We left Brooklyn early Saturday morning for Martha’s Vineyard, where the seasonal tourists have disappeared, the foliage has turned to brilliant shades of orange, red and gold, and the mid-October temperatures have dropped suddenly and precipitously. This is all familiar to me, having grown up near Portland, Maine. Autumn in New England always stirs a kind of melancholy nostalgia, the last echoes of summer trailing off, disappearing into a feeling of beautiful emptiness. One can feel it in the air.
This has become an annual trip, and as usual, our GPS teases the possibility of a painless four and a half hour drive, but once calculations are made to include multiple donut and coffee stops, subsequent bathroom breaks, weekender Connecticut traffic and the ferry ride from Wood’s Hole, the journey typically takes between seven and eight hours. The three musicians I’m traveling with double as some of my closest friends, and over the years have developed a collective tolerance for my eclectic playlists. We listen to Ethiopian Jazz, early 90s hip-hop, Alice Coltrane, an assortment of Japanese noise bands and stand-up routines by Fred Armisen and Tom Papa. There is talk of jobs, partners, music, Avengers 4 rumors, and we follow a breakneck itinerary, having left early on Saturday morning with our return planned for late Sunday; 16 hours in transit and 24 hours on the island, lugging around changes of clothes, harmoniums, dholaks, and mrdangas. It is a labor of love, our enthusiasm inspired by our many friends on the island and their hunger for kirtan, the music I’ve become most associated with over the last decade.
Kirtan is a devotional music native to India rooted in call and response singing, where what’s typically being sung back and forth are considered to be sacred namavalis, divine names. This type of singing or chanting is practiced all over India and wherever groups of Hindu families live, which is to say, everywhere; in homes, temples, streets and can range in mood and feeling from sublimely meditative to ecstatic to raucous and everything in between. Despite its origins, it is not a practice that is exclusive to Hindus or any particular religion or sect. There is no conversion required. No special clothes to wear. No dues to be paid. It is considered to be a great sadhana, music as meditation, a spiritual practice, open to anyone, that helps to gradually tune one’s own awareness away from the fleeting joys of the outside material world and inward towards one’s own heart, which is held to be the doorway to the only true source of lasting happiness.
“Brahman dwells in the cave of the heart and is known to move there. It is the great support of all, for in it is centered everything that moves, breathes and blinks.”
– Mundaka Upanishad
“The heart is a sanctuary at the center of which there is a little space, wherein the Great Spirit dwells…”
– Black Elk
Needless to say, there was not a lot of kirtan happening in the sleepy leafy small town where I was brought up in Southern Maine. I grew up on American pop music. Divine navamalis were not woven into the tapestry of the downeast culture I grew up in, at least as far as I was aware. My dad was raised catholic and my mom took us semi-weekly to an episcopal church where my sister would stretch out over the pews and play with her Barbie dolls and I would read comic books, study the backs of baseball cards and complain.
But you know how the story goes. I left my home and my family to chase name and fame and got real lost real quick. I wandered far away, to the point where I thought I might never come back.
Sometimes one must get real lost to find the thing that one needs.
When I was much younger, in my early 20’s, I lived in a tiny, bug infested apartment on the South Side of Williamsburg in Brooklyn. I had moved to New York City from Maine a few years earlier to study film and music, had nearly finished school, and was working several low-paying gigs to make ends meet. I was an executive customer service agent for Panasonic. I was a production assistant for Court TV. I was a sound engineer on a number of small and now long-forgotten short films. I was gigging as a singer/songwriter at the Living Room and the Sidewalk Cafe and Pianos. I was always broke, sleep deprived and for the most part, alone. Many of my friends from school had left New York to look for production work in film on the West Coast, and I’m fairly certain I had alienated the few who were left in the City, as I’d spent my last year in school trying to kill a lingering depression with a steady regiment of alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana and psychedelic drugs. I was lost in a chemical and existential haze and I wasn’t much fun to be around.
