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.
First, awaken the conscious mind
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.
Then add in the subconscious
Once your conscious mind is wholly engaged in chanting, bring it down to 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.
Finally, bring it up to the superconscious
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.
How to Spiritualize a Chant
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.” All this is japa.
Attune to AUM
The higher aspect of chanting involves listening to the mighty sound of AUM, and becoming absorbed in it. You’ll hear this sound first in the right ear. Gradually let it permeate the brain and the entire body, until every cell vibrates with that sound. After that, try to hear AUM in everything you do, in everything you perceive. This is true japa, when the mind no longer repeats words, merely, but is intoxicated with the bliss of the “music of the spheres.”
The Cosmic Sound is described variously in the world’s scriptures. The Jews and Christians call it the Amen. Muslims call it the Amin. To the Zoroastrians it is Ahunavar. To Hindus and Buddhists it is AUM. In the first chapter of the Gospel of St. John, the Cosmic Vibration is called the Word: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
The word AUM is an attempt to capture in human speech the sound of the Cosmic Vibration. By attuning one’s consciousness to that sound (by Christians called also the Holy Ghost and the Comforter), one enters the stream of vibration that proceeded out of the Spirit, and that merges back into the Spirit at creation’s end and at the end of the individual soul’s cycle of outward wandering. By merging in AUM, liberation is attained.
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.
Harmony vs. Melody
Harmony is an aspect of music not usually included in traditional chanting. In the West, where harmony is so intrinsic to musical expression, one may wonder if the lack of harmony in Eastern music is not due simply to a lack of musical sophistication. I recall the first time I heard spiritual chanting. I’d been raised on Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and other classical Western composers. I’d also studied singing in the Western classical tradition. Compared to that music, the stark simplicity of chanting seemed to me almost naive.
It was only when I got deeply into it that I understood its spiritual power. And it is only since composing music myself, complete with harmonies, that I appreciate more fully the fact that, although harmony lends richness and emotional depth to music, its very complexity prevents it from bringing melody into deeper harmony with AUM.
Even though I try, in my own music, to write chords that will help the mind to flow in an upward direction, I am well aware that the true “music of the spheres” lies far beyond outer harmonies. It creates another kind of harmony in the soul.
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 the 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. 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 — 50 years. The inspiration I derive from them is precious to me beyond words.
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