Chanting as a Heart-path to God

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November 30, 2010

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Tami Simon speaks with Jai Uttal, a Grammy-nominated musician who is best known as a world-renowned kirtan artist, kirtan being ecstatic chant in a call-and-response format. His music is an eclectic mix of contemporary and ancient musical elements from various cultures throughout the Eastern and Western worlds. Jai has created five albums with Sounds True, including Kirtan!, and his latest release, Bhakti Bazaar. Jai discusses chanting as a devotional practice, the story of Jai’s first trip to India, his experience meeting his guru, and his understanding of the many Hindu god and goddess figures. (67 minutes)

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Jai Uttal is a Grammy®-nominated pioneer in the world music community. His eclectic East-meets-West sound has put his music at the forefront of the world fusion movement. Jai's musical roots embrace a rich variety of cultures and traditions that span the globe and the centuries. From the hillbilly music of the Appalachian Mountains to the passionate strains of Bengali street singers, from the haunting rhythms and melodies of ancient India to contemporary electric rock sounds, Jai's music distills the essence of diverse musical forms.

As a child in New York City, Jai's home was filled with music. He began studying classical piano at the age of seven, and later learned to play old-time banjo, harmonica, and guitar. His musical interests encompassed a wide variety of styles, and over the years he experimented with many forms of musical expression.

Eventually this led him to the work of India's National Living Treasure, Ali Akbar Khan. At the age of 19, Jai moved to California to become a student of Khansahib for traditional voice training and to learn the sarod, a 25-stringed Indian instrument. Later he traveled to India where he was deeply inspired by the Bauls, the wandering street musicians of Bengal. Jai settled among them, communicating only through music, which ultimately helped establish his unique style.

During these early visits to India, Jai also met his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, and spent time with many great beings of both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. He became deeply absorbed in the practice of kirtan, the ancient yoga of chanting, or singing to God. This form of prayer became the core of his musical and spiritual life.

When Jai returned to the US, his music had been transformed. He continued to study Indian music diligently while also performing in reggae, Motown, punk, and blues bands. He also began leading kirtan groups all over the country. The combination of Jai's exceptional vocals and exotic instrumentation produced a new and captivating sound. In 1991 Triloka Records released his debut album, Footprints, featuring world music innovator Don Cherry and Indian vocalist Lakshmi Shankar. The album received critical acclaim and led Jai and his band, the Pagan Love Orchestra, to international prominence. By the time his second album, Monkey, was released in 1993, Jai and the Pagan Love Orchestra had an enormous fan base with a top ten record on the world music charts. In 1994, Beggars and Saints was released—a tribute to the Bauls of Bengal—and again the album received international recognition, solidifying Jai Uttal's position as a world music visionary. During this time, Jai also produced two CDs for his teacher Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. Combining the brilliance of Khansahib's playing and composing with Western orchestration, Journey and Garden of Dreams became extremely popular in the Indian community.

Jai's fourth release, Shiva Station, was another leap forward. Capturing the raw urgency of his live performances with the Pagan Love Orchestra, and adding the mixing wizardry of veteran producer Bill Laswell, Shiva Station presented traditional chants in a totally new way. The concerts at that time united the temple and the nightclub, the sacred and the worldly, emphasizing the underlying theme that spirituality and devotion can pervade all aspects of life. Meanwhile, with the rise of interest in Yoga, Jai was receiving more and more requests to lead kirtan workshops and concerts all over the world. In the last few years, chanting has brought him to Israel, Fiji, Brazil, Germany, Switzerland, and India. Jai released a live kirtan CD entitled Nectar to begin to chronicle these powerful events.

In 2002, Jai Uttal and the Pagan Love Orchestra released Mondo Rama on Narada Records. The product of several years of deep musical and self-exploration through a time of true darkness, Mondo Rama has been called Jai's most personal expression to date and went on to be nominated for a Grammy as "Best New Age Album."

As Jai's work increasingly became devoted to kirtan, in 2003 he began the first of several recordings focused on the practice of bhakti yoga (kirtan) for the Sounds True label. These have included Kirtan! The Art and Practice of Ecstatic Chant, Music for Yoga and Other Joys, Loveland, Dial 'M' for Mantra, and Pranayama, a collaboration with his wife, yoga teacher and bhakti dancer Nubia Teixeira. It is this marriage and the subsequent birth of son Ezra that fueled a creative rebirth for Jai that culminated in the 2008 recording Thunder Love, a sonic approximation of darkness giving way to dawn and finally opening up to love. In 2010 Jai followed-up his very popular Music For Yoga and Other Joys with a 2nd edition to the series called Bhakti Bazaar. 2011 saw the release of two new albums, Queen of Hearts (Nutone), a unique mixture of reggae, ska, and samba rhythms, used as a backdrop for call and response, dance-oriented kirtan; as well as Kirtan Kids (Sounds True), the first record of its kind, created for families to sing, laugh, dance, and celebrate life together through call-and-response singing.

