There’s this woman who leads kirtan at the yoga studio where all my friends go. I don’t do yoga (that is, I don’t have a yoga practice) but I do do kirtan, that is, devotional chanting. Or say, rather, that I want to do kirtan. I go every month and chant, but for the past year or so once a month hasn’t been enough for me, I want to go deeper, actually learn what I’m saying. I understand that the heart can be singing without the brain knowing the language, and that the sound itself, the syllables and the music, is a channel through which one communes with the divine. But that’s me. I want to know stuff. I feel like learning the traditions and stories around these prayers helps me to ground them in my life.
I want to learn how to really use this practice of kirtan to open, open, open my heart!
So I have been pestering this woman (in kind of a shy and hesitant way for me) to teach me independently. Then today I got to join her in observing the last of nine days of Navratri, with a morning fire ceremony. I showed up at her house with no idea what to expect. She met me in her basement where she has a separate kitchen just for the preparation of rituals. ! She asked me, in so many words, Why are you here? What is your background?
I stumbled around a little — “Well, uh, I had an eclectic religious upbringing, and I, uh, do what I feel called to … ” — not at all the concise and thoughtful summary I would’ve liked to have had at the ready!
She says, “So you’ve never studied Vedic practices … ?” Read: This oughta be interesting!
Well, she was extremely gracious, took me right under her wing, explained a little bit of the complicated ritual she was performing, gave me some little tasks within it, like you might tell a child who’s helping you bake cookies, Okay, now you stir this really well! It was really a sweet, sweet ritual. The essence of what we were doing, as I learned, was offering the best in us back to the Divine, back to the Source. “Aarati,” this woman wrote to me, is offered to the fire, one’s teachers, and all the manifestations that aid our illumination. Aarati means ‘light.'” I was very moved. It really touched me to imagine myself putting all I have that’s good at the service of the universe. I felt illuminated.
Afterward we were sitting outside enjoying the spring morning sunshine and she was telling me about how she came to be a devotee of Babaji (the only one she knows of in Missouri); how once she found his teachings, following the path he taught became the consuming passion of her life. And she was asking me, “So, you want to learn to play the harmonium, or what exactly do you want to learn?” “Anything,” I said. “Ah, you just want to be in it,” she said, nodding like she understood.
Maybe — yes — I DO just want to be in it. But I was thinking at the same time that I don’t think I’m ever going to be one of the people who gets struck by a lightning bold of truth and devotion one day and knows that they belong to one path. I can’t speak for the future, but I just don’t think that’s going to be me. And that’s been hard for me to accept. I’ve really, really wanted to find “one thing,” a church, a structure, a teacher, a guru that called ME — that wanted me. I’ve even tried making up my own religion, attempting to include all the elements I thought were most important, just so I could say “I am this.” But now I don’t think that’s what I’m here for. I’m a synthesizer. It’s the same impulse that led me to American Studies for my graduate work — I can’t stop myself from sampling the kinds of knowledge produced in lots of different fields. (Maybe that’s the same impulse that makes the Chinese buffet my favorite type of restaurant … )
But there are also themes. I guess, for me, it’s about themes more than anything else, themes that dissolve into each other from one month to the next, and big themes that grab ahold of me for years. The big theme that has me right now is singing and the sacred. If there’s ever been a time when I actually felt an inner call to pursue something spiritual, to learn as much as I could about it from as many angles as I could, it’s this, and I’m in it now, and I have been for several years. And that’s how I ended up at kirtan. And it’s also how I ended up at Dances of Universal Peace, and in the Inspirational Choir at Downtown Baptist, and in the Columbia Chorale singing classical requiems, and hanging around the singing circles at women’s music festivals.
I’ve got a whole big basket full of pieces right now. Someday I’m going to be able to fit them all together. Sometime when I’m not even thinking about it. Maybe it’ll come like a lightning bolt. But probably it will be more like a thousand fireflies all across the field of infinite possibilities.
Peace to all,