Learning to Chant

I've been learning to chant over the last few months. Sanskrit. Aloud. Fairly melodically, for someone who dreaded being called on by the music teacher in fourth grade. I've forgotten her name, but the room is indelibly etched on my mind's eye: wooden floors, blackboard at the front where the teacher would stand and point and grimace, piano in the corner to the right, the kind of student desks where you sit on a smooth plastic-y chair seat and the desk part, in faux wood, curves around you to the right and ends in front. The kind in which if you are a left-hander, which I'm not, you could never take notes on unless you contorted yourself into a spinal twist to the right. The kind in which, many many years after fourth grade, I could hardly slip into when I took my written exams for my master's degree while eight months pregnant.

But I digress. Chanting, that's the topic. See how easily the mind wanders? Notice how much of that wandering, that vrtti, or mind activity - what my teacher calls monkey mind, as the thoughts jump around like a monkey in a tree - is about the past and the stuff that was negative but oh so formative?

Chanting helps the mind to focus. To sustain that focus over a period of time. In the second sutra of Book I of Patanjali's Yoga Sutra-s, Patanjali writes: Yoga cittavrittinirodaha. Yoga is the process of focusing on something and maintaining that focus. As a result, tada drastuh svarupe itaratram.The self, or essence or soul or awareness, is firmly established in its own form. Finding a focus, whether it's chanting or knitting or cooking or reading, helps to smooth out the waves in our ever-active minds. In class, I often compare yoga and meditation to taking a broom and sweeping the dust out of our minds. The dust will come back; it's not a permanent condition of cleanliness, or concentration. More like a brief flash, a mometary lull between the waves coming in and the waves going out.

Hmm. Chanting. Isn't that what I was talking about? See how this works. Focus. Wander. Focus. Wander. Chanting. I promise, For at least a paragraph. I've been studying with my mentor in California. We do a weekly phone call, in which we chant for about 20 minutes, then she talks about the sutras and their meanings while I attempt to capture everything that she is telling me in my notebook. Then I practice chanting as I drive back and forth to work, using a wonderful 4-Cd set/tutorial from Sonia Nelson of the Vedic Chant Center. I review the sutras that I know, then try to garble a few new ones out on my own, until I have a chance to study them with my mentor. And the last few weeks, I've been meeting with my teacher here to chant. We sit, we chant, we talk about the meanings, and we gab. Last week she told me that I remind her of her grandmother, who would chant the Sabbath prayers every Friday night, and who loved and understood her like no one else in her family. I felt very honored.

Chanting. Okay. I can do this. The great thing about chanting is that you realize that you do have a beautiful voice. That sound is healing, reflective, fun. That it's very cool to know some Sanskrit, because it's a good party trick and a treat when you start to recognize words that you understand. That the en-yay that you learned in Spanish comes in very handy in trying to pronounce Sanskrit. And that Patanjali was very very smart. Anything that you might want to know about the mind or psychology or health or balance? It's all here. Way before Freud and Jung and Western medicine.

And that it's a relief occasionally to stick with one thought. It's like swimming underwater. Quiet. No distractions. Clear. Smooth against the skin. Until you surface for air, and then it all goes up for grabs again.