The Best and Worst of Japa

Complexity: 
Medium

I love chanting japa—some days. Other days, I endure chanting japa. It seems to be bliss or boredom. On the good days I am enthralled. Krishna feels very close, and very dear. Not that I’m seeing visions or hearing voices—nothing dramatic that would excite the tabloid crowd. The experience is closer to returning home after a long, arduous journey. Such a sweet pleasure from the simple fingering of beads, the rhythmic repetition of the maha- mantra:Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.

But then there are the bad days. Unfortunately, when I speak of bad days I don’t mean an occasional lapse. There are so many bad days they could actually be divided into categories: sick days, cold days, sleepy days, busy days, lonely days, traveling days, foul-mood days, messy-house days, family-visiting days, summer-vacation days, lots-on-my-mind days, too-many-kids-around days, all of the days between Christmas and New Year—those are just a few. And there are others that spring up unannounced, defying categorization.

The paradox is that while there is always some really appealing excuse for the mental gyrations that prevent good japa, it is precisely the resultant inattention that makes chanting seem a chore, a task to be endured. Good japa is a pleasure in the deepest sense. And yet the persuasions of the mind steal this pleasure from me again and again.

So why listen to the mind? Knowing that the mind’s entertainment is taking me away from the process of nourishing my soul, why would I fall for it more than once? Compare me to the alcoholic who has some experience of the rewards of sober life but keeps succumbing to the temptation to drink, knowing that eventually he’ll lose the very desire for sobriety. The normal state, the sober state, no longer seems desirable when one is enslaved by alcohol. In the same way, the normal state of happiness that comes from attentive chanting is forgotten when chanting is habitually inattentive. Japa time becomes the time for the mind to assume center stage, and like a bad comic it tries all kinds of routines to capture the whims of the audience.

If you are by now appalled that anyone would ever let their japa fall into such a state, then you might as well move ahead to the next article. You don’t need to hear this part, which gets really shocking.

When my rounds get really bad, I start to question the value in even chanting them. I start to question my motives: Is it just to maintain some kind of pride in chanting sixteen rounds, even if they’re crummy rounds? At the core of it all, am I superstitious, chanting to ward off the evils of the world? Is chanting japa a way to assure myself of devotee status, something that gets me on Krishna’s good side? As these kinds of questions come up, I get swamped by shame and discouragement. I think it might be better to be honestly fallen than to chant so offensively.

A friend once commented to me that it would be better to chant one good maha-mantra a day than sixteen distracted rounds. I squirmed when I heard that, because I knew that I was indeed guilty of empty chanting. But I couldn’t quite agree. I took a vow at initiation to chant sixteen rounds, so I can’t give that up. And on one level, sure, just one sincere cry to Krishna is better than mechanical chanting. And yet, if one is resigned to chanting just one mantra a day, how many days would go by when those precious ten seconds of devotion would never come? If it’s easy to space out for the duration of sixteen rounds, how much easier to miss the one little scheduled chance you set up to cry out for Krishna?

There’s certainly a better solution to inattentive chanting than giving up. And that’s the solution that always becomes obvious to me when I see I’m sliding.

It’s never better to give up the fight! There always comes a point when I get disgusted enough to try harder at hearing my rounds. And whenever I make that attempt, Krishna is always there. My dearest friend always gives me shelter. When I start listening to my prescribed rounds, I have the wonderful sensation of returning to a place I love. I know that if I just put my beads aside, thinking that no chanting is better than bad chanting, I would never have these exhilarating homecomings. Srila Prabhupada encourages us: “If one goes on chanting the holy names of the Lord, which are not different from the Supreme Personality of Godhead, naturally his mind becomes absorbed in thought of the Lord.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.8.44, purport) My karmic reality is that my mind is polluted by passion and worse. My spiritual practice is meant to confront that polluted state and break through it.

So, all you fellow problem chanters out there, take heart. The damage is not irreparable. There are a number of tricks to quiet the mind, similar to the tricks a parent uses to quiet a two-year-old. I’ll share with you a few I use.

One good trick is to promise your mind that as soon as you finish your rounds you will give it undivided attention. You will ponder your problems, write your speeches, worry about your future—all after the rounds are finished. Another trick is to listen to just ten mantras in a row, and I mean really listen. Then try ten more, and ten more. Try to hear a whole round, not missing a bead. Challenge yourself, if you’re that type, or make it a game, if you’re that type. Another strategy is to put your beads down for a minute and make a prayer of whatever is on your mind. Then let it go and give your attention to chanting.

Regulation is invaluable in chanting sixteen decent rounds, so be sure you have a good time for chanting. I find that unchanted rounds hang like clouds in my mental landscape. Unless your schedule prohibits it, it’s best to chant all of your rounds during the auspicious morning hours.

Try these suggestions, and confide in devotees you trust and ask for their special tricks. Soon you will develop your own. (Then perhaps you can send them to me.)

Chanting japa is truly an individual expression of our desire to serve guru and Krishna. No one else can know the quality of our rounds. I, for one, can be a really good faker. And there is little recognition from the outside world if one is a conscientious chanter. But who cares for such recognition when the true reward is the pleasure of the Supreme Lord, the master of the entire universe?

What is Japa?

Japa is a personal meditation on a mantra. Hare Krishna devotees each have a strand of 108 beads, on which they chant the Hare Krishna mantra. Initiated devotees vow to chant on the full set of beads at least sixteen times a day.