Sunday, August 19, 2012

Confessions of a Devotional Atheist: Kirtan, Death and Life

What am I (a Jewish/Lutheran, raised atheist, ex-Long Island girl) doing sitting on the floor in a large room filled with people singing in Sanskrit? The series of events that first led me to participate in a Kirtan and Meditation weekend with Krishna Das and Sharon Salzberg (in March 2009) reads like a path of breadcrumbs left by the divine.

Yet I am not a likely candidate for divine intervention, having been raised without religion. In fact I still lean toward atheism in my world view - but I've left a window open a crack to allow me to hear the universe singing. In a mischievous mood I sometimes call myself a Devotional Atheist.

My mother had a long-term terminal illness and, back in 2008, I had the sense that she would soon be approaching the end. I was trying to find some relationship with death that didn't involve overwhelming terror so that I could be present with her and supportive with my father, my brother and my children.

Meditation practice and reading was helpful. I came across a book about aging by Ram Dass (that wonderful seeker of new paths who wrote Be Here Now back in the 60s) and I learned that he had had a stroke. Then I discovered the moving documentary about his life after the stroke (Fierce Grace). In one scene we see Ram Dass sitting in a wheelchair weeping with joy amidst a crowd of people swaying and dancing. The music just reached out and grabbed me. It was like hearing my first Beatles song. It was Krishna Das.

Krishna Das (affectionately called KD) is also originally from Long Island and, as he likes to say, Jewish on his parents side. There was something instantly familiar about him - a brother from another mother. His voice is deep and soulful, very genuine and open. I was fascinated by the call and response singing that I later learned was called Kirtan.

I've always loved singing along to popular music of my generation - the R&R generation, especially in large groups such as at a concert. Kirtan with Krishna Das has some of that quality of emotional resonance with an added dimension. Because the words are not in English and are not "about" anything in a worldly sense, Kirtan becomes akin to meditation in some ways. As KD says, "nothing to join, nothing to believe - just sing." 

Of course, there is a history of devotional chanting in many eastern religions and many of the songs are actually either the names of deities or prayers. Repetition of "the name" is seen as a way to free ourselves from obsession with ourselves and develop compassion and devotion to selfless service. I find that it also helps me to quiet the chatter that plays in my mind almost constantly. And, though I don't "believe" in anything in particular, kirtan helps me "listen" without judgment to the universe as it is.

During my mother's last days in the hospice house, I was staying at my parent's house nearby and spending the days at her bedside. I would wake spontaneously at 4 AM, sit in meditation and then chant with a KD recording. I am so grateful that I found kirtan practice in time to help me be present and open for my mother's last days. And when she died, I was able to be there for my father and hold grief in such a way that our family had a loving focus.

I was even able to write and deliver the eulogy at the burial of her ashes (at my father's request) - a challenging proposition in a family with no religious rituals to fall back on. Ultimately I cherish my non-conformist family. In some ways, the lack of a formula for dealing with life's big transitions made it necessary to be present with what is and relate to that in an open way.

I attended several live kirtan events with Krishna Das this year, both before and after my mother died. I find these events provide something basic that is hard to find in our modern society. There is a non-judgmental acceptance of everyone in the room. Everyone is on their own path, yet there is strength in feeling our unity and the unity with all that is.


  1. Ok, so I am trying again to add a comment to your blog. I absolutely love KD and his music. It has completely changed my life in that I have a simple and powerful spiritual practice that I didnt know existed prior to my introduction to his music. I have been chanting for about 9 years. It is a blessing to me and to my friends, who I constantly turn on to this practice. Let me know if you get this.

    1. Thanks! Your comment came through just fine this time. It's so interesting to me to hear about other people's experience with their practice. Thank you for sharing yours.