This last year, since I decided to record my first CD of devotional chants, has been an emotional roller-coaster for me. Aside from the ongoing process of trying to overcome my fear of singing in public, I'm now working on embracing the vulnerability of sharing compositions that have come through me, committing them to the recording process and allowing them to be preserved for posterity. If you were tasked with finding the most unlikely person to ever record a CD, I'd say it was probably me. It's not something I ever planned to do (just like I never planned to teach yoga), but sometimes life's momentum takes me over and it's only when I look back and think "how did that happen?" that I start to see the bigger picture.
After starting to lead public kirtan in early 2013, I was constantly surprised when people approached me after nearly every session to ask if I had a CD for sale. At first, I just laughed and said "no"; my subtext being "what, are you insane? There's no way I'd EVER allow someone to record me singing." Of course, I never said that - I'm way too polite.... However, as time went on and more and more people kept asking, I realised that I would probably have to do something about this rather than avoiding it. As has been the recurring pattern of my life for quite a few years now, it was time to step into the fear again, to get more intimate with it and find out what it was all about.
When I met Tom Simenauer at his home in Stroud for our first recording session, it's not an exaggeration to say I was scared rigid (I think Tom could confirm this!). Combined with the lingering after effects of a long chest infection, I was feeling total disbelief that I had somehow got myself into this situation. The whole thing felt very surreal to me and every cell of my being was telling me to run away. Looking back, I don't know who I feel most sorry for on that first day, myself or Tom. The moment when he first put a microphone in front of me and I visibly shuddered will stay with me forever. His confused question, "what? have you never sung into a microphone before?" gave me an insight into his disbelief. I realised he too was probably thinking "what have I let myself in for?", having committed to produce a CD for someone with such an extreme aversion to being heard!
The first day of recording, whilst not a complete write-off, was one of the scariest things I've ever done, even with Tom's patience and encouragement. Amidst my panic, I just carried on singing, chant after chant, struggling for breath, my voice shaking with fear a lot of the time. Miraculously, at least one of the lead vocals recorded that day has made it onto the final CD, but most of my singing that day sounded like a combination of a strangled cat and a baa-ing sheep. I re-recorded a lot of the lead vocals and started adding harmonies on my next visit to Stroud, when I was feeling altogether more relaxed; more recovered from my chest infection and more comfortable with Tom, having got to know him and his beautiful wife, Thrisha, and their two children on my first visit.
I've realised that, for me, part of the fear of singing is the fear of being seen; the knowledge that I'm putting myself out there to be witnessed and judged by those who are listening. It's impossible for me to chant and not to do so with my whole heart, so when I sing I feel I am baring my innermost being, with all its tenderness and vulnerability. For someone who has spent years working through some fairly deep-seated trust issues, this is a pretty big deal. However, this leap of faith has initiated a deep healing process for me which has been hugely affirming. I've put myself out there, in all my fearful, messy glory, and have been loved and accepted by so many beautiful people who have whole-heartedly encouraged me on my journey to overcome my fears.
Whilst I'm focusing here on my own story and the emotional healing I've experienced from committing to this creative process, it's important to reiterate that kirtan and the Bhakti yoga path are fundamentally about something much deeper than this. My fears, my wavering and unreliable voice and my sometimes crippling self doubt are, whilst very real and intense for me, just the very surface of this practice of Bhakti yoga. The fear is there for me, both psychologically and physiologically, when I share publicly, but beneath this and in those moments when I am totally surrendered to the practice, the "me" with the fear and self doubt disappears and the chants are chanting me, not the other way around. That is why I persevere with a practice that is so hard for me, because it is in this challenge, in the courage it takes me to "show up and let myself be seen" (to use the words of the wonderful Brene Brown), that the real growth and transformation lies.
This last year, whilst incredibly intense and at some points very stressful, has been the most amazing year of my life so far. In facing my own fears and darkness at a deeper level and in embracing my vulnerability, I've found that the people I'm coming into contact with are mirroring back this courage and authenticity - both friends, family and students. We are meeting one another with less armour, less need for social masks and more whole-heartedness.
There is so much more I could say about the power of chanting to transform and heal, but that will have to wait. There's just one more thing to share now and it's definitely one part of this CD process that made me feel most exposed. One of the compositions that came through me included part of one of my favourite poems, Sweet Darkness, by David Whyte. Having read on the "permissions" page of David's website that "David rarely gives permission for his work to be set to music", the defeatist part of me decided there was therefore no point in asking - I am sometimes guilty of giving up far too easily and at other times being stubborn as an ox!
A few friends argued that I should at least ask for permission to use the poem, because they felt the song deserved to be heard. So, with my heart in my mouth, I composed a message to David to be sent with the MP3 file of the chant. I was fully prepared for the answer to be no, but knew I would feel better for having asked and been rejected than having never asked at all. When, after a few weeks, an email notification appeared from David's assistant, I didn't even want to open it. Maybe you can imagine the cartwheels I was doing inside when I clicked on the email and saw the following words: "Thank you for your patience with regard to using “Sweet Darkness” on your CD. Both David and I really like what you’ve done with the piece, and are happy to grant permission."
This is part of the email I sent to David Whyte, explaining why his poem is so meaningful to me:
"I teach yoga and kirtan (devotional mantra chanting) and have often observed the mainstream tendency to focus only on what is light and blissful, rather than an embodied ability to be present with whatever is, even when that is challenging or unpleasant. My aim as a teacher is to encourage mindfulness rather than spiritual bypassing and to help people feel more comfortable in facing the parts of themselves that they may find distasteful and would prefer to ignore. A willingness to embrace the shadow and to discover the richness inherent within this is essentially what I wish to transmit through my work.
Your poem, Sweet Darkness, says what I would like to convey so powerfully and I feel it would give extra impact to my message if I could include your English words along with the Sanskrit mantras which will form the rest of the CD. It was my love of your poem that inspired the composition of the Om Tare Tuttare mantra which follows it on the attached recording. As the Goddess of infinite compassion, Tara naturally emerged in my own practice as I explored your poem, as a way of finding compassion for ourselves in dark times. The Tara mantra, as you hear it here, can of course stand alone if you decide you don't like what I have done with Sweet Darkness. However, I and the friends I have shared the song with, would be delighted if you felt it was worthy of being included on the CD."
So, with the CD almost complete and due for release in mid April, I'm preparing myself to give birth to this creation, which paradoxically feels simultaneously immensely personal whilst also arising from somewhere far beyond the "me" that is such a bundle of neuroses and doubts. I'm attaching here a clip of Om Tara/ Sweet Darkness, with the hope that my sharing this story might resonate for a few of you. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vdpOvl8vUXM