My closest friend was my roommate, a tall, gangly drummer, about six foot four, all arms and legs, named Jay, who I’d known from High School. Jay had been somewhat of an influence on me during my late teens, introducing me to the works of Frank Zappa, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra and Hunter S. Thompson. He was an encyclopedia of fantastic conspiracy theories concerning UFOs, the Illuminati, the Bohemian Grove, government experiments in Montauk and so on, and seemed to be well versed in literature on astral projection, witchcraft and the numerological significance of the number 23. He also seemed to always have large quantities of weed, which worked out well for me. In High School, we’d played in bands together and occasionally busked on the streets of Portland. He had joined me in New York a couple years earlier and had settled into a job at a bookstore called Esoterica on Astor Place.
The owner of Esoterica was a great bowling ball of a man in his mid-50’s, big and round and incredibly loud, who went by alternate names, Vyasa or Russell, depending on the crowd he was surrounded by. He was unmistakable, a weird fixture slowly moving through the East Village draped in dozens of strands of prayer beads of all kinds; rudraksha, sapphire, sandalwood, yak bone, human bone. He always seemed to be sweating, and he had a penchant for sharing extraordinary gossip with us about people we’d never met. The store sold books on meditation, magick, teleportation, yoga, buddhas, channeling, theosophy, and pretty much any other occult topic one might imagine. It was common knowledge that before the shop had belonged to Vyasa, it had been an Eastern Art Gallery, owned by a semi-famous American Yogi named Rudrananda, who had died in a plane crash in the early 1970’s.
A lot of information used to pass through Esoterica in those days, especially news on teachers visiting New York from a whole myriad of traditions. Vyasa was plugged into the city’s spiritual fringe scene and given Jay’s proclivity for learning about unusual things, he was naturally curious and eager to meet some of the traveling modern mystics. He started hanging out with Vyasa after work, attending teachings three or four nights a week with whatever master happened to be passing through the city. Then he’d come back to our crummy apartment, usually sometime after midnight, and we’d drink cheap malt liquor, get stoned, play music, talk until it was close to dawn, and he’d drop all kinds of vague hints about the places he’d been and the teachers he’d been spending time with. His stories didn’t seem particularly interesting, but he seemed excited about this new spiritual life he was engaged in, so I humored him and listened and listened and listened.
One night after returning home, Jay mentioned he’d be spending the following evening with a Tibetan Lama named Chagdud Rinpoche at a place called the Bunker. I had no idea who Chagdud Rinpoche was, nor did I care, but I knew the Bunker from legend. For years it had been William S. Burroughs‘ compound in Manhattan, a converted YMCA building on the Bowery in the East Village, now owned and occupied by the poet John Giorno. Burroughs had been a hero of mine, as much for his junky outlaw persona as for his brilliantly experimental and irreverent narrative style, and the opportunity to sit in his home, where luminaries like Andy Warhol and Patti Smith and Mark Rothko had passed time, was just too great to pass up.
Giorno had kept the Bunker mostly intact in homage to his friend, though I doubt I would have been able to discern between the Bunker I walked into that night and the Bunker in its natural Burroughs-inhabited state just a few years earlier. The only specific decor I remember was a floor lamp fashioned from an old rifle of some sort. The rifle pointed up, a dim electric bulb extending from the nose of its barrel, with an ordinary lamp shade fixed over it. The lights in the main room were dimmed, incense was burning, and there were perhaps 25 or 30 cushions arranged on the floor facing an ornately crafted wooden chair at the front. Strangely, there was a glass of what looked like a dark stout on a small table next to the chair. When he saw the drink, my roommate leaned over to me and whispered, “The Tibetans really like their beer.” This somehow made me feel at ease, and we sat down.
People began to fill in around us, all sitting straight and still. Most were dressed cleanly and conservatively, as though they had jobs and bank accounts. My clothes were mismatched, tattered and didn’t fit properly, obtained from a 2nd-hand warehouse store around the block from our apartment in Williamsburg. I was uncomfortable on the floor, shifted my posture and weight back and forth and could barely keep my legs crossed for more than a minute.
Chagdud Rinpoche eventually was introduced; he had been living in exile, was a great master, a physician, a painter, could sing. He then appeared from another room, sat in the beautiful wooden chair and gave a lecture. He had a long and pointed white beard and wore what I assumed to be Tibetan religious robes, his appearance stirring images of the Ancient One from my old Dr. Strange comics. He spoke very slowly, thoughtfully, deliberately, but despite his best efforts, I understood nothing of his discourse that night.
