My First Santsang (aka Sedona Meltdown)

When I was a teenager I survived an intense 3 day LSD trip which was more like an insomniac blur…it involved a spontaneous 14 hour drive to the east coast, parading nude in the streets, quitting my lifeguard job, and sadly at the end of it thinking I was a video game character. Such are the whims of a bored teen growing up in southern Indiana.

Around this time my mom’s hippie friends Mark and Kim invited us to a satsang. ‘Satsang’ is a Sanskrit word that means “sacred gathering.” (Sat means truth and sang means community.) The gathering would be led by a female elder/ wise woman who had a spontaneous awakening while working in a factory, after which she lived & and studied with the sages of India.

So I set out for Sedona with my mom, curious of what this gathering with a guru would reveal, and keeping the details of my miserable LSD comedown to myself.

Mom’s friends Mark and Kim were the most mystical, cool couple- they were quiet, zen-like, unmarried but devoted to each other, and spent their time traveling to different countries sitting with spiritual teachers. I was completely in awe of them. As we hiked through the red rocks I listened intently while they discussed the concept of enlightenment.

We arrived at the satsang, found our way to a seat and settled in as the group began chanting mantras. Although I was too shy to sing out I listened & soaked up the safe feeling like a sponge.

The guru was seated facing everyone. Her eyes lit up at a young pretty woman in the front row who I guessed was a former student. They exchanged hellos…the 20 year old girl said she had just returned from living in a cave and was settling back into worldly life. Hearing this blew my 18 year old mind.

The guru began talking, though it seemed like she was simply channeling spontaneous messages and insights. She shared stories of hanging out with the Dalai Lama, offered us nuggets of wisdom to contemplate, and began answering people’s questions.

Suddenly something shifted in my vibrational field. I felt so safe with these old souls that the trauma of my LSD trip snuck up and stirred in me a throbbing emotional pain and confusion in my heart/ throat…just as luck would have it that feeling wanted to be released right then and there.

I tried to regulate the emotion with discipline and restraint but the attempt to hide was not working. People around me noticed and instantly showed compassion for the awkwardness of it. As the intensity bubbled inside me to the point I felt I might break a man gently leaned in and whispered lovingly “it’s ok to break.”

And that set me off…I broke…quite dramatically, so much so that the guru stopped and turned to me. The rest was kind of a blur…I asked her something about suffering in the body & did not feel satisfied with the answer so I got up & bolted out the door, sat outside sulking for the rest of the satsang.

When the satsang ended she walked out and sat with me. Her final words to me were: look up at a star and let it all sink in. Which made absolutely no sense.

But what did make sense was that gentle man telling me it’s ok to break, the loving support of those people. Being shown compassion by mature & evolved souls who had come so far on their spiritual trip that they were able to hold the animal/ emotional part of a teen coming down from her acid trip.

Experiences like this have happened repeatedly in my life to show me that life itself is the guru, not some person.

So often we put an expectation on that spiritual leader, that elder, that successful friend who moved to a big city, the worldly traveler, a new lover we admire, or anyone other than ourselves to solve the mystery of our life.

When in reality answers always come from our inner guru, and usually in a way we never expect.

Help Fund a Woman Produced Kirtan Album

Music dissolves barriers.  It gives power to people who feel powerless.  It increases empathy, and allows for safe expression of emotions. I believe we need that more than ever in the world now.

Leading group chanting has put me in a unique position to witness people suddenly feeling safe, trusting each other again, and perceiving the world from a place of love, not fear. 

Through grace, I was able to experience this feeling myself, during a trip to India & London last year. 

Through Nourishment, my vision is to honor India’s ancient tradition of mantra repetition & sonic mysticism in a creative way that’s aligned with a jazz/ rock/ hill country background. You can also think of it as an offering of interactive chanting experiences for anyone who wants to elevate their mood & access unity consciousness through music.  

Oh and did I mention there’s going to be a powerhouse of women creating this record?

It is important to me this album convey to the listener a sense of shared power/ global community that feels safe and loving and transmits universal belonging.

In order to make this happen I need your support.  

For anyone who contributes to the making of ”Nourishment” I’ll reciprocate with these gifts, from my heart to yours:  original lyric/ chant-along books, handcrafted wire wrap pendants, oracle readings, original poetry, and downloads of the album on plantable seed paper bookmarks(!!) All of these you can view here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/tarakimes/nourishment-a-kirtan-album

If you believe nourishing music & unity consciousness is a good thing for the world, please donate generously to this modest budget.  The way kickstarter works is all or nothing- either I make the goal and the album gets made or all money is refunded.  Let’s go all in and see this come to fruition!

18 Ways to do Japa Meditation

I used to be very hard on myself with meditation. I put myself through a 10 day silent vipassana retreat, would set my timer for 2 hours a day and suppress my imagination entirely to just sit there hyper-focused on the breath and bodily sensations. I considered meditations that included visuals & sounds to be inferior.

Then one day I was meditating with a Buddhist monk at a Dharma Center in Louisville and I asked him what to do when boredom comes up while you’re sitting. I thought he’d reveal some deep philosophical answer, but to my surprise he simply told me to imagine a gold light radiating from my heart. I said, “so it’s ok to use your imagination in meditation?” And he said indeed it was, and that monks often do it.

