path,” performed by Carla Boni, who had won Italy’s prestigious San Remo national pop song contest with it in 1952.

What a revelation of feeling it was! I had listened to other Italian pop singers before finding Carla Boni, and while they sang with lots of feeling, there was often a kind of self-conscious, merchant message in it, as if to say, “I’ll sing for you, but you must reward me with something in return: fame, money, adulation.”

Carla Boni was on a different plane – she immersed herself in the meaning of the song, singing it with such tender sensitivity and sincere feeling that it touched my heart. The lyrics – about a woman who’s devastated because her partner has ended their love affair – didn’t matter; it was the feeling that counted.

It was all I needed. I found that when I carried the feeling of the song into my chanting, it had a transforming power.

I added chants and songs onto my iPad for which Swamiji had written Italian lyrics, and soon I was starting the morning with his melody for St. Francis’s “Canticle of the Creatures.”

The Canticle was the first Western song to express the idea that we can worship God in His creation, and not only as an  infinitely remote personage in some far-off heaven. I have to admit that when the inspiration came to try the Canticle, I was skeptical. I’ve never been particularly a nature-lover; but I found that the sentiments of the Canticle were not of a nature-worshipping kind, but that they were very tender and alive with devotion, and that they set in vibrant resonance the strings of my heart.

It was lovely to follow the Canticle with “Chiostri” – Swamiji’s song, “Cloisters,” in Italian. The Italian words blended with the melody in a way that I felt English never could, with its overtones of practicality and reason. Singing in Italian was like arriving in Rome after a transatlantic flight and setting foot in a land where the warm air sang with tender feeling.

I began having subtle experiences of Divine Mother, not “farther away than the stars,” but “nearer than the nearest, dearer than the dearest.”

This was the kind of devotion I had longed for, intimate and sweet. It was very innocent, simple, and sincere. It was a relationship that I would never have thought, in earlier years, I could possibly enjoy without first purifying my thoughts by a tremendous effort of self-discipline.

And yet, here was the Mother, so simple, so wonderful, and so kind and accepting. But – still not easy to find, and prone to hide Herself playfully with Her love. I discovered that the relationship held no opening for compromise – it required sincerity and sweet devotion. It responded to feelings that could only be found in the heart’s innermost center.

So that’s where I am today – practicing, practicing. Has it been worth it – the endless hours, the uncertainty, the despair and the years of pressing emptily with raw will power in search of Divine Mother’s response?

Yes, of course. The spiritual path is strange, because we don’t always know where we’re going until we get there, sometimes after a long, saddle-bruising ride. But oh, what a destination.

In the 1980s, Ananda formed a close connection with a small group of charismatic Catholics in Sorrento, Italy. Swamiji eventually married Rosanna Golia, one of the leaders of the group.

Whenever the Italians visited Ananda Village, they brought their very Italian, open-hearted, expressively devotional approach to the path. The chanting at our services and satsangs took on a new depth of feeling. Swami commented that Ananda had much to learn from its Italian brothers and sisters, about the right approach to living for God: leading with the heart, and not letting ourselves be too captured by the practical necessities of our service.

I blush to recall a note that I once sent Swamiji. I was feeling frustrated because I wasn’t getting the results from chanting that I had expected. My note was frumpy-grumpy; I practically demanded that someone tell me what I should do next. Of course, he didn’t answer, but I received his response inwardly and understood my error: it takes many lifetimes to develop the kind of one-pointed devotion that allows God to draw us fully into Him. I think of Durga Mata, who said that she had found God through chanting. Durga was a jivanmukta, a liberated soul, and a person of great strength. Reflecting on Durga, I knew that it had taken her many lives of singing to God to develop the degree of self-offering that had freed her.

Divine Mother keeps things peppy. Recently when the inspiration for chanting waned a bit and I turned to Swamiji for guidance, a clear feeling came to use the morning hour in the studio to practice the choir songs for our Christmas concert. And, well, yowza — I am loving it. “Whither Thou goest, I will go.” And very happily, too. Blessings to you. — Rambhakta

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