Got Soul?

I went to a talk today at the Lincoln Center called Soul Music – a discussion on the nature of the soul, and how it relates to the experience of music. What makes music soulful, and what transforms an ‘ordinary’ musical experience into something transcendent?

The panelists were mostly unknown to me – a well known archaeologist -Alison Brooks, and a philosopher – David Chalmers. The one I did know was Philip Glass, whose career as a composer has been quite prolific and varied.

The talk began with a performance of shape note singing by a group called Sacred Harp. I had never heard of it before, and was surprised twice – when my first reaction to the sound was not so positive – there was an earthiness, a very human imperfection in their harmonies and exuberance which felt somehow jarring for a moment. Then all of a sudden the sound hit my heart and tears sprang to my eyes. It was quite powerfully beautiful. The songs they sang were composed in the 17th and 18th centuries by American Christian settlers and were designed to be sung by everyone in a congregation, whether musically literate or not – hence the term ‘shape note’ – the notation was written in shapes like squares and triangles instead of in the more traditional way,to make it all the more easy for anyone to read the music by sight. Listening, I suddenly got goosebumps all over – there was such joy and devotion in their song, and their harmonies were unusual and almost otherwordly. Here’s an example.

There is just something so deeply moving about unaccompanied voices. In that moment the body is used an instrument, literally and figuratively, and when done in community, I think it has the power to change the world, from the inside, out. I could see this yesterday during the monthly 6 hour kirtan at the Bhakti Center. Such a diversity of people came – it was incredible. At one point I was dancing and noticed a young woman who had just come in mouth incredulously to her friend, ‘Everyone looks so happy!’ She nodded, amazed. It’s true, we were. Though we all have a myriad of trialling circumstances to return to when it’s all over, kirtan, sacred call and response singing, connects us deeply with one another and with a timeless divinity that brings a feeling of profound happiness. The leader of the Sacred Harp group today said something beautiful about the spirituality of their music, that the singing is ‘communal property – people are drawn to it because the sound of these voices together is not ours, just as our soul is not ours.’

So it was quite interesting to hear the panelists grappling with the deeper philosophy behind why we feel this way. Of course for me, coming from a spiritual tradition that can totally explain the nature of the soul and the context that it sits within, it is always fascinating to hear others working over the discussion. Each of them stated that they had little insight into it, but attempted to examine it from different angles. Philip Glass talked about his experience of composing, being totally mysterious. He said that he can never actually remember composing anything, and feels the sense of ‘a witness’ who watches and remembers what he does, who takes over in those moments, leaving him unable to explain why he created in the way he did. It sounds to me like ‘Paramatma’ the divine within who witnesses our every moment, but of course it can be justified in many ways.

So much to write about on this topic – so much to explore! For now, here’s a logo I’ve been designing for the newly founded Call and Response Foundation – set up to bring kirtan and creative communal experiences into schools, prisons, hospitals and more. It’s a work in progress.

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River Devi

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Your broad face
ribbed with waves
silently watching
absorbing
we forget to bow to you
O devi of the city
jogging past your body
admiring your beauty
feeding you our daily remains.
We forget to pray.
No flowers sit atop the zig zags
carved by tourist boats at dusk.
You reach your fingers beneath the gum covered concrete
touching iron and earth and forgotten prayers
buried deep
below
the
rumbling
office
blocks

O devi, forgive us as we tut and call you dirty.
Your wide banks reflect the span of your compassion.

Tonight at sunset,
you sing a quiet song
as the trees around you sleep
you sing of your far away sisters
of sandy banks
where blessed feet stand
offering evening prayers.

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Live in Love.

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Sometimes I feel like such a classic preacher’s daughter. I saw this ad in the street and instantly started pontificating in my mind. ‘Be quiet!,’ the other, humbler side of me hissed. ‘You don’t have to give a running commentary on everything.’ But – it’s too hard to resist. So forgive me.

This reminded me of how much we all want love. We want it so much that we drive ourselves crazy, filling life with things that like a bad boyfriend, promise so much and deliver so little. Whether the sugar that we crave in search of real sweetness, or the the things we buy to attract more love, more beauty, more security. I know I’m not saying anything new. When the Beatles sang ‘Money can’t buy me love,’ the whole world nodded (and sang) along. I know it, so why does real love still seem so elusive?

The missing piece is service. In almost every spiritual tradition this conclusion is defined – to love another truly is to serve, expecting nothing in return.

It’s been a powerful realisation for me lately. I have been blessed to receive appreciation and admiration from so many, but it doesn’t satisfy my heart unless I feel that I am sincerely trying to serve others. Easy to say, hard to remember.

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Lady of the Lake

After the Kirtan festival ended I got to stay an extra day at Ananda ashram. I grabbed the opportunity for some extra lake time. To sit, to chant, to think, to play violin, to sail across – there’s nothing like a good lake!

Every time I come to one, all my lake memories float up – fishing for tadpoles after school at Bhaktivedanta Manor; skimming flat stones across Bala Lake in north Wales as bats screeched overhead; swimming in lily filled Canadian ones on the Krishna youth summer tour; early morning talks with dear friends before the water, blanketed with summer mist in upstate NY.

