Music and Mantras
Chapter 1 Discovering My Voice
Singing is the rawest thing. Having been naked in films or naked in photo shoots, it’s nothing compared to singing. It’s absolute nakedness. You are stripped bare! It’s very strange. Acting seems much easier, in fact, because you are putting on a costume—whereas here, you are taking everything off.
I can speak from experience that our singing voice is deeply entwined with our core identities, a kind of shamanic tool that we can use to explore and heal the hidden parts of ourselves. Before I released my first album, Reveal, in 2004, I had never really shared my singing voice publicly. Singing for me had been a lifelong dream that, up to that point, had only found expression in the devotional chanting practices that were an essential part of my daily spiritual life. Chanting with the harmonium (Indian reed organ) in front of my home altar was and still is a deeply personal, intimate expression of singing. In that setting, it’s just you and Spirit; you can sing freely, just for the joy of it. However, singing like that in front of a room full of people was something altogether new and unfamiliar.
I knew I had a profound calling to sing and to share these songs that were coming forth like musical flowers from this living plant of daily chanting practice that I’d been nurturing for more than a decade. Just after returning to California after my second trip to India, at a time when I was making part of my living as a professional tabla (Indian hand drums) player and had just recorded Live on Earth with Krishna Das, I awoke to the sound of that calling loud and clear in the form of an inner voice that said, Unless you sing, you’ll never truly be happy. My mind did a quick fast-forward through a hypothetical version of my life that didn’t include singing, and I saw with utter clarity that, at the end, I would be filled with regret that I hadn’t taken this leap of faith to free my voice.
That day, I put aside the tablas I’d been practicing devotedly for three to four hours daily, resolved that I could still keep my drumming skills intact with just an hour a day or so. In their place, I began the journey of finding my voice—spending hours every day singing with my harmonium or guitar, practicing the Indian sargam vocal scales I had learned at the Ali Akbar College of Music, writing new mantra-based songs (beginning with the song Ma), and even taking a few voice lessons here and there to help guide me on my way. Most of all, I dove deeper and deeper into my daily chanting practice. That practice formed the foundation for the way I approached singing and fueled the inspiration for the songs that came through me.
When Reveal was released in 2004, the fifty-four minutes of music on that first album were the songs born from that period in my life. Even though I’d already been through the process of writing, recording, and producing at that point, until Reveal hit the streets, those songs and, more importantly, my singing voice, had so far existed solely in a kind of protective bubble into which only
I, my family, and the musicians and singers who recorded with me had been allowed. As far as everyone else was concerned, I was still the little drummer boy who played tablas for kirtan (a form of call-and-response chanting) singers like Krishna Das or Wah. It was one thing to sing at home or even in the recording studio but, with the release of Reveal, it felt as if I was allowing my voice to be heard by anyone in the world who chose to listen. On one hand, I felt exuberant to finally be able to share this musical offering and to let the world know that the little drummer boy had found his voice. On the other hand, putting this music out for everyone to hear felt a bit like walking down Santa Monica Boulevard stark naked in broad daylight. You can see why the album title was an obvious choice.
The very same week that Reveal came out, I had another debut of sorts, this one in the form of a red rash that appeared suddenly all over my neck, chest, and back. A friend who saw me around that time took a look at my red, inflamed neck and said, “Oh, wow. You look like you could be a Cardassian from Star Trek. It’s kind of cool, actually.” Finding myself inexplicably covered in a red, itchy rash was definitely not cool, however, because just as this new phase of my musical life was getting under way, the discomfort of this bizarre skin issue had suddenly made my day-to-day reality a challenge. I found it hard to sleep at night and even the touch of a shirt against my chest was incredibly irritating. I was miserable.
After a couple of visits to Western doctors, it became clear that the only strategy they were really offering was to suppress the rash temporarily with steroids—not a long-term solution. So, I set about looking for a more holistic approach that held out the possibility of real healing. I found a great acupuncturist/herbalist in Los Angeles and went in for the initial consultation.
