I finally get around to returning Ma’s call a few days after the Fourth.
“So? How was it?” she wants to know. “Was it fabulous? Were you totally blissed out? Did your boyfriend come? What’s his last name again? Was the Kirtan Rabbi there?”
“It” was (and is) Bhaktifest, a three-day peace-out rooted in yoga, meditation and Kirtan — devotional call-and-response chanting, mostly in Sanskrit. An annual event in Joshua Tree, California, since 2009, Bhaktifest producers responded to the Midwest’s call for consciousness and took the Bhav (spiritual emotion, bliss) on the road, debuting Bhaktifest Midwest June 29-July 1 in Madison, Wisconsin.
Venue-wise, Madison’s Alliant Energy Center is more fairground than folk, a somewhat surreal host for a festival in favor of “raising the consciousness.” A sign greets us late Thursday evening flashing “BhaktiFest Midwest” theatrically against a dark country road with subsequent flashing that KORN will be screaming into Alliant in late July. All the same, we could be in Kansas or Oz or anywhere, because when we park our bikes at Willow Island the next morning, beside two freshly opened technicolor pink lotus blossoms, I’m certain I’ve left the home country of my head and have entered Kirtan-Land.
“It was good,” I tell Ma, my typical response to her call, less melodic than Shri Ram, Jai Ram and Jai Jai Ram, but enough to satisfy Ma’s need to know if my birthday weekend was well spent. I liken it to a Dead Show or the annual Hare Krisna Parade at Venice Beach, stuff she can relate to. I tell her I have a new yoga guru, Mark Whitwell, who actually lives near Venice Beach, so maybe she could take a class? Sadly, this is how I dumb it down.
But how do I explain to anyone, let alone my Jewish mother, that I spent the afternoon of my 42nd birthday in a tacky conference room singing to the Lord? I’m not even sure who the Lord is or which Lord I’m singing to — I don’t think Jews do “the Lord,” but this is just one of the things that bemuses me about chanting. The irony isn’t lost on me, but a quick peak at my blissed-out Bu-Jew boyfriend beside me in lotus pose confirms this is kosher and I’m back to the bhav in no time.
More concerning is why I am so achingly addicted to something I once wrote off as another empty fad, cloaked in woo. Plus, how does a spiritually challenged Los Angeleno raised tithing to Hollywood have faith in something — anything — without expecting to be disillusioned? I’m digging the bhav, but the bliss scares me to death. How can peace and love be so easy?
“Forget about your analytical mind,” says Pascale LaPoint of Kirtan Path, deemed “jewel of Bhaktifest Midwest” by emcee Shiva Baum, “allow yourself to be there.” The more she talks, the more stereotypical I feel. Our kirtan paths (and likely everyone else’s) are similar: you hear it for the first time and you “just know.” When LaPoint heard Krisna Das for the first time, she felt as though she was “coming home,” which is exactly how I felt hearing her chant “Jai Ganesha” at my inaugural kirtan last summer. Similarly, kirtan helped me out of a fairly serious funk; LaPoint says chanting turned her life around, and before she knew it, she bought a harmonium, taught herself to sing, found a couple musicians on craigslist and called up violinist, Nancy Lemke, with whom she happened to rideshare on a yoga retreat.
Like many of us, LaPoint’s gateway to kirtan was yoga and Krisna Das, “KD” to fans, whose pantheric rasp is pure liquid love, a jungle honey you feel in your spine. Ironically, I feel completely unloved upon meeting Das in person, following his afternoon workshop, the same one where I melodically consent to “find a way to live in the presence of the Lord!”
I even play the Jew card. “Come on Krisna! You had a Jewish mother, too!”
But it’s no use; he insists that it is not my job to change the world no matter how passionate I am or how messed up it is. Later I realize I’m upset because Das has (unintentionally) called me out on my tendency to seek external verses internal validation. He emphasizes what we all know, but rarely get: It’s not his or anyone else’s love I need — I need my own. And until we learn to cultivate deep self-love (through chanting, or whatever works), external love will never be enough.
Duh. I’m a therapist. I’ve known this a long time. I write about this stuff. I teach this stuff. But chanting, like yoga and the handful of other woo I do, is still teaching my body to know this.
Das also affirms that love is what chanting is all about — not religion, not God, not anything constructed by the mind. He says when we chant to all those Shris and lords, we are actually chanting to the deities within.
Recently, my therapist aptly likened my need for kirtan to an infant’s need for a response to her cry, in my infant case, a cry for hunger, love, holding…. Perhaps chanting provides the response to the call I have longed to hear answered for forty-plus years.
When I chant along to KD’s chant/love song “Heart as Wide as the World,” I cry huge weeping willowy tears of something mysteriously bittersweet, especially hearing “All I need is to be with you…all my prayers have been heard….” Perhaps the tears are not so much about the longing to have someone sing these words to me and truly mean them (though boyfriend take note), so much as me recognizing the sweetly ringing nectar of my own voice tenderly humming down my throat, before settling to safely rest against my own widening heart.