December 29, 2010

Review: Krishna Das’s “Chants of a Lifetime: Searching for a Heart of Gold”

The best part about Krishna Das’s new book is that, unlike other books that include transcribed material from recorded workshop presentations, it reads sequentially and coherently, like a memoir. From KD’s struggles with depression to his early meetings with Ram Dass to his journeys to India and encounters with his guru Neem Karoli Baba, I found that I kept reading because I wanted to find out what happened next.

While Krishna Das’s writing is vernacular almost to a fault (expressions like “freaked out” convey more in person than they do on the printed page) it is always personal and immediate, like his chanting, and blissfully free of lighter-than-air New Age argot.

His willingness to expose his own struggles and shortcomings is reminiscent of Thomas Merton’s, though the writing style is, of course, very different and KD is  more explicit about his failures.  His frankness is inspiring to the rest of us in the midst of our own struggles, and is a big help is seeing our stuff for what it is.

No matter how much meditation, chanting, yoga poses, or any other practice we do, it’s very hard to remove the fears that come up in our daily lives and the feeling of being isolated from the rest of the world…The good news is that our feeling of unworthiness, our self-judgment, is just stuff; it’s not who we are.

Of course, “who we really are” can easily become one more thing that we chase after and try to grasp, and the book  has reassurance for those of us who tend to get so caught up in seeking our “real Self” that we end up trying to wish our everyday selves away

I couldn’t imagine that enlightenment, or happiness, would include my being there.  I kept waiting to disappear, and that never happened.  Still hasn’t happened…There is no time or place where we will not be, ever.

For me, personally, the most inspiring and reassuring aspect of the book was the reaffirmation of what makes us happy as the starting point for a spiritual practice.  I, too, find happiness in “just singing,” but because I’m inclined to assume that if I love something, it can’t possibly be good for me, I never made it my daily practice before reading Chants of a Lifetime. “If we don’t do the things that make us happy,” Krishna Das asks, “how are we going to help anybody?” When we find inspiration in the things that comfort and restore us, we are better equipped to bring the fruits of our practice to a hungry world.

I also appreciated Krishna Das’s straightforward approach to spiritual practice.  His no-nonsense attitude reminded me of Shunryu Suzuki’s insistence that the main thing about a practice is doing it, not what may or may not happen to us as we do.

I approach chanting in a very pragmatic way: I try not to create any fantasies in my head about what is supposed to be happening…Anything that raises anticipation or creates an expectation of what is going to happen is a hindrance. To me it is not about achieving ecstatic states.  It is about love…Ecstasy comes and goes.

The book comes bundled with a CD of some of KD’s better-known chants with the chorus-response parts removed, for use as part of a personal chanting practice, and is illustrated with plenty of color and black-and-white photographs.

Besides Krishna Das’s profound love for his guru, the main takeaway from his book, for me, is the vital importance of a regular spiritual practice, and the inevitability of its bearing fruit in our lives.  In the regular, repeated doing lies our liberation, as surely as seeds grow.  Practicing will accomplish what no amount of thinking or willing will.

We can’t think out way out of feeling separate, but when we do a practice, the walls we’ve constructed around our hearts begin to get broken down.  We become more ourselves, not less…It’s not a feeling that comes and goes–it’s who we are.

Chants of a Lifetime:  Searching for a Heart of Gold

Krishna Das

Hay House, February 2010

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