jump to navigation

How can I enjoy kirtan? August 11, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
Tags: , , , , ,
2 comments

I’m trying. I’m really, really trying—to like kirtan. Because honestly, I find myself lapsing on the whole ahimsa/vegetarian policy far more frequently than I do the “attend kirtan” policy. That is, you’ve got a better chance of seeing me at Gray’s Papaya than you do at Wednesday night chanting at Jivamukti.

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna/ Krishna Krishna Hare Hare/ Hare Rama Hare Rama/ Rama Rama Hare Hare

It’s not that I dislike the call-and-respond style of kirtan. To wit, I find the part of a Pearl Jam show at which Ed Vedder cuts the vocals and entreats the crowd to chant the chorus of “Alive” to be the most stirring moment of a concert. I don’t even mind—and actually look forward to—an eighteen-minute version of Neil Young’s “Like A Hurricane,” which I’ll admit is really not that far removed from a half-hour puja from Krishna Das or Jai Uttal. And on Live At Carnegie Hall (1973), by Bill Withers, I really enjoy that, upon finishing “Use Me,” he asks the audience, One more time?, and then proceeds to do just that, as if the spur-of-the-moment reprise is built right into the song.

So what is it, then, with me and kirtan? Does my extreme agnosticism prevent me from invoking the name of god? The problem with this explanation is that I gladly sing Christian spirituals and gospel tunes along with Mavis Staples (Check out “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” with Billy Corgan), and I’ll never forget the time I was blown away by Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals’ rendition of “Power of the Gospel” at a 2001 show at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley. The explicit religiosity of much of Fiddler on the Roof does more than most to make me proud of having been born a Jew, and when Mick Jagger repeatedly invokes “the good lord” in the chorus of “Shine a Light,” I’m reminded of why it’s my second-favorite Stones song (“Gimme Shelter” is #1). So I have no trouble, it would seem, with invoking the lord’s name to music.

Now, I don’t discount the spiritual weight that fans of kirtan place upon their Sanskrit syllables. If anything, studying the melodic ins and outs of chanting has allowed me to find more divinity in the secular music I’ve enjoyed my entire life. And, really, if one believes the teachings of bhakti yoga—that chanting the name of god brings one closer to it—then the ecstasy engendered by such devotional music should naturally be seen as proof that there is indeed something special about it. Who am I, after all, to impugn the exultation of a puja-enraptured soul simply because I don’t experience it myself? I aim to be aggressively open-minded, and my practice advises me to steadfastly refuse to be skeptical of ecstatic chant — but try as I might, I simply cannot let myself get completely swept up by it.

As yogis, we’re taught to practice non-attachment, yet paradoxically, we’re also taught the primacy of Sanskrit, the language of our practice. But monolingual enlightenment feels alien to my understanding of bliss. And karma doesn’t care about the language used to inflict good — or harm.

But Sanskrit is a tongue, we’re told, that simply is. Halasana, for example, is not regarded as equivalent to the two words and ten letters that make up the English term plough pose. Rather, halasana represents the actual vibratory structure of the pose itself. With legs stretched back behind my head, feet pressed into the floor, each cell in my body is vibrating—singing—“halasana” at the top of its “lungs.” By contrast, in English, the letters in the written term “plough pose” are symbolic abstractions of the phonetic sounds they represent; those sounds are themselves abstractions of the concept of plough pose—that is, what we envision when we hear those sounds—and that concept is, again, an abstract way of aurally categorizing the actual pose itself. So when one says “god” in English, he’s actually discussing an abstraction of an abstraction of an abstraction. Conversely, when one chants “Hare Krishna,” the deity himself is actually thought to be pouring out of the singer’s mouth.

As a writer, I find the notion of holding one language as better than any other to be somewhat parochial and immature, and I don’t like the idea that a particular type of music’s choice of idiom defines its relative legitimacy as a spirit-moving instrument. After all, if one is entranced, then do the lingual logistics of the sensations really matter? I’ve come to the conclusion that, whether divinely inspired or not, my affinity for English-language rock ‘n’ roll and soul music is no less holy than another’s for devotional Sanskrit melodies. And no more holy, either. Can’t they both simply rock? And might my “devotional” music be just as mighty, just as inspired, as any other agglomeration of audio vibrations? I hope so, because, like I said, I’m trying. I’m really, really, trying.

