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Chants of a Lifetime: Searching for a Heart of Gold

by Krishna Das

The following excerpt is taken from the book Chants of a Lifetime: Searching for a Heart of Gold by Krishna Das. It is published by Hay House (February 2010) and is available at all bookstores or online at: www.hayhouse.com.


When I met my guru, Neem Karoli Baba (also known as Maharaj-ji), I met a love that had no end, no beginning. It was completely new, yet it was as if I’d suddenly found myself awake again after a long sleep. There was nothing I had to do to get this love. It was always shining, whether I was turned toward it or not. When my own negative stuff closed me down and made it impossible for me to feel that love, some word, look, or gesture of his would turn all the lights back on at once . . . and I was home again. This happened over and over, day after day, during the time I spent with him.

After spending two-and-a-half years in India with him, Maharaj-ji sent me back to the States. Then something unexpected happened. He died. I couldn’t believe it! This was not the way it was supposed to be. I went into shock. Being with him physically was the only thing that had ever “worked” for me—the only thing that had ever lifted my heart out of its sadness. I was alone. I would never be with him again. I crashed horribly, absolutely convinced that I had lost my only chance to be happy. I died inside and lived with the belief that I would never find that love again. The shadows in my heart that had been hidden in the bright noonday sun of his love emerged to push me around and run me ragged, making me more and more depressed and leading me into many dark places, inside and out.

For 20 years I was unable to sing to him with real devotion. When I chanted, usually with a group of the Western devotees I knew from India, it was like rubbing salt in a wound. I missed Maharaj-ji and being with him, but the tears I cried were ones of self-pity and frustration, not love.

It was as if I’d been riding on a train, and one day that train stopped at a station. Looking out the window, I saw Maharaj-ji sitting there, and I ran off the train to be with him, leaving everything behind. When he left his body, I found myself back on that same train. All of my sadness, longing, and confusion; all of my conflicting desires, my self-hatred, the shadows in my heart—everything I’d left on the train when I met him—were still there. The one difference was his presence; even so, my connection with that presence was buried underneath all of my stuff and I struggled to feel it. It was as if my train had entered a long, dark tunnel of self-destructive behavior and despair. All of this I would have to face in order to reconnect with him.

Maharaj-ji had sent me back to America in the spring of 1973 because, as he said, “You have attachment there.” I knew it was true. I had reached a point where I couldn’t absorb any more, and I had many unresolved desires that were pulling me in different directions.

Many years passed. Then one day in 1994, I was deeply struck by the realization that the only way I could clean out the dark places in my heart was to chant with people—people who did not know me from the old India days. I wanted to be in that presence, in that love, again, and I could see that what was keeping me out of that presence were those closed-up places in my own heart. It was a very powerful moment, and as much as I wanted to deny it, I couldn’t. I was drowning, and it was the only rope being thrown to me. I was sure I wouldn’t get another one. I knew beyond any doubt that if I didn’t chant, I’d never find that place of love again. That place was inside of me somewhere. And I couldn’t use Maharaj-ji’s physical presence to open it up anymore—his body wasn’t there. I had to find it in myself, and the only way open to me was through chanting.

I had to force myself to do something about it. I called the Jivamukti Yoga Center in downtown New York City and introduced myself as a devotee of Neem Karoli Baba. I said that I used to chant to him in India and asked if it would be okay if I came down and led some chanting at the center. Every Monday they had a small gathering, or satsang, of 10 to 15 of their students, when they read from holy books and discussed spiritual topics. The next Monday I arrived at the center and met David Life and Sharon Gannon, the co-founders of Jivamukti. They let me sing for about a half hour at the beginning of the evening. After the satsang, they said that I could come whenever I wanted. So whenever I was in New York on a Monday night, I went there to chant.

A few months later, I arrived to find that Sharon and David had gone to India. I sang for about two hours and continued doing so until they returned. When I came to Jivamukti after they had gotten back, their pillows were set up in front of the room next to mine. We talked for a while and then I started to sing . . . and I kept on singing! When I realized that I’d been singing for longer than I used to when they were there, I opened my eyes and glanced over to see if it was okay. They looked at each other, smiled, and shrugged as if to say, “Go for it!”

I haven’t stopped yet.

Heading Toward the Heart of Gold

My life has been spent searching. Even before I knew what I was looking for, everything that has happened to me has led me into the presence of love, whether it was the physical presence of my guru or the presence of love deep within my own heart. No matter what my life may look like from the outside, on the inside it is a constant process of turning toward that place, of trying to come face-to-face with love.