Jai adds, "World music is music from everywhere. Music that creates bridges. Music that unites hearts and cultures. Music that brings peace."

Author photo © Stephanie Mohan

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Chanting as a Heart-path to God

Tami Simon speaks with Jai Uttal, a Grammy-nominated musician who is best known as a world-renowned kirtan artist, kirtan being ecstatic chant in a call-and-response format. His music is an eclectic mix of contemporary and ancient musical elements from various cultures throughout the Eastern and Western worlds. Jai has created five albums with Sounds True, including Kirtan!, and his latest release, Bhakti Bazaar. Jai discusses chanting as a devotional practice, the story of Jai’s first trip to India, his experience meeting his guru, and his understanding of the many Hindu god and goddess figures. (67 minutes)

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Tools for Cultivating Supportive Friendships & Relationships:

CHRISTOPHE ANDRÉ:

For this toolbox I’d like to put forward a little bit of theory about how we are supported by relationships — that is, to offer an overall look at what we receive from our relationships with others.

The five benefits of relationships. Studies show that social support can be broken down into several families of benefits:

  1. Material support: Others can help us in concrete ways. If I’ve broken my leg, I will be glad if somebody will do my shopping for me. If I have to move, I will be happy to have my friends help me transport the boxes.
  2. Informational support: Others can advise us, give us useful infor- mation, and play the role of human search engines — as intelligent as Google but alive and compassionate — and they won’t resell our personal information afterward.
  3. Emotional support: Others are the source of positive emotions; they give us affection, love, friendship, trust, admiration.
  4. The support of esteem. Others can remind us of our value and good qualities, tell us what they like about us, and sustain our self-esteem at moments of uncertainty.
  5. The inspiration of their example: This is more difficult to evaluate scientifically, but it’s quite real, as we have indicated.

The four varieties of relationships. Another important point is that it is helpful to cultivate varied social relationships, just as it is important to have a varied diet. There are four families of relationships, distributed in four concentric circles:

  1. Our intimates: the people we live with, whom we touch and embrace practically every day. This means mostly our family and best friends.
  2. Our close relations: our friends and colleagues, people with whom we regularly have close and regular exchanges.
  3. Our acquaintances: the whole network of people with whom we have a connection, even occasional, and who we keep track of and who keep track of us.
  4. Unknowns: those who we might also have relationships with, depending on our character. This includes people we might speak to on the street, on public transport, in stores. They can also be sources of help or information for us, as we can for them.

Specialists in social relations remind us that it is important to draw sup- port from these four circles — not only from our intimate and close relations—and to sustain our connections with these four relational spheres by giving and receiving help, information, support, eye contact, advice, and smiles. Because the idea is not only to receive but also to give, by speaking to unknowns and maintaining warm relations with our acquaintances, neighbors, and shopkeepers, we do ourselves good. And we embellish the world, improve it, and make it more human!

 

MATTHIEU RICARD:

The importance of social connection. We should choose to live in an environment where people are warm, altruistic, and compassionate. If this isn’t the case in all areas of our living space, we should progressively try to establish these values or, if it’s possible, we should leave the toxic environment.

In this connection, I like to cite the case of a community on the Japanese island of Okinawa, which claims to have one of the world’s highest concentrations of people aged a hundred or over. It appears that the main factor in this exceptional longevity is not the climate or the food, but the power of this community, where people maintain particularly rich social relationships. From cradle to grave, they relate very closely with one another. The elderly people in particular get together several times a week to sing, dance, and have a good time. Almost every day they go to schools to greet the children (whether they have familial links with them or not) at the end of the school day. The elders take the children in their arms and give them treats.

Draw inspiration from the righteous, from people who, in our eyes, embody the values of impartiality, tolerance, compassion, love, and kindness. In these times of the migratory crisis, I think of all those who have taken great risks, and I remember those who protected Jewish people during the Nazi persecutions of World War II, particularly those who hid Jews in their homes. These people have since come to be called “The Righteous.” The only common point that emerges from their many accounts is a view of others based on recognition of their common human- ity. All human beings deserved to be treated with kindness. Where we saw a stranger, they saw a human being.

