Exploring the Mysteries of Chanting

Exploring the Mysteries of Chanting

By Nayaswami Maria

From my earliest years, I often spent my idle moments softly humming. Humming was instinctive for me. I found it comforting, and a way to pass the time. As a child, I would hum nursery rhymes and made-up melodies; later it became the “music of the times.”

I first learned of chanting from friends I met at a yoga retreat who taught me two of Paramhansa Yogananda’s chants. This discovery was like artesian water surfacing in a sun-baked landscape. From one day to the next, I began humming these new, uplifting melodies and, in time, moved to Ananda Village.

Soar above worry and small-mindedness

From the beginning, chanting for me has always been a form of japa—practicing the presence of God. Whenever there’s a lull in activity or I need to raise my energy, I automatically turn to chanting. For example, if I’m doing a lot of phoning, I chant until someone answers, and between phone calls. This keeps my energy strong and uplifted and makes phoning a fun job.

Many times I have found that after focusing deeply on a chant, it stays with me and comes to my aid when I need it, helping me to stay in the present, above all worry and small-mindedness. Sometimes I’ll wake up in the morning humming or singing a particular chant and feel uplifted the Divine.

Most of the other benefits of chanting are well known—it can mitigate restlessness, soothe the nervous system, and prepare the body to meditate. In longer meditations, chanting intermittently can help you meditate longer and more deeply.

All that is good and uplifting

Chanting also attunes the heart’s devotion to all that is good and uplifting in nature. AUM is the root of all sounds in the universe. As we chant, we enter into a vibration that speaks to us of the power of the universe and of our own higher Self.

Once when in seclusion, I heard a robin singing just as I was about to play the harmonium. After I started to chant, the robin continued to sing, loudly and clearly—above my voice, above the harmonium. It felt as though together, we were joyfully singing with Divine Mother.

Another time while singing with our choir at an outdoor Sunday Service in our Sacramento community, I became aware of a flock of birds flying by in the distance. For a moment, I felt myself as part of these birds, beholding our community from above and hearing these beautiful melodies.

We were as one being, attracted to the vibration of a spiritual oasis by which we felt blessed and nurtured. Through the power of music, all sense of separation had dissolved.

Many voices singing in a whisper

Ultimately we must remember, as Patanjali, the great exponent of yoga says, that the real chanting is in the silence of our hearts. As you go deeper into a chant, your awareness becomes more and more internalized. Eventually it is as though the chant is being effortlessly sung within your own being.

To internalize and deepen your chanting, whisper chanting is very helpful. Once when we were gathered for morning meditation in one of the apartments in the Ananda Sacramento community, we found ourselves unexpectedly forced into whisper chanting.

We had just acquired the apartment complex, and people who were not part of Ananda were still living in the apartments. Some of the tenants were openly antagonistic to the new “owners.” In the middle of our chanting there was a loud knock at the door and someone yelling at us! It was one of tenants who had been seeking every possible opportunity to harass us. He now insisted that we stop chanting and that if we resumed—or ever chanted again— he would call the police!

We had actually been careful to chant very quietly, so as not to bother anyone, but we decided to sing even more softly and without the harmonium. Imagine many voices singing in a very soft whisper, in unison, and in harmony. It turned out to be a great improvement, much more devotional, and for many of us, a deep blessing.

“Spiritualized chants”—a different kind of music

Paramhansa Yogananda wrote countless chants while in God-intoxicated states of samadhi. These chants were thereby “spiritualized” and have the power to change the consciousness of those who sing them with devotion. This fact alone puts his chants in an altogether different category from most other kinds of music.

One of the beauties of Yogananda’s chants is that they communicate, simply and clearly, subtle and inspiring spiritual truths. In Ever New Joy, for example, we sing of the expanding joy that comes as we advance spiritually.

The chant, Who Is in My Temple? describes the body as a temple containing “lights” or chakras. As our chakras open through meditation and devotion, our inner light strengthens, banishing the darkness of delusion. (“Darkness like a dark bird flies away.”) To sing this chant reinforces these truths.

Some of Yogananda’s chants were intended as antidotes to negative states of consciousness— melancholy, worry, insecurity, lack of devotion, etc. A good example is, I Have Made Thee Polestar of My Life.

One sings:
“Though my sea is dark and my stars are gone, still I see the path through Thy mercy.” As we chant those words, we find our faith in God deepening and our consciousness embracing the attitude that, “No matter what, I am yours. I am safe.”

Swami Kriyananda, too, has written many chants that have the simplicity and power of prayer and mantra. In fact, he initially suggested that the following chants be used as prayers—Reveal Thyself, Lord I Am Thine, and I Want Only Thee.

Everyone can learn to chant

You don’t have to be a “singer” to chant! I’ve seen many people who thought they couldn’t sing develop the desire and the confidence to try—and to become very good at it. Often it is more a question of one’s abilities simply not yet being developed.

The same is true with playing the harmonium. Recently someone asked me to teach her how to play the harmonium. She had no experience and seemingly no aptitude for this sort of thing.

Early on I asked her, “Why do you want to do this?” She said simply that she loved the chants and wanted to learn how to play them. With devotion and concentration, she was able to learn a number of chants, and to do them well enough to lead some of our community sadhanas.

Chanting pointers

Here are a few ways to deepen and uplift your chanting:

  • Familiarize yourself with Yogananda’s and Kriyananda’s chants. They are simple and easy to follow.
  • When considering which chant to sing, listen in your heart and inwardly pray for the appropriate chant in that moment.
  • If you are new to a chant, focus on the words. Try to understand their meaning and open yourself to the truth they communicate. Enunciate the words and charge them with your energy. Let them rally your innate soul hunger for truth and inspiration.
  • Don’t chant absentmindedly. Try to tune into the power and consciousness of the Masters. When I chant I concentrate at the spiritual eye and visualize Yogananda there. I chant to him and try to feel His presence.
  • Consciously use your voice to express sweetness and devotion. In this way, you can actually transform the quality of your voice. Sweetness of voice is often one of the first signs of spiritual growth in the devotee.
  • Try to take the chant deeper by chanting more softly, and then in a whisper. You’ll find that the voice naturally quiets and softens as you focus your attention more inwardly.
  • Eventually the chant becomes wholly inward. Outward activities may demand your full concentration, but when the mind withdraws, it easily resumes its inward chant.

The goal of all chanting

Ultimately, the goal of chanting is to help us merge with AUM in deep meditation. Of all sounds, AUM is the most lovely. As Swami Kriyananda says, “It is the one sound you never grow tired of.”

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