The minute I heard my first love story

I started looking for you, not knowing

how blind that was.

Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere.

They’re in each other all along.

— Rumi1

It is said that the heart is like a mirror that reflects our deepest being. If the mirror is covered with dust, the reflection is not clear. The mirror of the heart is covered with the dust of our “stuff”: selfish desires, anger, greed, shame, fear, and attachment. As we let go of these, our inner beauty begins to radiate and shine.

The more I chant and share my path with seekers from so many different countries and cultures, the more I am being transformed myself. The purpose of this book is to illuminate the part of my path that surrounds and gives life to the chanting. I hope that by sharing the way I see my life, some of my experiences and some of the things I’ve learned while waiting for the door of my heart to swing open may be of help to those of you who are trying to open that same door.

Chanting alone is not my path. It is my main practice, but my life—and everything in it—is my path.

I had the opportunity to spend several years in the presence of my guru, and I’ve been able to meet many saints, yogis, lamas, and instructors from different spiritual traditions. Without the blessing of these wonderful teachers and my experiences with them, I wouldn’t have been able to pass through the darkness and despair that have often filled my life, and finally begun to learn how to be good to myself.

When we do kirtan, the practice of what in India is called “chanting the Divine Name” over the course of a few hours, we are letting go of our “stories” and offering ourselves into the moment over and over again. Chanting is a way of deepening the moment, of deepening our connection with ourselves, the world around us, and other beings. The Sanskrit chants that we sing—recognized for millennia as the Names of God—come from a place deep within each of us, so they have the power to draw us back within. If we go deep enough, we will all arrive at the same place, our deepest Being.

I use quite a few Sanskrit and Hindi words in this book, some of which have made their way into our American vocabulary—such as yoga, karma, and guru—and others for which I’ve given brief explanations. (I’ve also included a glossary of these terms at the back of the book.) And I’ve broken down my story into two parts: Part I, The Journey to India, is about waking up and beginning the search for my deepest Being and finding it outside of myself in my guru; Part II, Bringing It All Back Home, is about finding that love inside myself. It’s not a hard-and-fast division, but more of a general theme throughout these pages—that on the spiritual path we turn from seeking outside ourselves for what we want in life and begin to discover the inner beauty and connection we already possess.

When you hear my story, maybe it will resonate in your heart because, even though all of us walk our different paths and live our different lives, we are all headed to the same place: our One Heart of Gold.

*** ***


The Journey to India

Home Base

Chanting brings me into the space of love within, which to me is my guru, Neem Karoli Baba. From the outside, he was a little old man wrapped in a blanket in whose presence I felt unconditionally loved. On the inside, there was (and is) nothing in him that wasn’t love. I have to talk about my guru because everything I have that is of true, lasting value comes from my relationship with him. I’m not trying to sell him to you. There is no group to join; we already joined it. It’s called “the human race.” Maharaj-ji, who was beyond any sectarian beliefs, said over and over again that we’re all part of one family and that the same blood runs through our veins.

“Guru” is a hard concept for most Westerners to grasp, but very simply, the guru is whoever or whatever removes the darkness from our being. For me, the guru is love—the space I enter when I chant. That space can be called anything: God, soul, presence, vastness, awareness. To me, it is guru.

The guru is the living presence in our own hearts. That presence and love might show up in our lives in different ways. Whenever it does show up, it is very powerful, because for a moment we see a flash of our own beauty. We see ourselves through the eyes of love. Whenever Maharaj-ji looked at me, I would have to look down; I couldn’t bear that much love. Now I look for his eyes everywhere. For me, even after he left his body, he lives as the loving, vast, all-embracing presence in which everything exists. He is the all-encompassing sky that holds the earth, the stars, the clouds, and the pollution. There’s no place outside of Maharaj-ji for me.

You could call this presence God, too, but the bottom line is that I don’t really relate to that word. It kind of tenses me up. Growing up in the West, “God” was always something outside of me, something distant and fierce. I could never relate to what people called “God.” In Hindi and Sanskrit, there are a million names of God, and they all mean God. But they’re softer and sweeter, and they embody different qualities of love and give our hearts room to embrace and be embraced in many different ways.

Even so, it’s not about the concept of God for me. The path is about love; it’s about being connected, feeling that presence, and being in that love. That’s the place I sing to. And that place is always here because it’s not outside—it’s inside. So all I have to do is remember to look for it and move into it.

*** ***

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