Profiled by Time magazine and nominated for a Grammy, Krishna Das is regarded as America’s leading “chantmaster.” Each year Krishna Das gives a workshop in Yogaville and he graciously agreed to be interviewed. Krishna Das talks about his Guru, his path, and falling in love with who you truly are in Part 2 of this two-part interview. Read part 1 here.
Integral Yoga Magazine: Please tell us about your Guru, Neem Karoli Baba. His eyes are truly radiant in photos!
Krishna Das: It’s not just in the eyes! It’s in everything about a Master. When we chanted, most of the time, he would just be lost “in it.” He was always “in it,” so it didn’t matter whether he was doing other things or not. He was never “out of it.” He loved the way we chanted.
IYM: Do you feel his presence when you’re chanting?
KD: I feel his presence every second because he is always here. I’m not. And I cry every time I think about my Guru because of the love and longing to be in his Presence. When the heart opens, all of the rules get thrown out the window.
IYM: In an interview you said, “This is my process…This is what cleans my heart and brings me into the moment.” Please clarify how chanting has affected you.
KD: Well, the process is living. I don’t know what changes my life. I can’t say that just because I sat down and chanted that my whole life changed. But the fact is that my whole life has changed. It seems that the more chanting I do, the more my life changes to some degree because I forget a lot of the heavier places where I used to hang out. I used to spend a lot of time in depression and a lot of heavy, unhappy stuff. And, did that stuff go first to allow me to chant? Or, did the chanting allow that stuff to disappear and lighten up? Everything in your life is part of your path. Everything in your life you have to be able to see as God’s Grace, eventually. And that is the Path.
IYM: Does spending more time chanting make a person more positive?
KD: Obviously that’s true. But if you’re chanting to avoid your own unhappy places, you will never succeed. You cannot avoid stuff. Avoiding stuff is not “letting go.” You can’t separate your practice from your life. You can’t be thinking: “I’m practicing now. I’m good. I’m watching TV now, I’m bad.” That will not fly. I mean, think about it. Think about the times when you don’t feel good about yourself. When you think: “I’m not pretty enough. I can’t do asanas well enough. I’ll never make it. I have no devotion.” You know, you can’t pretend that stuff does not exist. You can’t sit down and chant to avoid feeling like that. It doesn’t feel good when you’re feeling like that. Chanting is not about avoiding life. It’s about deepening your practice. So the next time those thoughts arise, and they will arise according to your karma, maybe you won’t buy into it quite so much.
IYM: How does chanting change you?
KD: Chanting doesn’t change who you are. If you are full of negativity and self-hatred, it doesn’t go away all of a sudden when you sit down to chant. You are still yourself. But chanting can help you, in some mysterious way, by re-directing your awareness, by opening what you see in yourself, and by relaxing your heart. So, in the sense that chanting allows you to go deeper into who you really are, it loosens the grip of those negative places on you.
IYM: So you could combine your chanting practice with silent japa (repetition of a mantra or holy name) as well?
KD: Yeah! As far as I’ve seen in India, there’s really no difference. It’s just the way you practice. Theoretically, when you’re sitting down silently you have an opportunity to deepen your practice a little bit more. But if you keep the thread going during the day, when you do sit down to allow it to deepen, it’s more likely to work because you haven’t been totally forgetful all day long. The idea is to remember.
IYM: Would you relate any mystical experiences you have had while chanting?
KD: I don’t know if I’ve had any mystical experiences. I feel my Guru’s Presence, and sometimes it gets very deep. But it’s not about experiences.
IYM: Is this what is called “steadiness in the practice?”
KD: A lot of people can have the experience: “I’m God.” And they might stop there without realizing that everybody is God. They may get all caught up thinking they’re special, without realizing that everybody’s special. So, it’s very subtle, what happens.
IYM: So the process of chanting elevates you beyond your personality? Is that what you’re saying?
KD: Yes and no. But I wouldn’t use those words. “Elevation” has a negative context. Because when you de-elevate, you fall. And then when you are falling, or not remembering, you feel bad: “I’m not remembering. I’m terrible,” and then you go on your whole trip about that. But that’s not outside the path. The whole process of forgetting and remembering is the Path.
Chanting helps you because it is a way of remembering; because the Name and the Presence of God are not different—eventually. So every time we’re singing, we’re entering into that flow again. We’re giving ourselves again to that flow, as opposed to another flow, a forgetful flow. This is a remembering flow.
IYM: What do you feel is the most important element in maintaining a steady spiritual practice?
KD: The most important thing in practice is motivation. You can chant the Name, but if what you really want is power and fame, it will come to you. Maharaj-ji used to say, “You can’t talk to a hungry man about God. Feed him first!” So, is there anybody born in this world who isn’t hungry? We are born hungry for many different things. If you are neurotic and can’t get the things you want out of life, forget about looking for God. What’s going to happen is that you need to get the power and the courage and the strength to get the things you need in life—because life is not separate from God. Sri Sai Baba used to say: “I give people what they want in the hope that someday they will want to take what I want to give them.”
IYM: Living in this world we are constantly pulled between our desires and our ability to use self-control. Sri Gurudev spoke about this so much; and, of course, Buddhism says that desire is the root of all suffering. Does chanting help us to get free from acting upon our desires?
KD: Wants are your map. They are your karma. That’s what you brought into this life. It’s like trying to pretend you’re not hungry. Meditation and the path to God are not un-natural. It’s the most natural. And it may take a million lifetimes. It may already have been a million lifetimes. But once you have God, it doesn’t matter how many lifetimes you have.
For a saint, manifesting a physical form is no problem. It’s just like entering into a dream consciously. It’s no big deal; they do it for us. Swami Satchidananda looked more or less like you or me. He had two arms, two legs, eyes, and a mouth. And my Guru looked kind of the same. All that stuff is not who they are. They are a different consciousness in the body, but they take this form for our sake so they can interact with us and through that interaction free us from our suffering.
IYM: How can a Yoga student incorporate chanting into his or her daily practice?
KD: Well, if you’re given a mantra by your Guru, you should keep that mantra going as much as possible. If not, you can simply repeat one of the names of God as your mantra—because that’s what they are. They are not “better.” They are just more awake. They are more real. They know who they are. We don’t know. We’re trying, and that’s why we chant. There’s a progression in the removal of the dust from the mirror of the heart. It is practice that leads you through this process. Because you have to be paying attention; the more of your heart that you give to it, the more you get from it—and the more you enter into the space of the chanting. There is no bottom to it. There’s no end to how deep it goes.
IYM: Thank you, Krishna Das, for the generosity of your answers for our readers.