The Power of Music, Rhythm, Chants, Kirtan

The power of chants (includes kirtan/dhun) was clear to me in India, over 30 years ago, in the Bihar School of Yoga ashrams in Mumbai and Munger. See the above visual of this blogsite, Krishna playing the flute. In yoga philosophy, this is the realm and science of nada yoga (sound as the path of yoga). The sound of music changes mood and consciousness effortlessly–the degree to which we tune in will determine the depth and duration of change.

The world of YouTube has now brought the chanting world within our home. Due to personal background, some of the Indian chants have the greatest effects on my mind. Awareness settles on the sound, the rhythm, the beat, spontaneously. The body, mind, breath come to the same place at the same time and move with the sound waves of the kirtan. Sitting in meditation after 20-30 minutes of kirtan makes the yoga practice and meditation deeper.

Searching deeper on the Internet on the effect of sound, music, and particularly chants, this thesis paper popped up: Auditory Driving As A Ritual Technology by Gabe Turow, Religious Studies Honors Thesis, Stanford University, 5/20/05.

This particular passage that follows sums up what many of us already know somewhere in the recesses of the mind, but it helps to bring it to the forefront to understand a little about meditation and the importance of chants, kirtans/dhuns. I see the music as a strong practice in pratyahara (sense withdrawal) as well as an effective way of emotional and mental cleaning, letting go. Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine emphasizes the process of “letting go” as integral to insight and creativity. Letting go can be viewed as deep cleaning from the perspective of meditation. Yoga Nidra is a potent form of deep mental and emotional cleaning (letting go). For this to happen the most effectively, this letting go cleaning, the most crucial step is that it must happen in the mind.

Here is the passage from Turow’s thesis:

Entrainment is defined as “a synchronization of two or more rhythmic cycles” and was first discovered by Dutch scientist Christian Huygens in 1665.

One of the experiments that led to this discovery was when Huygens set up a room full of pendulum clocks and got them all started one at a time. He found that when he came back to the room a day later, the sway of their pendulums had all synchronized. From this, he extrapolated that entrainment represented a ubiquitous natural phenomenon that had to do with the conservation of energy during the interaction of closely related rhythmic cycles. ( Strong, Jeff. “Rhythmic Entrainment Intervention: A Theoretical Perspective.” Open Ear Journal, 2/98.7)

This principle posits that any two vibrating bodies will entrain if exposed to each other for long enough. It’s true of clocks and electric driers sitting in close proximity to each other; it also describes the way musicians manage to play in time together in groups, the way women’s menstrual cycles fall into synch when they live with one another, and the way our body systems interact. Within our bodies, our various rhythmic systems never fight each other—they always fall into synchronized rhythms—and a lack of synchronization, like in the case of a bad heart valve that is not quite timed to the flow of blood, leads to sickness. It also seems to be the case that these body systems entrain, become synchronized, to the environment, to its oscillating features. There is overwhelming evidence that circadian rhythms keep us entrained to the rhythms of the earth relative to the sun, and that various systems within our bodies entrain to repetitive stimulation. Other examples are the way that two people walking next to one another will fall into step with each other, or the way that people clapping in a full room will synchronize their claps given enough time.

I have read other studies that describe how the human brain mimics the behavior of the people around it–if you happen to be surrounded by people who are overweight, the odds are higher that you will be overweight. We pick up on other people’s emotions–joy, laughter, sadness. (Chants, kirtans, dhuns, mantras also reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure, and reduce heart beat.)

We see how this affects us in a group chant where we pick up and reinforce the mood and the rhythms of the music surrounding us. There is a similar group experience in music concerts and with religious music. Like tuning forks which may have different frequencies initially, we tune into each other and vibrate at the same frequency creating harmony. This is not just an external group harmony, but I feel it is also internal harmony of brain waves that synchronize the body, breath, and mind.

In the meditation world, it is also believed that when we are in the presence of an experienced and advanced meditation teacher, if we are in synch, we can tune and benefit from the wave frequency they emanate.

There is a beautiful passage in the thesis on chanting from The Chanting Book by Master Seung Sahn:

Chanting meditation means keeping a not-moving mind and perceiving the sound of your own voice. Perceiving your voice means perceiving your true self or nature. Then you and the sound are never separate, which means that you and the whole universe are never separate. Thus, to perceive our true nature is to perceive universal substance. With regular chanting, our sense of being centered gets stronger and stronger. When we are strongly centered, we can control our feelings, and thus our condition and situation… However, when we do chanting meditation correctly, perceiving the sound of our own voice and the voices all around us, our minds become clear. In clear mind, there is no like or dislike, only the sound of the voice. Ultimately, we learn that chanting meditation is not for our personal pleasure, to give us good feeling, but to make our direction clear. Our direction is to become clear and enlightened, in order to save all beings from suffering… What’s important is to perceive the sound and become one with it, without making “I” and “sound.” At the moment of true perceiving, there is no thought, no separation, only perceiving sound. This is the crucial point. So during chanting time, perceive your own voice and the voice of others, just perceive this bell or drum sound, and cut off all thinking. Then your wisdom will grow, you will get enlightenment, and thus save all beings.

Our warmest wishes for all the major holidays coming up.

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