Friday, September 22, 2006

On Chanting

I have chanted my whole life. It has taken me too long to admit that to myself. That I have always chanted. That I can't escape it. It has taken becoming a father.

My family is from India and I was taught to chant Om. I think that when most Americans think of chanting Om, it is something bizarre. Laughable. Woodstock hippies chant Om. Even for those who are into yoga, I think chanting Om must feel exotic. But my exposure to chanting was from a very early age. First my dad gave my brother and me instruction in Prana Yama, or breathing techniques. Then when the Hindus in Mobile, Alabama, where I grew up, got a group meeting going every month, I learned more about chanting from Dr. Virupaksha Kothandapani. We called him Dr. Pani for short.

Dr. Pani taught us that there are four parts to expressing Om. The first is an aa sound. Then the oh sound. Then mmm. And finally silence. He explained the cosmological significance of each segment. He explained that the four parts blend together. He discussed the way your lips should move. How the sound comes from the depths of your body. How your chin might vibrate. How there are really two parts to the silence. The first part where there is no breadth and the second part when you take in breadth. We discussed whether you should keep your eyes open or closed or half opened. I took him so seriously. The way only a child can. If Dr. Pani knew how seriously I took him, I think he would have had second thoughts about those lessons.

At the beginning of each meeting, the whole group – about one hundred people – would chant Om together ten times. People said that chanting Om together relaxed them. That it made them momentarily forget their problems. It got them ready to discuss scriptures. One month, at the beginning of the meeting, during the chanting, on about the fifth or sixth Om, a tremendous and indescribably feeling washed over my entire body. My whole sense of self and being got subsumed in this totally overwhelming joyousness. I started crying. Part of me wanted to jump up and explain what had happened. But I thought that people would think I was a fool or seeking attention. It was 1986. Eight-year-old Indian-American boys didn't declare they had experienced satchitananda in 1986.


For a long time, when I chanted I tried to recover the intensity that I felt when I was eight. And without success. I had to portage around what was going on in my mind too often. By the time I was sixteen, when I closed my eyes the image of some girl I was infatuated with was likely to fill my mind. When I was taught Hinduism, the central lesson was a verse from the Gita that goes like this, Karmanye Vadhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana, Ma Karma Phala Hetur Bhurmatey Sangostva Akarmani. It roughly means that you should act according to your duties, but you should not be attached to the fruit of your actions. Attachments spiral into animal like behavior and suffering. So any attachment – as in lust for the red-headed goth who I saw in the hallway everyday between first and second periods – was not an appropriate beginning to start chanting from. So I stopped chanting.

A few years later, when I was a sophomore in college, I was a volunteer DJ for the college radio station. So I had access to the station's library of recordings. I would pick out five albums a week and listen to them in my room. I was desperately trying to figure out my taste in music. I came across a CD in a hardcover booklet. It was called Deep in the Heart of Tuva: Cowboy Music from the Wild East. The recordings were of Tuvan chanting, which is a kind of multi-tonal throat singing. One person sings in such a way that they produce at least two clear notes – a really high top note modulated into a melody above a guttural base note. It sounds kind of like an air-conditioning unit or a jet engine or a vacuum cleaner. I didn't come up with those comparisons actually. They were in the liner notes. I think the whole packaging – the title of the album, the booklet, the liner notes – tried to help Americans appreciate something very bizarre. I'm not criticizing the album or the packaging. But I think the album meant something else to me because it brought me back to chanting, back to what I had done before.

The thing about Tuvan chanting is that the singers aren't monks. They are mostly nomadic people. Shepherds. They don't chant to rid themselves of lust. They chant with the passion of men and women who live in the world. They chant for their animals, their yaks and their sheep. They chant for their lovers and their children. They chant to evoke spirits, demons, and ancestors. That wordly, celebratory, bodily aspect to the Tuvan chanting blew open a big door for me. It was one way back into the spirituality I grew up with, not the scriptural discourse of being unattached, but something else.

My dorm room was next to Michael Kraskin's. He was encouraging me to collaborate with him as a cellist and as a composer. We were sound designing a performance that David Terry was putting together, which has subsequently become the subject of episode 44 of their podcast, Catalogue of Ships. I spent so much time on music that I nearly failed a really important organic chemistry exam. If I wasn't working out a new section of the score with Mike or at one of David's insane rehearsals, I was in my room by myself practicing the cello, listening to the Tuvan chants, or chanting myself. I had a little tape recorder and I would record my chants. I kept trying to hear the multiple tones that I knew were already there. If I could hear the different tones, I thought I could tease them out. It felt crazy. But Dr. Pani had already taught me the basics when I was eight. I mean I wasn't Tuvan chanting back then, but the shaping of the lips, the contouring of the mouth, and the diaphragmatic breathing he taught me were exactly the right preparations for Tuvan chant.