The one here took me back to Vrindavan – to Govinda Kund, the sacred lake where Sri Gopal would visit Madhavendra Puri, a great saint. Acting like a normal village boy, he would bring him nourishing pots of milk, saying ‘No one goes hungry in my village!’ It’s a story I have always loved – so sweetly illustrating Krishna’s loving kindness and totally personal care.

I experience that care every day. Somehow no matter how confused I get about whether I’m doing the right thing in the right way, I continue to learn and be blessed. I spoke to a new friend about this today who shared with me that she has learned to appreciate those blessings especially which come in the form of the hardest life lessons – those which strip you from your husk and mash you, because as she put it – ‘You are worthy – you are meant for something great so your struggles must be great. Krishna only sends you what he knows you can handle.’ Knowing the life she’s had, it was humbling to hear and I can only hope that I can reach a similar point of gravity and gratitude as I traverse my own path.

This is my new lake meditation.

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Ananda in Autumn

Summer reappeared here at Ananda Ashram in upstate NY. I can smell fresh cut grass and the crickets are basking in the early evening sunshine. Scarlet and gold trees transform the forest and create incredible impressionist designs on the surface of the lake.

We’re up here for the first ever Kirtan festival at this well known spiritual centre. My parent’s guru, Srila Prabhupada stayed here when he first came to the west, and I feel his presence here. It’s been a great way to reflect on how his actions have given me life, and how I hope to share those gifts, as sincerely as possible.

Today I led my own ‘slot’ for the first time at a festival like this. I was sort of strong armed into it. A few years ago I was too shy to even sing in front of my parents, let alone in a microphone, but today I found myself surrounded by the sweetest group of devotional musicians, all helping me to make this offering. I was scared but it was fun. We made up a little arrangement for the bhajan – Sri Kevalashtakam, just before we began. Richard Davis, a film scoring professor from Berklee college played banjo as we sang the chorus – harer nama eva kevalam – there is nothing else but the name of Hari.

These kind of festivals can be simultaneously energizing and exhausting, but it’s always encouraging to see more and more faces of people who lead other wise ‘normal lives’, blissfully singing sacred mantras at the top of their lungs. This, and so many other events make up small pieces of the big picture – the mantra revolution that is catching fire like dry grass under a magnifying glass.

Over the weekend I’ve met artists and musicians, psychotherapists and lawyers, hippies and straight-laced housewives – all drawn to this joyful practice from an understanding that there is more to life than possessions, status and career.

I could go on and on, but blogging by iPhone encourages you to keep it short. God bless you Mr Jobs – Hare Krishna!

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Cravings at midnight.

I’m getting the strangest cravings. Perhaps it is something to do with living in the city – it becomes normal to desire something intensely from moment to moment. Almost as if an MSG laden breeze gusted through the streets and avenues. I heard pregnant women crave strange things like mustard and sauerkraut sandwiches. So it could also mean I’m pregnant with a good idea?

These are weird though. Everything from aching to go ice skating, to wishing I was walking the streets of Oxford. Others include splatting copious amounts of paint around, and cutting all my hair off.

If I was a yogi I wouldn’t be bothered by the flickering of the mind, like a flame in that aforementioned breeze. Oh to have a still mind, unrippled like the surface of a lake. A frozen one. That I could maybe skate on.

Sigh. I’m just a girl. Moved by the mind. Influenced by the city. My only hope is to chant those beautiful names which rein in those wild desire horses, gently and powerfully. Hare Krishna and good night.

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India Calling

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These manhole covers are everywhere, one more thing that reminds me of India here in New York city.

Yesterday a friend wrote to me on her journey to Badrinath, and I closed my eyes and pictured her there beside the rushing waters of the Ganga. I told her how the Hudson often reminds me of this sacred river – especially in the morning, and the ‘violet hour’ that quieting dusk where the lights start to appear on the water. Sometimes, like this morning, flocks of birds screech loudly from the rooftops, and the blasting horns of the produce trucks sound like conch shells being blown. Like in India, there is an almost constant symphony of construction going on, and beggars fill the streets and subways.

Here too exists the simultaneous intensity of materialism and spirituality. Walking downtown is a total sensory overload. It’s nearly impossible not to absorb the thousands of words, colours, slogans, songs and smells that reach out and grab at every step. But from this maelstrom there seems to grow a deep desire for some greater meaning. Along with Los Angeles, New York is probably one of the most yoga mad cities in the Western world. Kirtan and bhakti are buzzwords, and even if understanding is a little shallow, the desire to understand is usually genuine. Last Sunday I played violin for a workshop with Krishna Das. To my surprise, 450 people packed the room. Most of them chanted and meditated with the kind of gusto normally reserved for a football game. The more remarkable thing was that many of them didn’t fit the image that is usually assigned to ‘yogis’ or hippies. If I stood behind them at Starbucks, I’d never guess that they could chant the Hanuman Chalisa from start to finish.

As India speeds towards Western culture – the average Mumbai mall is a surreal dive into American street fashion, New Yorkers look for a change. The Wall Street protests are ongoing, and 700 were arrested the other day for blocking the Brooklyn Bridge. I visited last week to join in with the Meditation Mob, a group that meet up to sit and meditate there every few days. Tomorrow they will set up a temple space at Liberty Plaza, where the village of protesters is growing by the day.


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