After the program, my roommate and I went to a Polish bar on 2nd Avenue. We got drunk and I listened as Jay explained to me that he was hoping to take initiation from the teacher we’d just seen. He told me about the Lama’s lineage and how it extended back all the way to someone named Padmasambhava. He was clearly fired up and asked me if I’d enjoyed the event. I wondered if maybe he was losing his mind. I told him the truth. I had no idea what was going on but I liked sitting with someone who resembled the Ancient One. I’d somehow enjoyed being there, despite being confused, bored and uncomfortable. It made no sense.
So, from that night on, one or two nights a week, I’d accompany Jay and his boss, Vyasa, on these spiritual excursions, visiting an assortment of meditation groups, Buddhist temples and teachers. The evenings would usually commence at a neighborhood diner over cheese fries, where I’d listen in as Vyasa and Jay would recount some heavy hearsay from Esoterica, or they’d talk passionately about some teacher or another they held in a particular reverence that day. It was almost like hanging out with record store or comic book nerds who were deep in discussion over the merits of Superman vs. Captain America or the Thing vs. The Incredible Hulk, except the talk was centered around characters like Mahavatar Babaji and Kusum Lingpa.
After dinner, we’d hit a teaching, then Vyasa would retreat to his apartment and Jay and I would end up at a bar where we’d drink cheap beer and talk into the early hours of the morning. He’d go on about whichever teacher we’d just seen and most always would reveal that he’d hoped to be initiated by them. It seemed like he hoped to take initiation from every one. The talks were almost always over my head, though occasionally I’d get a good feeling about a specific teacher or a particular place. Mostly, I just enjoyed being around Vyasa and Jay and listening to them talk and it felt good to be out in the city.
I discovered kirtan at the Chelsea Hotel. It was a Saturday in the winter. I don’t remember which month, but I remember it was cold. Jay brought me to the landmark hotel where Tennessee Williams, Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Edith Piaf had lived, where Dylan Thomas had died of pneumonia, where Sid had killed Nancy and so on and so forth, on the premise that Vyasa’s guru would be visiting from Europe that night.
The lobby was filled with art. Huge modern oil paintings hung everywhere. A rough-looking life-sized sculpture of a girl on a swing hung from the ceiling near a gothic chandelier. An odd assortment of characters, residents mostly, hung out on and around a scattering of old sofas and chairs, some deep in conversation, some reading, most apparently wanting to be seen.
We took an elevator upstairs, exited, walked down a long hallway and into a dark, clean, hushed room. We were a little late and sat on the floor with a dozen or so other people, all either meditating or sitting quietly. There was a chair at the front, obviously for the Guru, bookended by vases stuffed full of flowers, and a little marble-topped table to the right where a small oil lamp illuminated three framed black and white photos. Each photo was a portrait of different dark-skinned, half-naked Indian man, each staring intensely into the photographer’s lens and seemingly directly at and through me. I felt uneasy. There was a powerful silence, an austerity and simplicity in that room that struck me as profound. For the first time in my life, I felt I’d entered a holy place and I was undone by this feeling. I was uncomfortable, coming apart, like some secret hidden inside of me was about to be exposed.
A couple older musicians came and sat down on the floor with us facing the Guru’s chair and the small altar, one with a harmonium and one with a frame drum. They began a long, slow, call and response chant, the harmonium player doubling as the lead vocalist, guiding the group repetitively through wholly unfamiliar words sung in an unearthly melody. Vyasa put a small folded pamphlet in my hands, a word sheet with a strange collection of unrecognizable syllables. He pointed to the lyrics being chanted and almost unconsciously I found myself joining in the response, my inhibitions melting away. It felt good to sing and I allowed myself to be swept up in the moment. The music intensified, the drums quickening in pace, the feeling simultaneously becoming more earnest and ecstatic. I felt connected to something deep, old, ancient even. This was familiar, real. The voices growing in strength and volume. The chanting built to a climax, then the drums stopped, then the singing, then the harmonium. In the silence that followed, I felt a lightness, an ease, a strange and beautiful interconnectedness, a sudden sense of wonder and recognition all at the same time. I understood nothing, but knew immediately and desperately that I needed to continue chanting.
The Swami from Europe arrived after the kirtan and spoke that night, about what I don’t remember. It didn’t matter. I went straight home that evening and wept.
