Krishna Das on saints, creating happiness, and saving your own ass…
By Iana Velez, Editor in Chief
If the Kirtan world had rockstars, it would Krishna Das. Originally from Long Island KD, as he is affectionately known, spent the late 60s travelling and living in India where he met his guru Neem Karoli Baba, known to most as Maharaj-ji. He returned to the states after a few years and was lost for a while after the the death of his guru and drug use found peace by chanting. What started as a small group chanting at Jivamukti in NYC over twenty years ago, has turned into sold out tours all over the world and a Grammy nominated album. Editor in Chief of NY YOGA + LIFE sat down with KD to chat about kirtan, joy, and saving your own ass...
To be honest years ago, kirtan and chanting were always things I avoided. I’d be in a yoga class and the teacher would pull out the harmonium and in my head I’m screaming “no, no, not the chanting.”
I still say that when most teachers pull out the harmonium (laughing)
(laughing) Then I saw One Track Heart ( Documentary about KD’s work and life) and it pretty much blew my mind. What we want so share with our community is that there are so many paths you can take. Yoga may not be for you, meditation might seem impossible...but here is another option: kirtan and chanting. For someone new to all this, how would you describe kirtan?
Lets just say that most of our pain and suffering, comes from our thoughts. It comes from the way our minds function, and the way they obsessively follow every thought that comes. And also believing every thought that comes. So the idea of yoga or union with your true self, would mean to find a way to let go of those thoughts that pull us out of our self and into confusion.
Asana practice helps, but chanting is like asana of the heart and mind. It’s moving more directly at the root cause of unhappiness. And, more directly at the cause of happiness, of peace, and well being. They say that underneath all the nonsense that we feel and think most the time is real happiness. Our true nature is a feeling of “OKness.” Which we in the West and the modern world have really lost touch with.
We use music and the repetition of these mantras, which in India they call the names of god. But we don’t have to call them that. For instance the word “God” bothers me, I’m not comfortable with that. It is a very western tinged word and it invokes a feeling of some big guy up in the sky throwing thunderbolts at you. That’s not my idea of fun. So when I went to India and met real godly people, people who knew what this was all about, the feeling was of a total being at home and total happiness. And none of that good and evil judgemental stuff, which is pretty much where we spend most of our time in our thoughts and emotions.
Why is that?
We are programmed that way (laughing). It’s the nature of this world. In this world everything is either too little or too much. And why is that? It’s because we are not dealing with real happiness, we are dealing with pleasure and pain. And the nature of pleasure and pain is that it’s always changing, it’s always in flux. What is pleasurable and brings some kind of happiness at first, morphs into something else and then it brings unhappiness. What’s painful, very often morphs into something else. The nature of the world of the mind and the senses, or the thoughts and the senses, is that it’s always changing and impermanent.
Since that is all we have been taught growing up in western culture, its very hard to recognize that there might be another way to live. There might be another quality to life that’s not included in the five senses and the thoughts. That’s the place you are touching when you do asana. It brings you out of your thought process and paying attention to the body, and the body has many things going on that are revealed to us as our minds get quieter, and we pay deeper attention.
Imagine taking that attention, and turning it directly to the source of all being. The source of life, the source of goodness and truth, peace and joy and happiness and real satisfaction - which is who we are. So what we chant is essentially the names of that place inside of us that is all those things. That is peace. That is happiness. That is a sense of OKness. It’s just that we’ve fucked it up so badly…(laughs)
I love one of the things I’ve heard you say before is you chant to “save your miserable ass” (laughs) I love that. How’s that coming along? Is it still in process?
Definitely still in process, and my ass has gotten much wider (laughing) It’s in a good way! In that it includes a lot of people, it includes the rest of the world. So when I chant, of course I get results from that in the immediate moment, but I also recognize that there are other people involved that are also getting something. I'm not giving it to them, we are creating an atmosphere where each person can move more deeply into themselves. Through the chanting, through the music, and the chanting of these very special sounds. These sounds have come from that place within us, and so they have the power to bring us back to that place. That place is what we are all looking for.
What we do is develop the ability to let go of thoughts, and come more deeply into ourselves while we are chanting, while we are doing that practice. And just that bit of practice loosens up the grip of all that stuff, little by little over time. Because we are so programmed on so many levels to look outside of ourselves for what’s really within us, it’s a very slow and deep process of turning towards ourselves.
Watching you chant, it seems as if energy is travelling through you, not from you, so you never seem drained by what you are doing.
When I am singing, I am not singing to the people in the room. I'm doing my practice. I can't even open my eyes, I never see people dancing and jumping up and down. My eyes just close and I forget about opening them because I am doing my practice. It’s not about the people in the room, it’s about me and that presence. So I don’t feel anyone is taking anything from me, I’m just entering into that presence and of course that brings a lot of deep feelings.
I’m not trying to entertain anybody, I’m not trying to give anyone experiences or anything. I sing, then I go home. That’s why it’s so powerful I think, because I’m not trying to manipulate people. If I was trying to manipulate people, everybody would feel that somewhere. And some people want to be manipulated, they are the people that come up and follow me around, because they enjoy being manipulated.
This is given freely, and openly, you’re free to come, you’re free to go. Because it’s who you are, it’s inside of you. There’s nothing anyone can give you, except every once in awhile a great saint can give you a little glimpse of who you are. To encourage you to keep moving down the path to yourself
Do you think there are any more saints out there?
If there weren’t saints, we wouldn’t be here. There are always saints. Whether they show themselves to us or not...there’s a reason that they do or don’t. They are always here, they are the ones running the show. Everything happens for a reason and they are doing what has to be done. You can’t go looking for a saint, you’ll never find a saint. Saints find you.
You don’t do it, all you do is try to get in touch with that longing that you have in your heart. Trust it, and follow it, and do what you can to realize what you are really longing for. The chanting is not only an expression of that longing, it is also the fulfillment of that longing at the same time.
The theme of this issue is CREATE. What does that word mean to you?
All creation comes from some intention. A lot of people talk about creating happiness in their lives, people say “we create our own happiness and unhappiness. ” Not really....our lives unfold in time, in front of our eyes, according to our karmas. Our own actions in the past that have been created by our own actions. Every action creates a karma and every karma creates an action...so to speak. Our job, our duty, our responsibility to ourselves, if we want to “create happiness”...is to deal with what arises in our lives, what shows up in our lives, in the best possible way that we can. That means different things to different people at different times. When I say “best” that is a qualitative statement, it could mean a different thing to me tomorrow than it does today and that’s the beauty of it all. But the idea is that everything that is happening in our lives has been created by our own karmas.
Like a wave that is coming in from far off in the ocean and crashing over us on the shore. All we see is the wave, we don’t see how long it took to get there, what originally created that motion in the ocean that created that wave. If we recognize that happiness lies beneath the waves, so to speak, we don’t want to create more waves by pushing back on that wave. We want to allow that wave to come over us, pass through us, and be gone. But if we react, we create more karmas in that moment, based on that wave. The idea of creation is very interesting.
So when we talk about creation we have to recognize as human beings in the situation that we are in, we are reacting all the time to stimuli inner and outer. If we want to create happiness, we have to create the intention to find that place within us that is deeper than the reactions. Out of that place, an incredible space of love and compassion and kindness will arise...will be created. It’s not like we are going to just push a button and create something, not on a spiritual path...it’s very different. However you do have to do the work, you have to sit down and do the practices. That is what creates the space around the thoughts and emotions and reactions that we have. To create or invoke the life we want, we have to have the intention, the will and the strength to participate in certain practices that will train us not to react, and not to keep recreating the storylines we tell ourselves.