Meditate on altruistic love. Studies in psychology have shown that meditating on altruistic love increases people’s feelings of belonging to a community; it enhances the quality of social connections and compassionate attitudes toward unknown people, while at the same reduc- ing discrimination toward particular groups, like people of color, homeless people, and immigrants.

Draw inspiration from friends in the good and spiritual masters. I recommend that everyone see a historical documentary made in India by Arnaud Desjardins at the end of the 1960s, in which we are shown the most respected of the Tibetan masters who took refuge on the Indian slopes of the Himalayas following the Chinese invasion of their country. The film is called The Message of the Tibetans.

 

ALEXANDRE JOLLIEN:

The audacity to live. Existing, opening oneself to the other, is running a risk. It means dropping one’s armor, one’s protective coverings, and opening one’s eyes and daring to give oneself to the other and to the entire world. There’s no way you can invest in a relationship, so throw out your logic of profit and loss! What if we were to embark on our day without any idea of gain or of using our fellow human beings? What if we stayed attentive to all the women and men it is given to us to encoun- ter on that day, looking to find among them masters in being human? 

Identify our profound aspirations. Helping others can often amount to imposing a view of the world on them without really paying any attention to what they really want in their hearts. A man bought an elephant without giving any thought in advance to how he was going to feed it. At a loss, he was obliged to turn for help to those around him, and what he got from them was, “You never should have bought such a big animal!” What does it mean to help others? Does it mean committing completely to being there for them? Does it mean going all the way with them?

Authentic compassion. A will to power might enter into our move- ment toward the other—a thirst for recognition, a twisted attempt to redeem ourselves. Daring a true encounter means quitting the sphere of your neurosis and walking the path of freedom together. There’s no more “me,” no more “you,” but a coalescent “us,” a primordial solidarity.

Coming out of the bunker. As a result of having been burned in our relationship with another, the temptation is great to put on armor, to completely shut ourselves up in a bunker-like fortress, even to the point of suffocation. Don’t our passions, our griefs, our loves, and the fierce- ness of our desire remind us that we are essentially turned toward the other, in perpetual communication? Is there a way to live the thousand and one contacts of daily life without our ego appropriating them?

This is excerpted from the newest book from Matthieu Ricard, Christophe André, and Alexandre Jollien, Freedom For All Of Us: A Monk, A Philosopher, and a Psychiatrist on Finding Inner Freedom.

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Matthieu Ricard is a Buddhist monk, a photographer, and a molecular geneticist who has served as an interpreter for the Dalai Lama. 

Christophe André is a psychiatrist and one of the primary French specialists in the psychology of emotions and feelings.

 Alexandre Jollien is a philosopher and a writer whose work has been attracting an ever-growing readership. Together, they are the authors of In Search of Wisdom and Freedom For All of Us.

picture of the book titles Freedom for All of Us

Learn More

Sounds True | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Bookshop | IndieBound

 

Meet a Coauthor of . . . Freedom for All of Us

The Author

Christophe André is a psychiatrist specializing in the psychology of emotions. His books include Imperfect, Free, and Happy, and Meditating, Day after Day. He lives in France. For more, visit christopheandre.com.

Freedom For All Of Us

The Book

With their acclaimed book In Search of Wisdom, three gifted friends—a monk, a philosopher, and a psychiatrist—shed light on our universal quest for meaning, purpose, and understanding. Now, in this new in-depth offering, they invite us to tend to the garden of our true nature: freedom.

Filled with unexpected insights and specific strategies, Freedom for All of Us presents an inspiring guide for breaking free of the unconscious walls that confine us.

 

Translated from the original responses in French.

Send us a photo of your sacred space or workspace.

Here is the view from my home office in Saint-Malo, Brittany, France. My writing space is situated on the top-most floor of the house, just underneath our roof, and each time I lift my head to look out the window, I see the beach, the ocean, and, further away, the ramparts of the old city. The ever-changing nature [of this place], the sky and the tides forever moving (and morphing), the memory of all the corsairs (pirates) of Saint-Malo’s past … all of these things are what inspire me and bring joy to my life.

What is something about you that doesn’t make it into your author bio? It could be something that impacts your work, or something totally random and entertaining!

[There’s] nothing necessarily odd or extraordinary, but perhaps a rather banal fact [is my] being a parent. For me, becoming a father is the event that has most changed me in my life (and has most encouraged me to better myself). It has truly enriched my life the most.

