Good vibrations | The Optimist Daily
Today’s Solutions: July 16, 2024

A musical form of meditation known as kirtan offers fun on the road to enlightenment–even for people who swore they would never meditate.

Maggie Kuhn Jacobus | October 2005 issue

A friend confided a dark personal secret to me at a party the other night. “I don’t meditate,” he said, furtively glancing around. He stepped closer to tell me more.

He knows there are enormous benefits to meditation, like reduced stress, increased concentration, a greater sense of calm and well-being and a shot at enlightenment. “Problem is,” he whispered, “I can’t sit still or stay quiet long enough to attain those perks. So I just give up.” He hung his head.

Alas, his is not an isolated case.

I, too, was once counted as a non-meditator. I spent years trying to engage in a traditional meditation practice. While staring quietly at my carpet, I generally only received such insights as this: The rug is dirty. And then I’d be up and vacuuming, all intentions for spiritual evolution sucked up with the cookie crumbs.

So imagine my glee at discovering kirtan, an alternative route to meditative bliss that is neither silent nor still—in fact, it can lure even the most attention span-challenged among us into an altered state of higher consciousness.

Kirtan in Sanskrit connotes singing, chanting and praising the divine. It’s essentially a high-spirited call-and-response singalong, East Indian style, and is the most fun I’ve ever had on the road to enlightenment.

Kirtan is typically practised in a group setting, where the leader sings out a Sanskrit mantra—one of hundreds of phrases praising the divine—and the participants sing it back. The mantra gets lobbed back and forth, often faster and faster as the chant progresses. A single chant can last 20, even 40, minutes, reminding me of the sacred version of a jam band concert. The repetition of music and mantra engage our busy minds, simultaneously guiding us deeper into meditation and higher into bliss. In essence, the chant does the meditating for us and we get to sit back and enjoy the ride.

I felt buzzed for days after my first kirtan encounter. Enchanted, you might say. I had no idea what the mantras meant or why I experienced what I did; I only knew I wanted to feel that way again…and again and again.

Gurushabd, co-founder of Golden Bridge yoga studio in Los Angeles, has studied the science of sacred sound in depth. His name translates as “One Who Uplifts Self through the Sound Current,” a phrase that not coincidentally reflects the very purpose of kirtan. He offers one explanation for my experience.

“These sounds [mantras] come from enlightened holy men. These are universal sounds. Even if you don’t understand a word of the translation, it doesn’t matter, because your soul understands all languages, the soul understands all universality. You’re sending a sound current into your brain that has to do with your soul and the Infinite and that’s why it makes you feel happy and blissful,” he told me.

Quantum physics shows us that the whole universe from the tiniest atom to the mightiest galaxy is in a state of vibration, including humans. When we come into contact with others, phenomena called resonance and entrainment happen, altering our individual vibrations: We start blending together in rhythm. One oft-cited example of this is the fact that women living together eventually come into sync on their menstrual cycles.

In addition to other people, we also entrain with things like the moon…and music…and mantras. “When you hear kirtan, then literally the molecules in your being start to vibrate with this sound that is the underpinning of everything in the universe,” Gurushabd said.

Originating in East India centuries ago, kirtan is a central practice in both the bhakti—or devotional—branch of yoga, and in nada, the yoga of sound. In the West, a typical kirtan gathering a decade ago would most likely have been held in an ashram and attracted a small group of yoga devotees. But kirtan has recently exploded, with singalongs springing up all over the Americas and Europe. Now yogis and non-yogis alike can be found in crowds of 300—sometimes even 1,000 or more—having a great time slipping through the back door to meditation.

Traditionally, the main musical instrument used in kirtan is the harmonium, an accordion-looking reed apparatus, although the tabla (drums) and tamboura (a stringed instrument) are also common. The distinctive East-Indian flavor is often spiced up with Western instruments such as guitars, bass guitars, flutes, violins, trumpets, hand drums and more—resulting in a pleasingly eclectic sound.

But the most important instrument in kirtan is the voice.

“There’s sacredness in everyone’s voice. It’s like hearing your own soul, hearing your own Self,” explained chantress Ragani, leader of monthly kirtan events in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the largest session in North America. “Kirtan is people’s music. Everyone creates the music.”

That is one of the unique—and frankly, most fun—aspects of kirtan: The audience is inextricably intertwined with the experience. Kirtan simply cannot happen if the audience doesn’t sing. “In our culture, most of the entertainment is passive; the individual doesn’t change it, doesn’t have an impact on it. Their presence doesn’t matter,” said Dave Stringer, a U.S.-based musician and kirtan leader who tours the globe. “One of the intoxicating things about kirtan is that it’s participatory. Your very presence shifts what happens.”

And what happens, in my experience, is nothing short of magical. The synchronization of the breath, sound and vibration of dozens or hundreds fuels an exponential buzz. As the chant intensifies, the lines blur between audience, band and leader and we melt together, lifting each other up, collectively soaring higher and higher on the sound current.

“It’s really a trip. Everyone’s experience is different—and should be, because everyone’s concept of God is different,” said Jai Uttal, a well-known San Francisco-based fusion musician and 30-year kirtan veteran. “Yet when we’re in a group, we’re all helping each other, we’re all sharing our shakti [divine energy] and strength with each other. It allows each person to go deeper into their own space, while at the same time creating greater energy as a whole. It’s very powerful.”

And as euphoric as this groovin’ can be, the most profound moment comes when we stop. While we’ve been having a great time singing our hearts out, the chant has been casting its spell and charming our minds into that very place that eludes us most of the time: silence and stillness.

I bask in the afterglow of the chant, relishing the exquisite moment. I’m here, sitting in quiet stillness…and have no thoughts of needing to vacuum.

Maggie Jacobus is a freelance writer and co-author of a forthcoming book on kirtan. By the time you read this, she will have moved to Nosara, Costa Rica, where she’s blissfully singing kirtan to the monkeys and dolphins. She can be reached for comment at

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