In the fall of 2008, a week after my 42nd birthday, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Gone was the assumption that my active lifestyle and healthy diet would guarantee me a long life. I had two small children, and when I told them “I am here for you, no matter what,” the words felt empty.
During this time of biopsies and surgeries and pathology reports, I rediscovered the music of Krishna Das, whose low, sonorous voice had been the soundtrack to my weekly yoga class for years. Listening to his CDs calmed me and gave me faith that everything would be OK, even if my worst fears came true.
As it turns out, I got lucky. The cancer was caught early, the doctors were able to treat it, and there’s only a small chance of recurrence. As I was recovering from my final surgery, I decided to attend a three-day workshop with Krishna Das at the Ananda Ashram, a spiritual retreat and educational center near New York City.
Krishna Das was born Jeffrey Kagel in 1947 on Long Island in New York. His parents were Jewish, but as a teenager he began reading books on Eastern religion, and he went on to study meditation in his 20s. In the early 1970s he met spiritual teacher Ram Dass, who told him about the guru Neem Karoli Baba, known to his followers as Maharaj-ji. Captivated by Ram Dass’ stories, Kagel traveled to India to meet the guru and spent nearly three years at his ashram. Maharaj-ji gave him an Indian name, Krishna Das, meaning “one who serves [the Hindu god] Krishna,” and introduced him to kirtan, the Indian devotional practice of chanting the names of God. Krishna Das returned to the United States and, over the years, developed his own signature chanting style, mixing traditional kirtan with Western harmonic and rhythmic sensibilities.
Today he stays on the road almost full time, leading kirtans around the world. He has released 14 CDs and recently wrote Chants of a Lifetime: Searching for a Heart of Gold, a mix of biography, teachings, and insights. He has recorded with Sting and sung for Madonna; the New York Times dubbed him “the chant master of American yoga.”
I spoke with Krishna Das after participating in a kirtan he led at the Ananda Ashram.
How would you describe kirtan?
It depends on who I’m talking to, because I don’t want to scare people away. If I say it’s “meditation with music,” some will be put off by that. In India they call it the “repetition of the sacred names of God,” but I don’t want to say that to someone who doesn’t believe in God. I don’t even know if I believe in God—not the one described in Western religious traditions anyway. In India people understand that God is within. There are Hindu images associated with God—deities like Krishna, Hanuman, and Kali—but when it comes down to it, these deities are symbols of the divine that lives inside each one of us.
Is it possible for someone who’s never been to India and is not well versed in the Hindu gods and goddesses to genuinely connect with the tradition?
You don’t need to know all the deities. You don’t need to know anything about Indian culture. You don’t have to know what the words mean, because nobody really knows what the words mean. You can learn the lower, superficial meanings intellectually—Krishna did this, and Ram did that—but the real meaning of these chants is our own deepest being.
I’ve been to yoga-teacher trainings and heard people say, “If you don’t understand the deities, you’ll never be a good yoga teacher.” Bullshit. We’re Americans. We didn’t grow up with this. It’s not native to us. I’ve spent a fair portion of my life in India and still don’t have a clue. It doesn’t mean that much to me. There it is: I told the truth.
Do you take a traditional Indian approach to chanting, or is your method more American?
It’s kind of Long Island meets Delhi, or kirtan via the Midtown Tunnel. When I was in India, I would try to sing what I heard. After I got back to the U.S., the music I had grown up with began showing through. My melodies are more Western, but the chants are essentially the same as those we sing in India.
Do you think chant takes us to a place that other methods don’t?
Meditation is misunderstood in the West. It’s taught as a concentration exercise, but that’s only the very beginning, a way to get you to pay attention. Later the practice changes; the instructions change. In the United States meditation is seen as an act of will: You’re trying to stop your mind. But you’ll never do it. It’s no wonder so many people give up. With chanting, because of the music and everyone doing it together, you don’t think of it as a “practice.”
I sing; the audience sings back. As the night goes on, they forget about the car in need of repair or the pile of bills on the kitchen table. People begin to let go of the story lines that brought them here and enter deeper and deeper into the practice, into the moment.
Does chant ever give rise to pain or heartache or suffering?
It can. When we chant, we’re not trying to get high. We’re not “failures” if we don’t feel happy. Sometimes healing and connecting more deeply to the love inside of us is painful. It can bring us in touch with something we have hidden from. It’s this pain that leads us to deeper questions: What is it we’re looking for? What is it we really need?
You know, this is the blues. We’re singing the blues. And there’s a joy, a strength in our yearning.
Was Judaism a significant part of your childhood?
No, there wasn’t any belief in God or religion in my household. I was a spiritual self-starter. [Laughs.] I had a pretty unhappy childhood. I didn’t like myself much, but I had a sense there was something out there that might save me from myself. In high school I started reading books on Buddhism. I took peyote the summer between my junior and senior years in high school, and that changed everything. All the lights went on. Suddenly I understood the way things really are. And then I came down. It was horrible. I’d had a glimpse of the truth, and now it was gone. I went to see every yogi who came to the U.S., but nothing really clicked—until I met Ram Dass.
Do you still feel like a Westerner?
Absolutely. In fact, it becomes more and more clear to me how Western I am when I see how difficult it is for me to truly live my guru’s teachings. When someone asks the Dalai Lama about compassion, he says the first person who deserves compassion is oneself. We Westerners overlook that important first step.
The tragedy of Western culture is that we’re taught to think happiness is something outside ourselves, so we don’t know to look for it within. In the East people get stuck in material desires like we do, but at least there is an understanding that possessions come and go; bodies come and go. The principles of karma and reincarnation give them a different view of life’s ebb and flow.
That said, I wouldn’t say life is easier for them. They have their own problems: poverty, hunger, disease. It’s hard to be happy with those concerns. But they don’t hate themselves the way we do—or, at least, I haven’t found that they do. I think it’s because, for the most part, affection isn’t used there as a tool to control people.
Do you still need to remind yourself to love yourself?
Every day. I need to remember to allow the practice to soften my heart. Westerners tend to build thick shells around their hearts, and their shells are usually made of ego, of an identity: “I’m wealthy” or “I’m a victim” or even “I’m enlightened.”
For many in the West, the word guru evokes a negative stereotype of a religious huckster who deceives his followers.
There’s no question that people have taken advantage of that role, using it in a self-serving and abusive way.
Real gurus don’t intend to teach; they teach just by being. The word guru means “one who dispels the darkness,” which is different from giving light. Giving light means giving people something that they don’t already have. Gurus remove the layers of darkness and show you what’s already there. They peel away the self-hatred, the guilt, the shame, the fear. A guru is someone who has truly conquered all of that and lives only to help people. There’s no edge, no harshness, only complete love and acceptance—and a kind of cosmic chuckle because you don’t fully understand; not laughing at you, but saying, “Come on! Get with it!”
During one of your talks an audience member pointed out that you speak of seeking “something,” rather than the “nothingness” of Buddhism.
When I talk about “seeking,” I’m not talking about philosophy. The void, nothingness, emptiness—these are philosophical concepts that are hard to understand. They’re not really where I spend my time. I’m talking about finding a love that lasts, a happiness that doesn’t depend on possessions and the way others see us, and the strength to deal with the hard parts of life.
Ultimately that separateness, that isolated feeling of “me,” will not remain when you go deeper into yourself and recognize yourself to be the whole universe, so to speak. You can still function, but once you’re not identified with that self anymore, you don’t need the same things that you used to need in order to get through the day and feel good. You don’t need people to love you. You don’t need people to honor you or respect you. You don’t need to prop yourself up with belongings, because you’re in touch with your natural sense of well-being, which lives in all our hearts. That’s the “something” we’re trying to find.
It sounds as if, in the process of trying to find it, we risk losing ourselves.
Yes. That’s the beauty of it. But we risk losing only our separate self, and the suffering that comes with it.
We have to keep letting go of everything: the story lines, the habits, the attachments. And we have to be aware, because otherwise the shadows will come back and haunt us. We have to become aware of them in order to let go of them. We can be free of the shadows and make every day new, but we have to start by asking: Why am I creating all this suffering for myself? Where do these patterns come from, these habits of thought?
You make it sound so easy.
I can only speak for myself. If I say that I believe chanting and practice help, it’s because they’ve helped me. But the process is gradual. As they say in India, you can’t rip the skin off a snake or you’ll kill him, but at the right time the snake sheds his skin. Our patterns, our stories, who we experience ourselves to be—that’s our skin. If you were to go from your current lifestyle to living in a cave in India with no TV, no bagels, no nothing, you’d probably go out of your mind. That’s ripping off your skin. Chanting is a great practice for me because I’m not going off to a cave to do it. I don’t have to wear special clothes. I don’t have to be initiated.
It’s like building spiritual muscle.
You can think of it that way. Once I heard a story about an old Tibetan monk who was imprisoned by the Chinese and tortured and beaten for decades. When he was released, he went to see the Dalai Lama, who asked the monk, “Were you afraid?” And he said, “Oh, yes, I was afraid that when they were torturing me, I would get angry.”
The sort of wisdom and strength he had doesn’t come through the mind. Never in a million years can we understand it, but we can become it through practice. Practice means learning from life instead of being bounced around by it. Once you know the worst isn’t going to run you over, you can look the world in the eye without blinking.
We think we have it tough, with our little bit of pain, but these great beings are aware of the pain of everyone in the universe. And it doesn’t shut them down. It increases their compassion.
A practice like chanting gradually bestows on us the ability to let go of pain in our hearts. But it does take time. It’s not an instant pill that you take—I tried that. The pill is good for a while, maybe 24 hours at most. And then the pain is worse than when you started.
You represent an Eastern way of thinking that’s based in egolessness, yet you have reached a certain level of celebrity here in the West. Is ego an issue?
Anytime my ego does begin to balloon, something comes along to pop it. One time, when I was touring in Europe, a friend of mine in Denmark invited a friend of hers to one of my kirtans. He’d lived in India for many years. “Nah, I’m not going,” he said. “Krishna Das is just an American burger with Indian ketchup.” I love that! It’s too bad he didn’t come, but it doesn’t mean I’m a failure. My job is just to offer the practice. People take it or leave it as they prefer.
You’re quite lucky to have your practice end up being your life’s work.
I am incredibly lucky. Every time I sit down to chant, no matter what I’m stuck in, it’s not a problem by the end. Even if the first 2 hours and 59 minutes is like grinding my head against a millstone, in the last minute it’ll be gone. That’s the benefit of the practice for me. Whatever I’m stuck in, whatever I’m thinking about, whatever I’m feeling, whatever heaviness I can’t get rid of, it changes. My way of being with myself changes.
I still get cranky: I don’t want to sing. I’m tired. I don’t want to do another sound check. But as soon as I sit down and sing, I’m able to let go of all that. [Snaps fingers.] Good-bye.
Excerpted from The Sun (March 2011), which for more than 30 years has used personal essays, short stories, interviews, poetry, and photographs “to invoke the splendor and heartache of being human.” www.thesunmagazine.org
Have something to say? Send a letter to firstname.lastname@example.org. This article first appeared in the November-December 2011 issue of Utne Reader.