She examined me and listened sympathetically as I rattled off my litany of symptoms for her. At the end of that very first session, she reassured me and said she was confident that we could resolve whatever was creating this imbalance in my body through herbs, acupuncture, and dietary changes. I felt the first glimmer of hope that I might finally get some relief from the suffering I’d been going through. That’s when she dropped a bit of holistic jujitsu on me: “You know, in Chinese medicine, we like to say that an illness is the body’s way of asking you a question. Maybe your question is, ‘Are you comfortable in your own skin?’ ”
Those words landed like a big stone in the middle of a lake, sending ripples out in every direction. It suddenly dawned on me that what was going on with my skin could be a kind of dramatic externalization of an underlying psychological or energetic blockage that was just coming to the surface—literally—to be healed. I felt daunted at the prospect that my healing from this uncomfortable condition wouldn’t come in the form of a quick-fix prescription but, instead, would require me to evolve somehow, to embody myself more fully. Even so, I felt a sense of confidence and strength begin to come over me because I knew that I had a powerful ally to help me through the process: my singing and chanting practice.
Over the next nine months, with Reveal starting to find its way into the iPods and ears of people all around California and then beyond, I began playing my first concerts as a singer, still contending with the discomfort of the rash. At first, singing in front of an audience felt strange and a little intimidating, but the more I tried to cultivate the same feeling I would have chanting alone in front of my altar, the more natural and comfortable it felt. I began to notice that, while I was deeply in that sacred space of chanting, all the discomfort from the rash would vanish. At
the end of those nine months, during a kirtan on the Big Island of Hawaii, the redness and irritation that had been my constant companion and fierce teacher for the better part of a year finally disappeared from my body.
Finding Your Voice
At this point I feel like I should insert one of those caveats you see at the end of those stock market trading services commercials with the message, “These results are not typical. Actual results will vary.” Just to put your mind at ease, among the thousands of people I’ve encountered who’ve taken the journey to find their true voice, so far I’m the only one whose process included a temporary Cardassian neck tattoo. What finding our voice does give each and every one of us, though, is an opportunity to know ourselves more fully. Through the physical aspect of learning how to sing, we become more deeply aware of this physical instrument of our body; we begin to tune in to the deeper patterns of thought and feeling within us, and how those patterns are showing up in our body. By tuning into ourselves in this way through singing, we have a place from which we start expressing and releasing things. It’s simple and direct.
The powerful transformative effect of releasing our voice is familiar territory for music therapists like Daniel Comstock, the director for the Center for Attitudinal Healing & the Arts in Montana. He describes the process of singing in a safe, judgment-free environment as an opportunity for our mind, body, and emotions to join, to come into alignment, which allows for healing. “If I’m aware that I’m using my body to express my emotions, then it’s easier to let those emotions out. Well, if I’m singing a
good piece of music or singing a chant that resonates with me, then those feelings start flowing through me. They stop being blocked. They stop being held. A good song along with a good sense of being fully in your body will start that process because you’re connecting with yourself. By connecting with yourself, the truth of you—which is love—is going to be experienced and manifested. For me, my relationship to God and to the Universe is found through these actual concrete experiences of breathing and healing and singing and being and loving.”1
As we embark on this healing journey to connect with our own singing voice, we’ll begin with some amazing and inspiring insights about the power of singing. We’ll discover how it’s possible for the heartbeats of a group of singers to actually sync up to the same cardiovascular rhythm. We’ll learn whether or not amateur singers can reap the same or even greater benefits from singing than professionals. And we’ll see what an ancient Buddhist mantra has in common with the Christian Ave Maria prayer. In the next chapter, we’ll explore together exactly how singing, chanting, and mantra affect our physical, emotional, and psychological well-being, our adaptability and longevity, and how we can cultivate and boost those life-enhancing properties of these fun and functional practices.
Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.