Can You OD on Kirtan?

This morning I received a message on social media from a man warning me that several of his friends had ‘OD-d’ on kirtan & that I needed to be careful and stay balanced. Although it caught me off guard (I’m pretty confident I’m grounded with this devotional stuff) the urgent tone of his message got me thinking.

It’s true that kirtan, devotional worship, & states of bhakti yoga brings a certain “high.” Some saints in India reached such ecstatic states that their body suddenly started jumping and prancing around with the boundless energy of a child. Others neglected their body altogether, stopped eating and let bugs feed on their arms. These saints had to be looked after by attendants. Still, these are rare cases.

On the other hand, to compare a yogi’s state of devotion to drug overdose is a bit extreme and insensitive to the fact that drug addiction & overdosing is fatal, a serious epidemic in society. The emotional highs of Bhakti/ spirituality ‘addiction’ are generally healthy and certainly not lethal.

Anyone who’s a passionate person knows we get thrown off balance from time to time. If going overboard on bhakti/ devotion does become unhealthy, it can be kept in check…here is a little list of lessons I learned & some grounding/ balancing habits to keep devotion healthy:

  1. Learn the symbology of all the deities and their stories. Figure out what the symbols mean to you & apply the meaning to your life. Be a scientist about it. (Watch Joseph Campbell’s “The Power of Myth”!)
  2. Don’t idolize gurus. Watch their videos, read their books, sure. But don’t project god onto them or worship them as if they’re better than you. So many of these gurus are eventually exposed as power abusive. The question I keep asking is why can’t these supposedly ‘humble’ teacher-rock stars let go of power once they have it, or steer it toward the greater good of everyone, and most of all why can’t they admit their faults and be transparent? The only one I’ve found who does is Matt Kahn.
  3. Go hiking and notice that god is all around you in the trees and wildlife and water. Pray to & give thanks to that.
  4. Listen to your body. Eat meat if your body needs it.
  5. Don’t be celibate unless you feel a lot of support and love in that lifestyle. Do it if you genuinely resonate with it. (Tantric celibacy is a more grounded alternative)
  6. Chant mantras/ do japa meditation because you want to, it feels good to your soul, not because you think you should.
  7. If you travel to India do lots of research first. Have a purpose & some goals, know the details of your itinerary, and if possible go with a group that has decades of experience facilitating group trips to India.
  8. Make peace with money. Don’t go into debt for spiritual ‘trainings’. Instead contemplate the natural abundance of your soul. See material abundance as an extension of that- money is ok and healthy. Compassionately earned & spent money is spiritual. It’s greed that’s bad, not wealth.
  9. Keep a sense of humor about spirituality. (Watch Matt Kahn videos on youtube!)
  10. Read, read, read! Seek out facts and when reading spiritual teachers’ opinions or experiences, choose for yourself what to believe/ how to perceive it. Form your own ideas.
  11. Approach the spiritual path casually. Read a lot of different teachers. Try different paths. Go at it in baby steps. Do 10 min. of daily practice instead of giving your life to an ashram. Casualness is a healthy antidote to extremism.
  12. Be in the modern world. Take breaks from the spiritual life and watch HBO. Hang with your family. Read the news. Listen to mainstream music. Be less perfect, more human. Trade in all the rituals and self-righteousness for some good old self-compassion!

Just the viewpoint of a westerner. Thanks for reading😊

Meeting My Inner Parvati

My first night in Mudhuban, India a deep emotion struck me. As everyone entered the room & gathered for kirtan, some people in the group sat far off to the left and a few others together to the right but no one had chosen to sit next to me. It was a familiar theme.

Space. That space all around me that had so often in my life felt symbolic of being unwanted or unlovable.

Just as that feeling was sinking in, the retreat facilitators made an announcement that us women would need to cover our head with a scarf the next day on our hike to meet Babaji, the 99 year old baba who lived in a cave; he had requested it.

Here we go again, another version of being not good enough. Even in a cave, with the most socially detached, free human being, I have to cover up, hide a part of me. Why couldn’t I be free too? I couldn’t contain the tears of frustration.

So I was crying a river quietly to myself hoping no one would notice. I just shut my eyes and kept blowing my nose on my scarf. Then the chanting started. For almost the entire part of the first song I felt restricted at the throat/unable to sing. I decided to just politely listen to everyone else.

I let the mantra sink in…a chant to shiva. Shiva, the all-pervading presence, the space that everything exists in. Shiva…the essence of all the spiritual teachings I’d followed from my youth up to this point- Mooji, Papaji, Ramana, Gangaji- they all begged the question “Who am I?”

Was I this intense tearful choked up state? No, it existed in me. Was I this sense of unworthiness? No, I was something bigger. Suddenly the energy shifted. I silently merged with the bigger me…shiva…that Self, that presence, the witness. I surrendered.