I count those performances with Michael for David's play as a major accomplishment in my life. I played the cello as I had never done before. I even brought some chanting in. I was studying to be a physician, but I thought maybe I should be an artist.

A few weeks later, on a weeknight, sometime after midnight, I sat down on the floor in my dorm room to chant softly. Then I stopped and focused on my breathing. Then I started to feel an energy work its way up my spine. When it reached my head, I lost sense of time. Unlike when I was eight, there wasn't a whole room of people to worry about. By the time my ecstatic experience ended, I could barely walk. I was frightened. It seemed like I had experienced what the Hindu scriptures described as an endpoint, but I did not want to go back to that place and lose myself there, or deceive myself into thinking I was all of a sudden enlightened.

I gave up Tuvan chanting. I gave up meditating. I stopped collaborating with Michael and David. And I got the highest score on the next organic chemistry exam. I completely annihilated the curve.


Over the following years, the Tuvan chanting would creep back. I went to medical school. I quit medical school. I lived in Chicago. I lived in New York. I moved to Houston. I would chant for my friends. Then I would try to stop again. When I first met MaGreen, there was this party we were both at. It was poolside at a fancy apartment complex. We went swimming and there was a waterfall you could sit underneath. I just had the urge there to chant in accompaniment to the water with MaGreen and some other new friends there listening. It felt right. But then people asked me to do it again and again like it was a party trick. And that saddened me. So I swore off chanting again.

MaGreen understood that the chanting was sacred to me, which I appreciated. She understands the quivering line between the sacred and the silly. However, she's a bit tone deaf. She really values the lyrics in music and the overall effect of music. But she doesn't sing or play an instrument. We can't make music together. That's something I have had to silently forgive her for.

So when MaGreen went into labor and started to moan in a chant-like way, I was really surprised. That was about a year ago. On my birthday. Our daugher BabyG was born on my twenty-eight birthday. We had gotten to the hospital at midnight. We thought MaGreen was in full-blown labor, but when the midwife drove in she told us to try to sleep because active labor hadn't started yet. I slept until six am. I woke up to MaGreen's moaning. It was a high-pitched moan with an even higher tone ringing above the main note like a lone fire truck hurdling through the night sounding its sirens. Not to clear traffic but to align all the elements in the universe to focus all the forces from above and below calling them to the cause. Outside the hospital, the city was waking up. Jets howled, the buried pipes and cables whirred, lawnmowers, compressors, and heaters groaned, whined, and growled. The highway was one long wail. But MaGreen outmoaned it all, the whole city. Her moan was beyond any of my chanting. It was beyond any of the recordings of Tuvans I had heard. Her moan emanated from the walls and floor as if her moan never wasn’t there. It was not accidental like a leafblower’s whistle, like an air-conditioning unit's dueling drones. It was a sound beyond profit, beyond time-use and opportunity costs and comparative advantage, beyond concrete spilling over steel. She moaned with singular purpose. She started crying for air because she moaned it all out of her. Then she moaned some more.

I used to think chanting was something I would pass on to my child. But when I remember Lila's and my birthday, how MaGreen moaned, I think that maybe sound is not arbitrary. When I listen to BabyG chant herself to sleep in the car seat, I think maybe sound isn't just an artifact of particles or waves or wavicles. Maybe the phenomenological experience of sound isn't just an accident of evolution, a footnote of survival and selection, of frontal lobe development. And maybe chanting isn't just a culture or a tradition, or even a higher order physiology. Maybe to think I should pass chanting on to BabyG is like thinking I should write the moon and the stars into my will.


Her Grace said...

That was really a thoughtful and well-written post.

When I was in labor with my first, I moaned, but with my second it was so much more intense. I remember the nurse shaking my shoulders and telling me to STOP IT. I was apparently making her and everyone else uncomfortable, but it wasn't just that I was moaning in pain; it felt like when I moaned, it progressed things, like it wasn't something I could prevent or stop, but something I needed to do. I wish that nurse had left me alone and let me do what needed to be done.

In anycase, love your writing, and I learn something every time I come here!

Lou said...

what a great post.

quixoticmama said...

We listen to Tuvan Chanting in our home quite a lot.....

Anonymous said...

Raj--This is gorgeous.
I'm blown away--
David Bernardy (in his little office in Minneapolis)

GreenDaddy said...

Thanks bethany, lou, quixoticmama, and david. It can be scary to publish this kind of account. But scary can be a sign that the writing is worth sharing, right?

Bethany, it makes me sad that the nurse made you stop. Our nurses joined in!