The art of chanting correctly is, first, to practice it with full awareness of its inner purpose. That purpose is not to awaken sentiments or to stir up the emotions. It is to focus the heart’s feelings and raise them toward superconsciousness.
The Maharani of Cooch Behar told me she’d once asked her family priest why he intoned his chants so loudly. “Well, you see, your Highness,” he explained, “God is far away. If I don’t shout, how will He hear me?” God isn’t far away, of course. It is we who distance ourselves from Him by the “noise” in our own minds, a noise people often carry with them into their prayers and meditations.
Loud chanting does have its place. It is good at the start of meditation-not for the reason that priest gave, but to command attention from our own minds. For loud chanting creates a magnetic flow. Like a mighty river, it can dissolve the eddies of thought and feeling that meander idly along the banks of the mind. Like a magnetic military leader, it commands attention from your thought-soldiers and fires them with zeal.
Once you’ve got their attention, chant more softly, more inwardly. Direct your energy upward, now, from the heart to the Spiritual Eye.
Once your conscious mind is wholly engaged in chanting, bring it down into the subconscious by whispering. While chanting in the subconscious, offer the chant there, too, up to superconsciousness at the point between the eyebrows, until you feel your entire being vibrating with the words, the melody, and the rhythm.
At last, chant only mentally, at the point between the eyebrows. Let your absorption lift you into superconsciousness. Once it does so, and once you receive a divine response, you will have spiritualized the chant. From then on, any time you sing the chant it will quickly carry you again to superconsciousness as if on a magic carpet.
To spiritualize a chant, keep it rotating in the mind — days at a time, if necessary: not only in meditation, but as you go about your daily activities. This practice is also called japa. Christian mystics, too, speak of the continuous “prayer of the heart,” and of “practicing the presence of God.”
Once the mind is focused by chanting, and the inner energy is awakened, take your chanting inward. Don’t only “make a glad noise unto the Lord,” as the Bible puts it: Listen for His answer. Meditation is listening, as I’ve said. Feel yourself chanting in attunement, above all, with the Cosmic Sound. Harmonize yourself inwardly with that sound.
What Words to Use
There is not a strong tradition of chanting in the West. Most of the chanting I’ve heard has been Gregorian chant, which is little heard outside of monasteries, or chants transported from India. Buddhist chanting, like Gregorian chant, is a recitation of scripture and is not, therefore, an appeal of the heart to God…
India has developed a tradition of chanting as an expression of deep, intimate love for God. There is power in such chanting, even if you don’t really relate to the words you’re singing.
Paramhansa Yogananda, as a great yogi whose mission was to disseminate the yoga teachings in the West, introduced a new kind of chanting here. It is based on the repetition of meaningful phrases, rather than of the divine names. Some of the chants he wrote he translated from Bengali or Hindi songs. Others, he wrote himself. This kind of chanting is more like a repetitive prayer set to music, and is better suited for meditators, who understand the importance of combining the soul’s appeal for divine grace with self-effort. For by singing God’s names only, what remains in the mind is the thought “God will do it all for me.” What Yogananda’s method of chanting accomplishes is to awaken in the mind the thought “In these ways I will cooperate with His grace.”
One of his chants goes:
I am the bubble, make me the sea.
So do Thou, my Lord! Thou and I, never apart,
Wave of the sea dissolve in the sea,
I am the bubble, make me the sea.
Very simple, you see? And very easily memorized. When such a chant is sung repeatedly, the mind is easily lifted up into meditation.
Some of Paramhansa Yogananda’s chants go further in the direction of personal affirmation, and are less similar to the traditional concept of prayer. An example of such a chant begins with these words:
Why, O mind, wanderest thou?
Go in thine inner home!
These chants, too, are powerful, spiritualized as they were by a great master. They are in many ways better suited for people who follow the path of meditation. I myself have sung them for as long as I’ve been meditating — fifty years. The inspiration I derive from them is precious to me beyond words.