invited me to join her for a Kirtan chanting event at a local meditation center, so I jumped at the chance to check the place out while spending some quality time with her. We arrived early to avoid parking lot mayhem and leisurely stroll around the grounds. It was a sweet spot steeped in lush greenery with modest mountains standing by. The event hall itself was a pleasing piece of architecture, newly built with a huge vaulted tongue-in-groove wood ceiling and walls that seemed to consist only of glass for the purpose of showcasing the views. Fancy and/or schmancy to be sure. Maybe this was why we paid twenty-five bucks to get in.
The kirtankars, or stars of the show, were already onstage, sitting in lotus position before lit candles, engaging in banter about the success of their recent recording. One was a young woman in her twenties sporting hipster glasses and draped in Indian clothing; the other was a silver-haired man who’d probably spent more decades in ashrams than she’d been out of the womb. The usual white folks with adoptive Hindi names. Rahjneesh or something? (No, wait, that’s a whole different can of worms.) The resident sound-couple who worked the mixing board was visiting with them and ostensibly stroking their professional egos—that is, if they were to have egos, which of course they did not. The background track playing sounded very much like the amplified hum of a fluorescent bulb.
Other attendees slowly filed in—some of them regulars with their own special pillows. One dude, in making an exuberant beeline to his mat, sideswiped a more slowly moving woman and failed to notice her perturbation. Eventually, a rather sad-looking man commandeered the microphone and in a monotone, almost robotic voice introduced the stars. “It’s going to be a lot of fun” issued unconvincingly from his near-motionless lips. He turned the mic over to a tanned toned blonde woman who ended up playing the ringmaster role and doubling as a back-up singer. The fourth and final star was a guy playing a hand drum and sporting a suspicious little mustache. As introductory remarks were made signaling the start of the show, I noticed him buttoning his shirt up a little higher. Wise move I daresay; no need to distract the womenfolk from their spiritual questing. Blondie started talking about enlightenment and told us it’s “no problem” if we don’t get there tonight. What a relief. She asked how many people had attended one of their silent retreats and the woman next to me nearly clocked me in the head in her fervid attempt to let it be known that she was one of the serious devoted ones.
The music began. The two main singing stars had fantastic voices: very different styles that somehow meshed together. His was classic for this genre—it sounded exactly like you’d think this chanting stuff should sound. Close your eyes, and it’s an Indian man before you singing. Hers was a voice that sounded classically trained but stylized in that modern R&B pop sort of way that comes from growing up watching American Idol on TV. For all I know, she might have been the one who sang that sappy ballad from The Little Mermaid. Interesting, superimposing a modern vocal style on this ancient stuff. (Therein lies the original spark of creation!) Mr. Star quickly taught the song to the audience so we could join in—an easy task because there were only two words. He laughingly admitted to knowing only about ten more from the Sanskrit language.
While the four of them were onstage singing and playing various percussion instruments, the main accompaniment was pre-recorded. Apparently a harmonium is typically used for kirtans. I don’t know if that’s what this was, but it totally sounded like a third grader practicing on the melodica he recently acquired from the Sears catalog. So when the chanting started in, it was a big relief to my ears. Sure, it gets a little boring with just two words, but that’s the whole point of a kirtan, which means “to repeat”—it’s call and response. Easy for people to partake of, not unlike square dancing. The participants, if they’re lucky and willing, can join in, get whipped up into a frenzy and whisked away to Enlightenmentville.
In between musical numbers, MC Blondie narrated guided meditations with gag-me phrases like “notice your heart smiling at your belly”, and gave us spiritual pep talks with quotations from long-ago-dead guys like Rama Krishna, expounding the merits of divinity through selfless love. Selfless love… hmmm. Now there’s a big ol’ red flag. I don’t know about you, but most of the trouble in my life has been caused by selfless love. I think it would be more accurate to call it self-sabotage.
“Keep coming back to the moment with uninterrupted remembrance,” she petitioned. Then something about the “primordial awareness” and the bhakti path of devotion. Uh-huh. More about love… universal love, divine love, brotherly love, intimate love. Seems that every kind of love was kosher as long as it’s not the dreaded self-love. Wow, are people still buying into that “self bad, martyrdom good” thing? It seems so passe. But, to each his own. The whole shenanigan was really just a show, all of us playing character roles—not unlike going to a Renaissance Faire or one of those famous battle re-enactment thingies. Or maybe it was closer to a high school production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Whatever floats your boat, I say.
