Never Say Never – How I Learned to Love Chanting

I had always thought that chanting was at best weird, and at worst, creepy.  My earliest memory of chanting was visiting my grandmother on my dad’s side when I was five or six years old, and she would sit with a little bowl and wooden mallet saying namo namo namo. I had zero idea what she was doing, it just did not seem like something I would ever do. It did not seem the least bit fun.

Fear of the Mysterious

My family is not religious, in the sense that we don’t follow and participate in any organized religion other than going to Buddhist temple for New Year’s and funerals. When my grandmother on my mom’s side died, I would listen to the monks chant and chant and chant during the funeral service. My mom explained that they were chanting for the peaceful passing of my grandmother, and I probably raised my eyebrow at that. How does that work? I asked, and when no one could explain to me, I dismissed it as yet another superstition.

That’s why, when I found myself in Sonia Nelson’s Vedic Chanting workshop this past weekend, I had to chuckle to myself a little. One, never say never, and two, don’t be so sure of a certain stance you take, it will surely change.

I began to “accept” chanting after I learned about its intended usage (I know, so romantic, right?) This is probably because of my personality and my science education, I need to understand something first, even on a surface level, in order for me to begin to connect with it. It’s also because of the fear that I would get brainwashed, that the things I say without understanding would have some bizarre magical power, and that they would take life on their own and like… I don’t know, make me run away and join a cult?

Another thing that’s made me skeptical of chanting is how it often invokes images of deities, and I don’t really care much for the god that has been used to justify political campaigns and wars.

The Beginning of Understanding

I began warming up to chanting after studying Sanskrit with Kathryn Payne in my Teacher trainings. I fell in love with the sound, I fell in love with the language, I fell in love with what the philosophy was teaching me, and I fell in love with chanting thanks to the relationship with the sounds that I’m making.

I began to understand, too, that the deities invoked by the chants are more or less symbolic, personified for the sakes of learning and teaching, because we can only relate to and grasp on to what we already have a mental concept for, so gods and goddesses it is. I also saw how chanting and mantras are tools to focus and still a distracted and wavering mind. When I found out about Sonia Nelson, without knowing much about Vedic chanting, I signed up for her workshop in Seattle this past June.

I’ll write about what I learned about chanting from Sonia in another post. This one is just to say that doubt is good, doubt is healthy, but now I have one more example of how things can change. Now I’ve got one more data point to remind myself that flexibility is not just nice to cultivate for my hamstrings. As Joseph Goldstein, in his Abiding in Mindfulness lectures, said, doubt should open the way for investigation, not a blind dismissal. And investigating is very much in the science spirit anyway. 🙂

Working on my hamstrings in Uttanasana with yoga teacher Michael Warner's help. "Shot on location" :) at Village Green Yoga in Issaquah

Working on my hamstrings in Uttanasana with yoga teacher Michael Warner's help. "Shot on location" 🙂 at Village Green Yoga in Issaquah