The more I let go the further I expanded as the witness. I lovingly observed my body sitting there, overwhelmed with emotion. To my surprise that little bit of space did it. My voice mystically freed up on its own and sang out.

After the kirtan ended, so did my transcendent moment. During the walk back to our ashram rooms I experienced the group talking in front of me, walking up ahead. There it was– space. This time I smiled and took it in deeply.

The space all around me now felt healthy…the medicine of shiva energy showing up for me. I hadn’t recognized it earlier in my unloveable/ victim-inflamed state.

The one thing nobody tells you about kirtan is it’s not always bliss. Rather, it provides the spaciousness & uplifting energetic current needed to process dark & vulnerable emotions in a healthy, gentle way.

Bhakti doesn’t require you to be all ‘love & light.’ It requires you to have the courage to be vulnerable.

As for covering up my hair with a scarf- doing it ironically ‘uncovered’ some of my arrogance. I had first dramatized and victimized it as ‘oppression.’ Later a more relaxed, wise perspective emerged & I wrote this in my journal:

To cover my head isn’t to be oppressed. Or a victim. It’s to humble myself a little. Be open to another, older, ancient culture that I don’t understand.

I contemplated masculinity and femininity:

A woman covering up her hair is beautification…a ritual to respect/ honor natural femininity, the mystery, which is to be hidden! (Think of how our bodies exist in nature- a woman’s sexual anatomy is hidden whereas a man’s just hangs out there.) Femininity, in its truest form, is hidden, potent, magical. From that perspective, to cover up is self-respect…symbolic of respecting the sacred, divine mystery of womanhood. Covering up is powerful!

I don’t know if it was all that shiva medicine coming through the vibration of the foothills of the Himalayas, or my own optimism, maybe a little of both. But the theme of this initiation had become clear. It was time to drop the outer shell of unworthiness and meet my inner Parvati.

Why I Love Hindu Deities

I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid I saw god as an old man in the sky with a white beard & white robe. God didn’t feel safe, fun, or loving. He felt…distant, unknown, scary.

My few attempts at churchgoing were met with ‘Sure you can join us as long as you believe Jesus Christ is THE ONLY way!” That intuitively didn’t feel right. Yeah, Jesus is great but he’s not THE ONLY path.

My inner child needed something that felt playful & magical…something I could relate to, talk to, feel safe with. Because let’s face it, as a kid I got more of a sense of the divine from gazing at the moon & watching The Last Unicorn than I did praying to god.

Luckily I found the Hindu deities.

Imagine if instead of a scary white-bearded old man in the sky you got to hang out with a young, dark haired flute player living in the forest. What if his love was so boundless he encouraged you to feel free, feel joy, dance, always be in the right place at the right time, and constantly follow your bliss? This is Krishna.

Imagine if god was A WOMAN- one with such beauty that you you felt yourself soften and radiate peace while with her…you felt delighted in just being in her presence, and she invited you to sit with her as she lovingly poured coins & flower petals into your lap. This is the Hindu goddess Lakshmi:

What if god was a fiery goddess riding a tiger, who taught you how to stand up for yourself & believe in yourself? A goddess so fearless you could win any battle with her by your side? This is Ma Durga:

Or a pristine, mystical flowing river goddess who played the most beautifully sounding ancient stringed instrument called the veena as she sang to you & revealed to you the purest, most inspired music? Meet Saraswati:

What if god was a yogi with dreadlocks who you met in the forest? While sitting in meditation he welcomed even outcasts and criminals, gave them blessings on their spiritual journey and taught them about transformation & how to not be scared of change? That’s Shiva.

What if god was an elephant who rode a mouse(!) and lovingly helped you overcome obstacles? When I sit at my altar and look at my Ganesh murti I can’t help but feel a solid feeling of joy. Jai Ganesha!

Then there’s Hanuman, the half-monkey half-man who loves you so much he does all kinds of magical things to assist you on your journey.

And then there’s Kali. Ok…she may be seen by some as the villain in this fairytale. She’s the one with the skulls around her neck…but actually those skulls represent the disillusionment & death of our ego. She gives us a compassionate blow to our ego to instantly humble us, which is one of the most motherly & protective acts of love because she simply won’t let you walk the planet deluded.

She is actually in her truest sense, time. So instead of Father Time we have Ma Kali. And time can terrify us because it ages us and will one day take our bodies away. However to come out of denial of that truth is a powerful teaching that can lead us to freedom so we can experience more joy while in these bodies. I have heard her described as “scary to our ego but like air to our true self.”

And the best part about all these deities is they coexist in a unique kind of cosmic harmony. I love watching Hindu movies that show all the deities hanging out together, holding meetings, making decisions about how to save the planet or who will reincarnate as who. It shows that god can be a colorful cast of characters who love us, play with us, are fun to hang out with, and who keep it real.

Just the opinion of a westerner. 🙂

Thanks for reading.