Chanting as a Spiritual Practice

Earth Star Magazine, April/May 1999

By Robert Gass

Each of us comes fully equipped with the most magnificent vehicle for opening the heart and sending our prayers soaring to the heavens, our own voice. Chanting as a spiritual practice is free, safe, and easy, and can be done anywhere, anytime. We can chant in the car while commuting to work, chant in the shower, chant while preparing food or cleaning the house, even while opening junk mail (the average American spends two months of his/her waking life engaged in this last activity).

Chant helps quiet the mind. The intellect is a great tool, the product of tens of thousands of years of evolution. It has only one major design flaw “the lack of an “off” switch. The reality of Spirit transcends words and concepts. As author and teacher Ram Dass likes to say, “The best the mind can do is say, It went thatta way!” Chanting bypasses the intellect, short-circuiting our concepts, our questions and doubts about Spirit. Sufi Murshid Elias Amidon once said to me, “What’s great about chanting is that it cuts free from the volumes and libraries full of mysticism and words trying to say the ineffable. It’s the real thing.”

Why chant? From a musicological standpoint, let’s face it-chanting can be kind of monotonous. My father’s first reaction to our recording of Om Nama Shivaya was, “Hey, you should market it as an aid for insomniacs. It puts me to sleep right away- it’s the most boring music I ever heard!” While chant may or may not be appreciated by those listening for musical sophistication or high performance quality, countless people are today chanting and listening to chant for its profound effect on our consciousness.

The repetitive sounds of chant vibrate in our brain, again and again, washing our minds, our own inner wavelengths gradually coming into resonance with the tone and feeling of the musical prayer. Our bodies and energy become entrained to the rhythm of the chant, the repeating pulses shifting our state of being into greater alignment and harmony. As we continue, we move in and out of immersion in the chant. Sometimes it’s clearly “me” sitting here, chanting “Om Namaha Shivaya” or “Alleluia.” Other times, we touch moments where the separation between chanter and the chant, the sense of “me” doing something fades away. There is only “chanting.”

Not only is chanting a form of meditation in itself, but chant is also an extremely useful adjunct to other spiritual practices. Because of its powerful ability to calm the mind, chanting can serve as a helpful bridge between our busy lives of work, kids, errands, telephones, etc. and deeper states of meditation.

The concept of “practice” is helpful in our spiritual work, for it reminds us that we are all learners. When I first set forth on the spiritual path, I read many books that talked about enlightenment. Unfortunately, my only models of learning came from years of competitive, achievement-oriented academic training. I imagined enlightenment to be like a super Ph.D. I figured it would take me about five years, as I had always been a precocious student. That was 30 years ago. I guess I must be a slow learner. My days still fluctuate between moments of remembering, then forgetting and once again remembering who I am. Sometimes I’m awake; other times I’m just going through the motions.

It turns out the spiritual path isn’t about attaining something or getting somewhere. Our preoccupation with “How am I doing?” or “Am I there yet?” is just more stuff, more background noise that drowns out the music of soul. A spiritual practice is a life-long commitment to a journey of becoming- a journey with no end.

In practicing a musical instrument, we play our scales, stumble over the difficult passages, and go over them again and again until we have attained mastery. There are no “mistakes” in practice, because the working and reworking of the places where we stumble is precisely what helps us develop our skills. There are no short cuts, no quick fixes. We are life-long learners, even the greatest musicians practice many hours a day.

In the practice of chanting, we do not wait for inspiration to strike- we chant because it’s our practice. Reb Zalman Schachter, Chassidic Rabbi and founder of the Jewish renewal movement, told me that while some days the impulse to daven (the traditional Jewish form of chanted prayer) comes naturally, other days I’m just doing it because it has to be done “otherwise I would get out of touch.” We commit to the forms of practice, helping sustain us through changing moods and erratic energy.

Practicing the piano, some days our fingers seem thick and clumsy as we trip over our scales; other days our fingers seem to dance sprightly on the keyboard. The practice of chant is also like this. Sometimes within moments after we begin chanting, we experience waves of energy; other days we can barely hear the voice over the relentless chattering of the mind. “Om namaha shivaya. What time is it? Om namaha shivaya. I’m not really into this today. Om namaha shivaya. I’m hungry! What’s for lunch?” We learn to let go of evaluating our experience on any given day- we soar, we crash, we’re ecstatic, we’re bored, we’re focused, we’re asleep ‘it’s all practice.”

Chant is a devotional practice, a form of heartfelt prayer. We call out to God, we honor God, we thank, we beseech, we invoke, we bow, we bless, and we celebrate. We become as intoxicated troubadours, singing our love songs to the Divine Beloved: “Listen, listen, listen to my heart’s song. I will never forget you, I will never forsake you.” Paramahansa Yogananda.

At this very moment, the deep and ancient sounds of sacred chant fill churches, temples, mosques, ashrams, and kivas, as people join their voices in communal worship. In forests and fields, by the sea and on mountain tops, as the sun rises and falls into dusk, women and men add their chanting voices to the symphony of natural sounds. In the grace before meals and the quiet moments before bed, at marriages and the great transitions of births and deaths, people join together to chant their prayers. At workshops and wellness centers, in hotel ballrooms and the privacy of living rooms, people in cultures where traditional forms of have lost meaning are rediscovering the power of chant.

In the fire of our chanting, or in the sweet silence as the last tones fade into nothingness, words such as “love” and “oneness” become living reality. May your life be filled with the beauty and the joy of chant.