There are two key moments (or memories) that for me [define] being a parent. Firstly, those moments where we realize our children are watching and judging us; and this moment can be very moving and also uncomfortable as a parent, because you feel like your children have discovered all your limits or your faults. (How can we hide it? Impossible, they will see them! At least once, or from time to time.) The essential lesson is that we don’t try to constantly hide our true selves, and this encourages us to transform ourselves. The watchful eye and judgments of our children can feel like a challenge for parents, but a fruitful challenge [nonetheless].

The other key moment is when we realize that our children are more skilled in ways we are not (and sometimes in all ways)! It’s that moment when we discover that we, as parents, are learning from our children; their intelligence, generosity, and enthusiasm. It’s the moment that we allow ourselves, discreetly and with great humility, to let them be our teachers.

If you could invite any three transformational leaders or spiritual teachers (throughout time) to dinner, who would they be and why?

I imagine I would probably be too intimidated to actually have dinner or a conversation with the following three people! I would probably prefer to follow them, like a shadow or a small mouse, and to watch them live and work over several days. To observe their intimate, everyday routines, and listen to their discourse (which in a way is possible with all of their published works). It has always seemed to me that wisdom arises, above all, through example and embodiment.

I would love to follow the everyday life of Etty Hillesum, [the writer], who was a stranger to hatred. Even when she would have every reason to hate the Nazis, who had her executed [at Auschwitz], she still spoke of grace even in a world where only fear, violence, and injustice seemed to live.

I would love to follow alongside Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during a day in his life. I admire him for his choice to fight for civil rights without the use of violence. I remember, vividly, crying when I visited his memorial in Atlanta.

And finally, I would love to shadow Henry David Thoreau when he was living in his cabin at Walden. I admire his decision to live a life filled with only the essentials: nature, spirituality, and few material possessions, which is in stark contrast to the mistakes and values that we hold in this modern day.

Freedom For All Of Us

Learn More

Sounds True | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Bookshop | IndieBound

Meet a Coauthor of . . . Freedom for All of Us

The Author

Alexandre Jollien is a philosopher and writer who spent 17 years in a home for the physically disabled. His books include In Praise of Weakness. He lives in Switzerland. For more, visit alexandre-jollien.ch.

Freedom for All of Us Cover

The Book

With their acclaimed book In Search of Wisdom, three gifted friends—a monk, a philosopher, and a psychiatrist—shed light on our universal quest for meaning, purpose, and understanding. Now, in this new in-depth offering, they invite us to tend to the garden of our true nature: freedom.

Filled with unexpected insights and specific strategies, Freedom for All of Us presents an inspiring guide for breaking free of the unconscious walls that confine us.

 

Translated from the original responses in French.

What is one unexpected thing or habit that inspires your writing practice? Is there a

playlist or album you listen to?

Sils Maria

Meditation really opens me up to write. Walking too. Above is a photo of me walking in Sils Maria, Switzerland, where Friedrich Nietzsche lived at one time. However, in my eyes, writing is never systematic [or methodical]. It’s not a [mere] technique. A writer has to render themself available to messages that come—in some sense—from beyond. Conversations with friends, explorations into the mundane, family life, the readings of the great thinkers, the practice of Zazen … all these things feed my desire to pick up my pen again. I write, or rather I dictate my writings, in silence. However, sometimes I do enjoy techno music, which keeps me going and wards off anything that could poison an idea I have; “the sad passions” as the philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, called them.

Send us a photo of you and your pet (and let us know if your pet had any role in helping you write your book)!

Grisette

We have a little hamster at home, Grisette, who is our children’s little darling. For me, he embodies peace and a certain serenity. When I look at him, I see a being that isn’t deep in denial and agitated. [Although] sometimes, when he frolics on his hamster wheel, I have the impression that he’s reminding me that my mind, too, can often run in [unnecessary] circles …

 

 

 

If there is a book that started your spiritual journey, what was it? How old were you, and

how did you discover it? How would you describe its impact?

When I was a child, I didn’t enjoy reading and I thought that wisdom was reserved for the elite. I considered culture to be so far removed from everyday problems that I avoided it completely. One day, I accompanied a friend into a bookstore. While I was waiting for her, I flipped through pages from books by Plato and Aristotle. The book [that made an impact] was L’étonnement philosophique [“Philosophic Wonder”] by Jeanne Hersch, which traces the history of Western thought. In my adolescence, that book gave me a great foundation, a benchmark, a marker, a starting point. It’s an admirable book. Afterwards, I really fell into reading the greats, like Plato, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Epictetus, all of which still inspire me today. I was 14 years old then, and reading had changed my life.

Below are portraits [of some of my favorite philosophers and spiritual teachers] painted by my son, Augustin.

portraits

 

 

 

Learn More

Sounds True | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Bookshop | IndieBound

 

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