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Struggling with Attentive Japa with a Practice to Improve Chanting

5
Author: 
Karnamrita Das

(this blog is recorded on the full blog page: quick time player is needed; works best with Firefox or Explorer; if you are using Google Chrome it will automatically play, so if you don't want to listen, mute your speakers.)
One mantra at a time photo DSCN6338_zpsnr4rfzvu.jpg
Part I

Many devotees struggle with chanting on their beads (japa). Some devotees make a big endeavor to come to the standard of chanting 16 rounds with the goal of initiation, and then after initiation, find it too much work, and give it up. While I have been steady at my chanting since I took it up—which I consider has kept me a devotee—I can't say it has often been of a very good quality. At times it has been very challenging to continue the practice—yet I did.

Lately, I have been going deeper with my chanting by daily setting the intention to actually hear, and to chant purely, while endeavoring to be present to hear one mantra, or concentrating on one bead, at a time, and praying constantly for help. I must say this has made a startling improvement in my experience, though it takes continual effort, and my focus comes and goes. I had a very profound experience of this as I prepared for a wedding talk I recently blogged about, and I am continuing to build on that.

I think we forget, or don't know, what chanting is, that it's a prayer to make spiritual progress by taking full shelter of the Lord, like a child crying for its mother—an absolute feeling of dependence and seeking shelter. We are offering our heart and soul to Krishna. We are his and praying to remember. To facilitate this, I have made an experiment, by taking my beads out of my beadbag, so I can see one bead, and focus on hearing one mantra, one holy name, one syllable, at a time as I chant and pray on each bead: Let me hear, let me go deeper, let me glorify you dear Lord, etc. Try it!

This is our special, private time with Krishna. Just you and Krishna--and your mind, and desires, and sometimes those anarthas (unwanted habits) that bubble up into our consciousness. Not always pretty, but that is our spiritual work, and what we pray to have removed. So this is an essential practice, and one of activities we vow to do when we are initiated by a guru. For you kirtaneers, this practice of focused, mindful, prayerful japa, will greatly help your quality and presence in kirtan—japa and kirtan are like brother and sister, though for most devotees, japa is more difficult. We are in great need of the Lord's mercy, and in order to do this type of intense chanting, we have to remember this fact. Otherwise we will just try to get the rounds done so we can do other things.

We must learn the art of being as fully present as possible—and praying to increase. While we may know this, we may not endeavor practically. Personally, rising very early in the morning has been instrumental in helping me, though I have a life that facilitates this. This is one of the benefits of being older and not having to travel to work—my "work" is sadhana, or I am endeavoring for that, since I know my days are numbered and I have wasted so many years in being a casual devotee. We have many milestones in life that can be a catalyst for action—one of mine was turning 65 in June. Me, of all people? Yes, you, and everyone in time, if you live that long. What do you have to show for these years? So let these years count to go deeper in spiritual practice one day and step at a time, and to share that.
Shri Chaitanya chants japa photo Chaitanya chants_zps0jzbe8ea.jpg
Part of our tradition is to keep the beads in the bad for various reasons, so taking them out needs clarification. For me, it has served an important purpose of focus and attention. I have reasoned that in doing so we have to judge by the results: it has greatly helped me focus on the holy name. I can't argue with that, though I may also respect various rules and reasons. We are taught by Lord Chaitanya that there are no hard and fast rules for chanting. I am only working on changing some bad habits, not starting a new practice. There is a current adage that if we always do what we always done, we will always get what we have always gotten. So if we are distracted and doing mechanical japa, then some adjustment, even a radical one, must be made—and I am not on a soapbox telling everyone to chant as I do; I’m speaking about what has helped me, and I am excited to share it. My real recommendation is to set daily japa and life intentions, to learn to be more present (mindfulness), and to pray for all we are worth—however we chant. Whatever works to facilitate this can be accepted.

Old bad habits die hard, so whatever can help us be as fully present as possible, keeping a prayerful mood, and remembering that the holy name is Radha and Krishna. Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur taught that chanting should be "heart deep not lip deep." This takes much reflection on how we can improve. We are practicing putting our whole attention and feeling into the holy name. In effect, we are praying to be emptied of whatever doesn't foster our devotion, and to accept whatever can help us advance spiritually. I neglected this for so many years—I am a spokesman for the ill-effects of inattentive, distracted japa—and so I feel I have to make up for lost and wasted time.

Simultaneously I realize that we all have our own time to flower, so we have to continue even when it is difficult. We can pray for taste and the company of those who have it. Anything worthy of achievement takes considerable focus and effort, and so spiritual life is no different—though in this effort, much divine help is available. So we have to pray for such help, and for the sincerity to have the proper mood. I have been a late bloomer my whole life, but better late than never! Keep on keeping on.

When I was preparing a recent wedding talk on this subject I realized I was sounding a bit like an evangelist, yet I am enthused to speak, and don't know how else to express it. How can one be calmly excited?
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Part II

Meditations on chanting:

From the larger picture, going inward
breaking down japa into the breath
slowing from the hour to the moment
from the finish line to forever beginning
just the awareness of the holy name,
nothing else but the prayer to improve:

Traveling from
One round to,
One bead,
One mantra,
One holy name,
One syllable
at a time to hear,
really hear,
easy does it,
to be present
there can be no rush
to finish for other things—
nothing else exists.
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Setting the all-pervading intention
with constant prayer giving life
to finish our complacency/distraction
by trying something “new” but old
going back to the basics—beginner’s mind
with a sense of wise urgency
as if our life depends on it—
spiritually, it does, if we understand:
we become what we think about
what are attachments are
where our faith is—we are!—
so by that definition
Who are you—really, right now?
How to change into our real self?

Traveling from
One round to,
One bead,
One mantra,
One holy name,
One syllable
at a time to hear,
really hear,
easy does it,
to be present
there can be no rush
to finish for other things—
nothing else exists.
Our altar photo FSCN2788_zpsm2yfhimm.jpg
Offering each bead
to our Deity and guides
please accept me Lord
Let me accept you--
The holy name is
Radha and Krishna
most mercifully present
to bless and help us
so let me be present
for this one name
praying for help
to have the right mood
of surrender and dependence
"Please help me Lord!"
there is no time
but this moment
only the holy name
our concentration
feeling this one bead
then going to the next—

Traveling from
One round to,
One bead,
One mantra,
One holy name,
One syllable
at a time to hear,
really hear,
easy does it,
to be present
there can be no rush
to finish for other things—
nothing else exists.
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Our life is our purposeful practice
for that which is above and beyond
changing our attention and intent
from thinking we are a body
to knowing we are a giving soul
having a biological survival experience
now with a new light and direction
from our majoring in conventional actions—
instead—doing what is required
to feed our soul, still on life support
as we cling to our sensual fantasies
covered by—not you—but “I, me, mine,”
with extended selfishness to further our ego,
so our ego screams and cries for survival
in the face of its planned demise
by a gradual, though focused endeavor
beginning like bitter medicine with pain
slowly increasing in steadiness and sweetness
fed by philosophy, service, and saints
helping us become convinced
to stay the course the whole life
the journey beyond theory to knowing—
when we know what to do, we joyfully act.

Traveling from
One round to,
One bead,
One mantra,
One holy name,
One syllable
at a time to hear,
really hear,
easy does it,
to be present,
there can be no rush
to finish for other things—
nothing else exists.

 photo 10583794_755893444449319_3207714139_zps28c84150.jpgDepending on Krishna! photo Quotes-by-Srila-Prabhupada-on-Posit_zps2f61de33.jpg