In the 1970’s when I started on my spiritual path, my aspiration was to become a musician. As I was introduced to kirtan, chanting, mantra, and other devotional practices, that original vision of playing folk, rock, or blues music changed to one of wanting to serve and share my Guru’s teachings through sacred sound. I stopped playing the guitar and bass which had been my salvation throughout the teen years. Something indefinable had shifted.
Meanwhile my Guru, Ma Jaya, seemed to practically ignore my desperate pleas for guidance in how to arrange my life to become a kirtan walla. In retrospect, this notion was a bit of an escape fantasy devised by my mind, conveniently overlooking the reality that our little ashram was NOT in India or even California, but in the middle of Central Florida. Hardly a place to think one could survive or make a living chanting “OM” or singing the Hanuman Chalisa. The message was clear, and I did not like it: “Get real, and don’t quit your day job.” (At the time, there were few jobs to be had near the ashram – waitressing, house cleaning, and such.)
A few years later something unexpected happened. The ashram was planning an open house to welcome the local community and try to dispel some of the rumors and fears about who we were and what was actually happening on our commune-like property. One of the organizers asked if I would consider playing guitar to provide some pleasant, non-Indian music. I pulled my guitar out of storage and thus began a process that continues even now of learning to translate, integrate, and infuse the essence of sacred sound into whatever language and form is required to serve the moment’s needs.
The “music lessons” and memories that have taken place over the past thirty years have been profound, exquisite, transformative, and could fill several volumes. My love affair with music and sound has gotten deeper than I could ever have imagined. We sang kirtan for thousands of hours to set the space for Ma’s darshans at Kashi and in her many travels. I played guitar and bass in the ashram band that formed after that first open house, and we traveled with Ma to entertain in county homes, AIDS wards, and nursing homes, sometimes sharing that honor with the incomparable Guthrie family. Teaching music in the ashram’s River School to the amazing children who grew up on the ashram, in actuality, probably taught me more than it did them!
Pandit Mukesh Desai visited the ashram to initiate us into the bliss of the ancient classical traditions of sacred sound, which opened up yet another dimension of what it means to be on the yogic path using the voice and the breath to align and merge with the divine. He taught of the importance of allowing rather than forcing to make an effort, saying simply that “When stress walks in, Saraswati (the Goddess of music and wisdom) walks out!”
Throughout the years, Ma led us relentlessly deeper into the silence beyond all music and sound, always while enjoying all genres of music, often blasting her current favorites through the speakers on her balcony overlooking the Ganga pond and the temples. She would instruct us in the depth of meditation to listen for the subtle sound of OM on both the in breath and the out breath. Ma’s own voice held a wide spectrum of tones and moods that could transport us to the deepest, most peaceful space imaginable or rattle the depths of our souls and make our hair stand on end!
Here are a few key points that have become essential to my practice of sacred sound:
- Begin the day with a silent rhythmic mantra from the moment you wake up, and when the mind wanders
guide it back to that rhythm. Om sweet Om…
- If your thoughts, tone, and conversations stray toward negativity, it’s time to retune your instrument.
- Repeated thoughts become experiences. So repeat divine vibrations for a divine life!
- Stay silent until you have aligned your heart with your words through humility, devotion, and gratitude.
- Listen as much as, and as loud as you speak or sing. The voice of the divine Beloved is very soft.
During and after the last hours of Ma’s life in April of this year, we gathered once again to chant mantra and kirtan. So many layers of memory pulsated between the beats. While much of this post reads like a memoir of the past, the truth is that Ma was and continues to be Master of the Moment. Sound is the vehicle that can transport us to the timeless space where we are endlessly embraced by the Guru’s grace, wisdom, and victory over death. Jai Ma!
About Shanti Mayee
Shanti Mayee began yoga practice while living in Los Angeles in 1977. There she also began to study with Ma Jaya and moved to Kashi Ashram in 1979. She is a senior instructor of Kali Natha Yoga currently teaching for the Kashi School of Yoga and Kali Natha Yoga teacher training course. Her areas of emphasis are the yoga of sound (nada yoga), devotional practice (bhakti yoga), mantras, mudras, and the chakra system. Shanti also holds a Master’s Degree in Education and works in the Vero Beach Museum of Art’s education department. Shanti Mayee teaches Tuesdays, at 6pm at Kashi School of Yoga.