I, oh, I'm still alive/ Hey I, oh, I'm still alive/ Hey I, oh I'm still alive/ Hey I, oh I'm still alive

Advertisements

Can samadhi be reconciled with reality? July 12, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
Tags: , , , , , , ,
add a comment

Samadhi is a frightening concept. To the uninitiated, it hovers somewhere in the distance, tantalizing and seductive, a state of bliss and harmony so unattainable as to be cast aside and ignored. It feels trillions of miles away from jobs and paychecks, MetroCards and express trains, and even rubbery Jade Yoga mats and slick bamboo floors. In the middle of a sweaty, frustrating day, the super-consciousness promised by samadhi can seem completely alien to modern life. Moreover, as it is described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, samadhi can even seem undesirable–something, perhaps, to store away in the “maybe later” section of one’s mind. I mean, do they still stage the World Cup in samadhi? Can I still read Vanity Fair?

Volkswagen

I'm not so sure about this...

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra I.50 states, “The perception gained in nirvicara samadhi through rtam-bhara prajna or intuitive knowledge transcends all normal perception,  both in intensity and extent.” Worldy pettiness, then, and the trivial comings, goings, and fixations of life are subsumed by samadhi; they are overwhelmed by the contentment and bliss of super-consciousness and their pettiness and triviality become manifest.  Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati comments, “Experience born from the higher state, samadhi, due to intuitive knowledge, effects personality changes. These personality changes check all other habits, experiences, and impressions which lead to lower states. Impressions of samadhi stand in the way of other impressions.”

Now, for one struggling mightily to surmount the klesha of raga, attachment, the notion of destroying his attraction to worldly things can potentially seem like a contraindication of samadhi! Though a man who derives pleasure from, say, obsessively collecting antique firearms would benefit terrifically from ascending to a state of samadhi (and therefore ridding himself of his obsession with guns), he might view the loss of such a pleasure-bringing activity with fear and loathing (Much as I fear a blissful future that exists without the World Cup). He might not be able to conceive of a world in which he’s not an avid collector of Colts and Winchesters and Smith & Wessons.

How often, after all, does one hear another dreamily posit that he absolutely can’t–and won’t–live in a world in which he can’t enjoy, say, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream? Or autumn Sundays with the NFL? Or even daily asana practice? We can even perceive the potential loss of those activities and objects that distract us from the drudgery of everyday life as something to be avoided at all costs. If we don’t trust Patanjali–that is, if we value our own, perceptions and interpretations of the world over those that yoga teaches us are real and true–we won’t see the bliss of samadhi as an improvement over the “bliss” we get from material things.

Since beginning my yoga practice in 2008, I’ve struggled with the notion of super-consciousness. When I practice yoga, I don’t like to see myself as a workhorse who’s merely following the dangling carrot held by his master. And during my teacher training especially, through eighteen-hour days and interminable Sanskrit lessons, I struggled even more. If this were something I really wanted, I would think, then why am I looking forward to my day off? What if the samadhi I’m being sold isn’t the samadhi that I want to buy?

La Furia Roja

These guys seem pretty blissed out to me.

Ultimately, I’ve come to understand that the potential of super-consciousness is irrelevant to my life and to my practice. My yogic alchemy, I think, is to transform me from a driver to a passenger on the road of life (Apologies to Volkswagen, who once stressed, “Drivers Wanted.” I think the notion of “driving” one’s life is bullshit.) When I’m not so concerned with explicitly conducting the course of my life–to Whole Foods, to Rima’s 3:00 Wednesday class at Jivamukti–or to the state of samadhi–then I can appreciate the world around me. I can see others as fellow passengers and not fly into a road rage when they jostle and distract me from what I think I’m supposed to be doing.

Consciousness is as real or imagined as super-consciousness. There is fulfillment to be found in both, as long as you determine not to fixate on either. And who knows–maybe the United States has a chance of actually winning a samadhi-staged World Cup.

%d bloggers like this: