From the vault: Chanting (2001)

Thursday, 16 July 2009 · 0 comments

I beat myself up all the time for not writing. Of course, the world is not holding its breath waiting for my pearls of deathless prose, so if I don’t write, who besides me is missing out? The thing is, writing, for me, means communication. I want people to read (or hear) and respond.

The truth is I’ve written plenty, but I haven’t tried to get my stuff published, or even put it out there much on my own. Perfectionism is at work here, as usual. I’ve taken writing courses, in the hopes that I would “improve” enough to feel confident to publish, only to have the teacher tell me my writing was already pretty polished, and to forget about the MFA program. Instead of encouraging me, it scared me, because I already suspected it was true. Another excuse to avoid my dharma was shot out from under me.

How do I know it’s my dharma? Because I’m pretty much useless for anything else. Nothing else holds my attention over the long haul like reading and writing, nothing really satisfies me the same way, nothing else seems to have quite the same effect on my consciousness, and sometimes even on others’.

I’ve noticed over the years (but never considered it to apply to me), that when a person has a good quality, the thing that will trip them up is pride. Pride is the flip side of low self-esteem. I think (and perhaps so do you): if I can’t be seen as perfect (or at least superior), then I will hide my puny light under a bushel and curse the world for being too dark.

I’ve come to realize, after reading Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, that my Maya, that variety of illusion that is specific to me, manifests itself as Resistance to writing and publishing. Other incarnations of Resistance (Pressfield attributes personality to this malign force) appear as depression, ill health, various addictions (sex, drugs, and alcohol), and the propensity to criticize. Since I’ve been good in the past fifteen years about following the four regulative principles, that leaves the other three, which explains why I’m not always the most fun person to be around.

In short, if we don’t express what’s inside of us in the way which we do (and love) best, we’re violating ourselves. Or as Prabhupada once put it, If you don’t share what you know, it will rot inside of you.

Resistance = Maya.

But what need is there, Tulasi-priya (you might ask) for all this detailed information? Especially about you? Why not just write about Krishna and forget the navel-gazing?

All I can say, to switch metaphorical horses in midstream, is that the garden of my heart is choked with weeds. I uproot them by chanting. I compost them by writing. The same anarthas that starve my bhakti-lata-bija, my tender little sprout of devotion, when purified and churned in the heat of introspection and craft, nourish it. We don’t offer Krishna compost, but we can’t grow fruits and flowers without it.

*            *             *             *

The following little essay was written when I first started the writing class in the summer of 2001. Though everyone in the class knew I was a devotee, I didn’t write about anything about Krishna consciousness at all up to that point, except perhaps in the most indirect way. This exercise was for the teacher’s eyes only. The instructions were to write about something you like to do, or a daily activity, in the most colorful language possible, to really go to town with descriptive words.

I felt a little inhibited at first, but then I thought, what the hell, nobody is going to see it but Valerie. When I finished it, I liked the writing, but didn’t think it seemed the “proper” way to write about chanting. I also feared it might be too narrowly “religious.” Who but a devotee would understand what I was trying to say? For that matter, would even a devotee get it? It’s often hard to break out of conventional ways of speaking about what is sacred, and even harder to get others within your group to understand or accept it.

But to my surprise Valerie liked it very much. I was even more surprised when, the following semester, I asked her what pieces I should try to get published. She told me the “chanting piece” was a good candidate for an online magazine that specializes in short creative non-fiction.

Have you guessed that I never submitted it?

* * * *
Chanting (2001)

I am chanting my japa, chanting Hare Krsna, the names of God. The mala, rosary, passes between my thumb and middle finger, one bead at a time, a steady pulse throbbing in time to the mantras I chant. I chant softly, in a singsong voice. I do this every day, have done it almost every day for the past nine years, the only thing I have done consistently in my life, next to breathing. Not eating not bathing not sleeping not writing—those things can wait, have waited. But not chanting. Each name rides on the breath, a universe the size of a dust speck, like the dust speck world in Horton Hears a Who. Like the universes, millions of them, streaming out of the pores of God like so many tiny air bubbles. Each word contains everything, including myself.

Sometimes I simply go through the motions. I pick up a book or the newspaper, reading, my mouth forming the sounds, the mantra carrying on without me, a river flowing, heedless of all the trash my mind dumps into it. Sometimes I fall asleep, the sound lulling me, like a child who needs a car ride before he drifts off.

I lied. There have been times when I haven’t chanted. The names go underground, buried, hibernating in the cave of my consciousness, like the yogis who bury themselves, entering samadhi, ceasing breathing, eating. Heart rate: one beat per year. Breath rate: once per decade. A living death. But then I hear a call, and I emerge, scraping the mold from my emaciated bones with my eight-inch fingernails and combing earthworms from my hair. Like the yogis, the first thing I want to do is eat. The names are bread and water.

The best times are when I ride the sound, the vibration an idling of a Harley Davidson with the muffler removed. The walls of the house buzz like a hive, the marrow of my bones goes liquid, then vaporizes. I gun the engine once or twice and take off. The destination? The ride is the destination, only the scenery changes, getting better and better, like riding out of the Bronx, across the heartland, through the Grand Canyon, onto the Pacific Coast Highway.

* * * *

If anybody wants to try this exercise for themselves (you’d be surprised at how free it makes you feel), you can write me for the specific instructions that my teacher gave me: tulasipriya [at] gmail [dot] com.

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