One of the recent ways I’ve started bringing my imagination into meditation is through japa practice (repeating a mantra). The artist in me loves variety…here’s a list of 18 ways you can explore and hopefully never get bored with japa meditation 😊

  1. Repeat your mantra out loud
  2. Repeat your mantra as a whisper
  3. Repeat your mantra quietly
  4. Repeat the mantra fast
  5. Chant AUM not in a hum/ singing voice but in a talking voice
  6. Sing your mantra (can be raised a half or whole step after each 108 reps)
  7. Try chanting a seed syllable such as RAM or GAM
  8. Chant along with an audio track- there is so much meditation & kirtan music on Spotify & Youtube!
  9. Try chanting a long mantra such as gayatri mantra
  10. Only chant (or repeat the sound in your mind) on the exhale breath
  11. Try it only on the inhale breath and in between spaces (the pause that happens when you hold the breath out or in before next breath)
  12. Chant with a background sound- I love the apps ‘shrutibox’ and ‘relax melodies’
  13. Do japa while gazing at a murti or picture/ visual of a deity
  14. Do japa while focusing your attention on a specific chakra in your body
  15. Use essential oils on your beads or on your wrists and include aroma therapy with your japa/ deep breaths
  16. Try holding the 4 parts of AUM out for equal amounts of time (aah, ooh, mmm, silence). Try 2 seconds each, then 4.
  17. Use the grooves in your fingers to count repetitions of your mantra
  18. Try counting your mantra in 9s.

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😊

4 Beautiful Reasons To Fall in Love With Chanting

A few days ago while on a job interview my I looked down & noticed my thumb shaking. In the past this would have spiraled me into more anxiety. But this time I had a relaxation tool- japa meditation (silent repetition of a mantra). Quietly to myself I repeated my mantra and I watched in amazement as my thumb went completely still in under 10 seconds.

This got me reflecting on everything that’s happened since kirtan & chanting entered my life 2 decades ago, and what’s possible when you deepen your practice. Here are four reasons to fall in love with chanting:

1) Chanting turns down anxiety & ruminating, turns up relaxation

Science has found one of the benefits of japa/ chanting is it prolongs the exhale breath. This activates the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) which triggers our bodies to relax. Relaxing turns down fear & ruminating.

It’s an amazing experience when you watch your thoughts merge with a mantra and transform into subtle energy, then dissolve entirely. It happens to me often and leaves me feeling soothed, sometimes even euphoric.

Repeating mantra can guide the mind to that relaxing place- like the sun after a storm or an island in the ocean- we come to a safe harbor. We keep redirecting scattered, fear-based thoughts back to the mantra & guide the lost/ ego part of ourselves back to the loving, relaxed part of ourselves.

2) Chanting helps us remember our primal connection.

Group chanting grounds us into to our bodies. It restores our sense of togetherness, blurs boundaries and wakes us up to a deep sense of what we’ve forgotten- that we all share this earth.

Kirtan (group call & response chanting of sacred Sanskrit mantras of India) is a doorway to this primal connection, with its hand drumming & beautiful tones of the mridanga, group chanting, clapping & dancing, & collective vocalizing of sounds which themselves are innately divine (filled with god/ the Self/ source/ love.) The repetition of these sounds truly brings us back to earth and each other.

Eternal Health Yoga Studio, Louisville KY

3) Chanting is a way to recharge our vitality

Chanting connects you to the breath & prana. Prana, first mentioned in the ancient Hindu texts the Upanishads, means life force, energy, or vitality. It is said to permeate everything in existence & originate from the sun.

Health professionals agree that being ‘plugged in’ all the time and using the artificial energy of caffeine and sugar is unhealthy for the nervous system. Chanting recharges our energy naturally by aligning us with prana.

It truly is a practice that plugs us back into the true source of our energy- the radiance of stillness/ peace that is often neglected in modern culture.

4) Chanting helps you align with love

One of the most satisfying things I’ve experienced from bhakti yoga has been integrating with a bigger, vast boundless love. This love can soothe an inflamed ego, soften a mind that takes itself too seriously, and shift irritability into comedy. It has held me even when I was in my neediest, raw, unloveable states.

What a game changer to consciously realize you are worthy of love even while feeling unloveable. John Lennon’s lyric from his beautiful song ‘Love’ comes to mind: ‘Love is is wanting to be loved.’

Codependency can actually be channeled toward a higher purpose in chanting. You can direct all your attachment toward god/ your higher self. We so often place that on another human being. When you instead give it over to source/ boundless love it can transform you!

This is the path bhakti offers.

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.

A Chanting Exercise

Here’s a video you can practice along with to get into a a fluid motion of chanting bij mantras (Sanskrit seed syllables) with mudras (hand gestures). It’s peaceful, invigorating & fun to do out in nature! The hand gestures aren’t required…I am just attempting to recreate what I saw a guy do in on a youtube video. At any rate it feels good to feel all that prana flow!

Starting at root:

LAM

VAM

RAM

YAM

HAM

OM

I am chanting each of these seed syllables (bij mantra) with its corresponding chakra (energy centers) in the body. For the last 2 chakras (third eye & crown) you can chant OM.

Try it & feel how your voice, the sound vibrations, the energy & your body interact!

Benefits:

  • access more vitality in the body
  • relieve stress
  • get a sense of peace
  • relief from monkey mind/ obsession/ ruminating
  • strengthens the voice
  • puts you in touch with your unique self-expression
  • liberating
  • can serve as a daily meditation practice

Questions to ask yourself after:

  1. What emotions came up after this practice?
  2. Which sound was I most drawn to?
  3. Where in my body did I feel the sound resonate the most?
  4. How is my speaking voice sounding/ feeling?
  5. What happens if I do this practice right before work? Before I go to bed? In the morning?