If you enter a chant with all your heart, you’ll discover for yourself that it's much more than a beat, a melody, and a mantra.
Chanting has played a significant role in yoga, in religion, and in many cultural traditions because it is a powerful way of bringing an individual or a group into an experience of unity. The word Yoga comes from the Sanskrit word ‘yuj’ meaning to join or yoke. Today yoga is generally understood to mean union. Religion derives from the Latin word ‘religare’ meaning to reconnect. It’s not entirely surprising that enlightened notions of health and wellbeing are also associated with a return to wholeness, often using music and chant to create a healing ambience.
A key element of chant is repetition, which is the basis of rhythm. We generally perceive rhythm as stable repetition. At a relative level that certainly seems true, but the deeper we look the more we discover this to be only an appearance.
Creation is essentially unstable. If it were absolutely stable then it would be unchanging and your body wouldn’t age or die. Most importantly you would never have been born to become the individual that you seem to be. Another way of seeing this instability is to notice that no two things are exactly the same in every detail, and even if they appear to be indistinguishably similar then they can’t be in the same place at the same time. And nothing can be repeated in exactly the same way.
Every moment is new, even though it might seem very familiar, and each beat of the chant announces the new reality coming into being. A chant can take you on a journey through altered states of consciousness, including the one you are currently experiencing. It can transport your attention away from all that is unstable to reveal that which is unchanging and ever present in all experiences.
At the level of the individual the underlying rhythms of chant are the heartbeat and the breath. Yet all things, all appearances, have their patterns of rhythm and vibration. Any form can be seen as a complex interplay of vibrations and harmonics. For example, the harmonics in a musical note are the less obvious pulses that give it a particular sound quality, and help you distinguish between different instruments and voices. A similar principle applies to light and matter. When we see colour we don’t think of it as being a high frequency vibration. The interplay of many vibrations leads to more and more complex patterns where the beats no longer appear as rhythm but as form.
Words, concepts, stories, and mantras have evolved from the sound of the breath as Ahhh or Haaa, and the primal sounds A, U, and M which are sounded by the vibrating vocal chords. Bringing your attention to these primal sounds can transport you to a state of consciousness prior to concepts, or to a state of consciousness beyond concepts, where concepts no longer have a dominant role in your awareness. Complete immersion in the words of the mantra, and the lyrics of the chant, can reveal the underlying field of reality out of which meaning arises.
Originally a thing was named when a sound was associated with it, then every unconscious repetition of that sound gave the thing a greater appearance of reality until it became a recognised word. There are countless things that are never named because they are too complex, or too subtle, to be generally recognised. The chant can create an opening into these more subtle realms of knowledge which are often overlooked yet seem obvious when seen.
Though many students believe that the words of the mantra have power, it’s actually the student’s belief that has the power, and more importantly, it’s the student’s complete immersion in the mantra that dissolves their conceptual shackles.
You don’t have to make a choice to chant mantras and melodies to awaken, to become spiritually enlightened, because you’re already chanting whether you know it or not. Look at the words, thoughts, beliefs and opinions and stories that you chant everyday. Repeatedly thinking about complaints and trivia sustains a sense of limitation and suffering. It’s like practising a negative chant. Notice the words or melodies that are repeatedly playing in your mind. This is your chant in this moment.
Creation is singing and pulsing in every direction. The rhythm of life and the music of life are revealed in this one song of the uni-verse. Once we notice it then we can join the song more consciously.
Most people are familiar with chanting as a devotional practice, or as a way of achieving ecstatic states of consciousness, and some people chant as a way to manifest their desires through repeated affirmations. There are many forms of chanting that open up different states of consciousness. No matter what form it takes there’s always the possibility to move so deeply into the chant that the mind is transcended; in other words all concepts about the chant and its purpose fall away to reveal its pure source.
People who have no knowledge of chanting can and do awaken because they are already an expression of the complex rhythms and vibrations of creation, and as such they awaken through whatever avenue opens for them, be it after long years of seeking, or a moment of grace. So while a conscious chanting practise isn’t essential to realisation, it’s certainly a wonderful way to express awakening, or to learn about it.
Chanting offers insights into some fascinating states of consciousness, but more importantly it’s one of the vehicles that can guide you back to your true nature, not the self-conscious entity that thinks it’s a limited person, but the real you that’s aware and present in every experience, positive or negative, beyond concepts and imagination. Anything that appears in consciousness, in time, in space, is subject to change. Yet if you go deeply into the very rhythm of change, the rhythm of the chant, you can awaken to the timeless aspect of yourself that is always free. Chanting isn’t only about doing a particular spiritual practise, it’s an opportunity to realise that you are the song that creation is singing; you are life itself arising in pure awareness, giving voice to the eternal now.
Photo: Kavisha Mazzella and the Fire Choir chanting Love I Call Your Name, from the DVD 'The Final Piece'.