On the ferry from Wood’s Hole to Vineyard Haven, we meet some friends from Rhode Island and Massachusetts. They’re on their way to sing with us on the island and we share a table and coffee on the ship’s enclosed second level. The waves are enormous due to high winds, the boat rolling up and over each swell. One of the guys decides to head out to the open deck at the front of the boat to better experience the topsy-turvy ride and we all follow him out. The ship rocks, rolls, up and down and over. It’s difficult to walk and we all grab gates, walls, benches for support. A gust of wind sends a spray of salty ocean water into my face. I’m done. I head back inside, leaving everyone on the deck.
Alone now, I grab the book I’m reading, “The Hero With A Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell and open to the chapter entitled, “The Refusal of the Call,” where the author discusses the willful avoidance of the call to heroic and spiritual action. Halfway down the page, I’m struck by the following paragraph:
“Because I have called, and ye refused… I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock your fear cometh; when your fear cometh as desolation, and your destruction cometh as a whirlwind; when distress and anguish cometh upon you… For the turning away of the simple shall slay them, and the prosperity of fools shall destroy them.”
– Proverbs 1:24
Sometimes, through all of life’s madness, there is a moment of clarity, an instant of insight, a sudden understanding of who and where we are and what we need. Those moments are fleeting and don’t come around often. They are a rare grace and in those moments we have the potential to be saved, to save ourselves if we can summon the courage to follow their cues.
It has been more than 20 years since I first experienced kirtan on that cold winter night at the Chelsea Hotel. I stopped drinking, smoking and drugs soon after that, and met my own Guru, a small dark-skinned South Indian lady named Mata Amritanandamayi (“Amma”) several months later. I had never known anyone like Her. She radiated love, compassion and selflessness, and seemed to see the good in everyone, even me. I followed Her off to India to work, study and spend time around Her at Her ashram. For a brief time after I met Her, I thought I might even become a monk, but my ties to America always brought me back.
Fortunately for me, Amma has always given special importance to the practice of kirtan.
“To gain concentration in this age of materialism (Kali Yuga), bhajan (kirtan) is easier than meditation. By loud singing, other distracting sounds will be overcome and concentration will be achieved. Bhajan, concentration and meditation, this is the progression.”
I’ve now been doing some type of sadhana for two decades; meditation, chanting, studying vedanta, all practices aiming to quiet the mind and prepare one for contemplation. While I am convinced that all types of spiritual practice are great, kirtan has always been my lifeline. In my darkest moments, it’s been a refuge, a connection to my teacher and to my self.
“Among the great Rishis, I am Bhrigu; among words I am the one syllabled ‘Om’; among sacrifices, I am the sacrifice of Japa (the repetition of Divine Names or thoughts); among immovable things, the Himalayas.”
Gita – 10.25
I’ve been leading kirtan publicly for about 10 years now, a practice that’s brought me to yoga studios, halls, festivals and temples all over the country. Wherever we go, people seem to show up, each with their own enthusiasm for chanting and their own story of how they got here. I consider myself extraordinarily fortunate to be able make this offering and meet so many sincere people along the path.
And I have a long ways to go. I often wonder if I’ve changed much at all in the last 20 years. I still, at times, feel lost. I am still prone to bad decisions. I still, at times, hurt people. I’m still lazy. Desirous. I fall down. I get back up. And on and on.
On the Vineyard, we are rushed from the ferry to our friends’ home. There are more people there to meet us, reunions of friends and companions everywhere, and we are stuffed full of rice and daal and rajma. We then jump into cars and are transported along winding country roads to our venue for the evening, a rustic rented hall in the woods. A PA system and microphones have been set up, and after a quick soundcheck on my voice, my harmonium and the percussionists, I wander outside alone into the forest. It’s chilly, the sun is setting through the trees and for a moment, everything is quiet.
I grew up in a place like this, and I recall a moment when I was eight years old, walking home alone from the school bus stop on a late afternoon in October through scatterings of fallen leaves, and the quiet and the sun setting through the branches, and suddenly stopping, overwhelmed by the strange feeling that everything was somehow beautiful and perfect and would always remain so. There is a slight breeze through the branches, a leaf tumbles down on the wind, trails off to the forest floor. I wrap my scarf around my neck and head inside to sing.