Speaking of boats, the dude a few rows ahead of me was wearing a Grateful Dead tie-dye that screamed “Ship of Fools” across the back. A woman near him sported an exquisite head of dreads adorned with silver and turquoise rings. Next to her sat one of those angelic faerie hippie mamas with her man and their spawn. It was mostly a caucasian crowd, more women than men, and roughly forty to sixty in age. Lots of shawls and flowy skirts and yes, of course, Indian garb. You gotta dress the part. Like wearing the pirate wench get-up to Ren Faire. (I didn’t smell any patchouli though, in case you were curious.)
With the canned musical track up and running, the singing stars started out modestly and built up momentum, stirring up energy in the room. The drummer man became more and more enlivened until it looked like he was having convulsions from the neck up—all the while, miraculously, expertly keeping the beat. The young chick-singer smiled and shook her head rapturously, which, for some reason, kind of gave me the creeps. The music continued to crescendo and soon the first sputnik was loosed from the front row! Oh, he was feelin’ it, alright. He could hardly contain himself. He got up and did that prayer-hands-to-the-face thing to the rest of us and then skipped off to the back of the room, exploding into noodle-dancing ecstasy. Who’s next? Oh, oh, looks like we’ve got a mat wiggler in row two. Then the clapping started in earnest.
The frenzy came to a boil, then simmered back down, giving way to the awkward non-silence of one hundred humans in a room together. Blondie guided us in meditation once again and asked “what does joy and delight feel like?” This struck me as an asinine question. I wasn’t the only one balking at her schtick. I could feel a lot of people becoming restless. When she instructed us to keep our eyes closed, mine of course immediately popped open (always on cult-alert, or else garden-variety rebelliousness—take your pick) and I could tell the singing stars were not havin’ what she was dishin’ out. I could almost see their eyes rolling from where I sat. Clearly, she was cutting into their air time and changing the vibe not to their liking. To my delight, the sound of bullfrogs erupted outside, and this, coupled with the pastorally pleasing sight of deer grazing, was far more meditative than my inner landscape at the moment.
Blondie continued. “What are you sensing with your body right now?” Well, my nose couldn’t help but sense that some bastard’s been passing gas for the last half an hour. Whatever happened to selfless love? I mean, if you truly loved everyone else and not yourself, shouldn’t you hold it in, no matter what, regardless of imminent gastrointestinal demise? Clearly someone had not been paying attention. I wished that Blondie would clam up and let the frogs take over the sermon.
Finally the meditation segment ended and it was time for another two-word extended dance jam, this one even less catchy than the first tune. The frenzy was reached more quickly this time, which I suppose could be attributed to a learning curve… or something analogous to what I call “white boy syndrome” whereby dancing occurs after a certain requisite amount of alcohol ingestion. The drummer’s eyes bulged wildly while scanning the room. Most people were chanting along happily. One woman on the sidelines was jumping up and down like a pogo stick and waving her arms haphazardly while smiling broadly, imploring us with her eyes to follow suit (which I’m sure would have necessitated an ambulance, had we all complied at once). Then the dervish-fest started to deflate again, and my friend and I decided to split rather than subject ourselves to another round of Blondie’s uninspiring treatises.
I asked my friend what she personally got out of the event. She said she simply enjoyed the sing-a-longs, but the meditation was a bit of a buzzkill. Not that either of us was a stranger to meditation, but you know, there’s meditation and there’s meditation. Thirty-one flavors to choose from and everybody likes different things at different times, right? I’m no joiner, so I’ll probably never whole-heartedly participate in that kind of group chanting thing, especially in a language I do not understand. It just feels creepy and cultish to me. But honestly, I’m not disdainful of anyone else’s participation. I just find it amusing, is all—a show to attend, another episode in the continuing saga of Eastern religion meets California. A sort of rapture-infused karaoke spectacle, with top notch singers performing inane repetitive twenty-minute cover songs. But for twenty five bucks they could have at least hired a live third grader to play the melodica. That’s all I’m sayin’.
If you liked this story, there’s plenty more good clean “woo-woo” fun where it came from! Check out the critically acclaimed full-length memoir, “What I Did On My Midlife Crisis Vacation” by Debbianne DeRose.