I was not singing, I was being sung.
Updated: Feb 5, 2021
The strangest thing happened to me in October. Actually, a lot of strange things happened to me in October. But on this particular day, I picked up the phone to text a friend. Then I saw that he had just left me a voicemail, one that was about to change my life.
Let me back up. Several months prior, my friend James had told me about a Kirtan training program led by Mike Cohen in Boulder, where participants learn to play the harmonium and sing and lead chants in the ancient Indian yoga tradition. At the time, a little spark went through my body and I thought, “Yes! This is something I need to do.” Then life went by, and I forgot about it, as we do. Fast forward to early October, three days after a major decision propelled me into what would be one of the biggest transitions of my life, and the Kirtan training suddenly popped back into my head. I didn’t know much about Kirtan at the time, other than occasional chants I had heard in yoga classes, but I had the sense that it might be a healing thing to do in this time of total upheaval. So I picked up the phone to text James for information, and saw that James had already called me. His voicemail said something to the effect of, “I have a Kirtan gig with Mike Cohen coming up in three days. Our singer has laryngitis. Could you fill in?”
I took a minute to think about it. Did I have a right to lead Kirtan? Did I know enough to take a role of leadership in this sacred space that I knew virtually nothing about? Could I learn ten songs in Sanskrit in two days? Did I even have the emotional bandwidth to do this right now? I had a lot of reasons to say no. But inside, everything was screaming, “Yes!” So I called James and said, “I’ve never been to a Kirtan, I don’t really even know what it is. But I know how to pronounce Sanskrit, I’m a hard worker and a fast learner. So, YES!”
I talked with Mike, who was kind enough to take a chance on me (we had never met), and spent the day learning all the songs he sent me, listening to them over and over, scribbling notes in the margins of the lyrics. That night I dreamt of Hindu gods and goddesses, men who were blue or had elephant heads, women with many arms wearing skull necklaces or riding tigers. The chants wove themselves through that night and the subsequent days like a flowing river sweeping me forward, like the songs of the earth and trees and sky themselves. Rehearsal the next afternoon went great, and the Kirtan was two days later.
Here’s what I noticed. I went into this gig from the perspective of a musician being hired for a job. I was intrigued by Kirtan for sure, but didn’t have any beliefs or expectations about what would happen. When I took my seat on a cushion in the front of the room with the band, I looked out at these sweet, open faces, these people who had come to be a part of something sacred and beautiful. I felt the anxiety of the week, the groundlessness of being in free fall in my life, and the frantic preparation for this performance all fade away. I let go into the music, and felt myself disappear into the mantras, the people, the experience. The clouds of my mind lifted, the armor of my heart melted, and I was filled with a vivid wakefulness. The space of my mind and the space around me were one space, filled with a shimmering energy. And I sang from this place.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of singing from the ego’s point of view. Trying to be what people want, to be liked, to be “good,” whatever that even means. But here, on this cushion, in front of this sea of open faces and bodies, it didn’t even feel like me singing. It was as if the music was coming through me, dancing and swirling through the room, encircling us all in a loving embrace of light and warmth. All the usual self-talk, “I’m not good enough, I’m going to screw it up, I don’t deserve to be here,” fell away and became irrelevant. I was not singing, I was being sung.
Over the next several months, I revisited this experience of “being sung” over and over, inviting it into performances of other types of music and weaving it into my lessons with students. I did eventually do Mike’s wonderful Kirtan training, performed at more Kirtan events, and went to Kirtans as a participant, deepening my connection with the words and songs, dancing, and feeling the deep peace and love that arose. You could say I’m hooked. And not from the perspective of having a belief system to confirm, but from a deep trust in the wisdom and indestructible truth of my own experience.