Unlike a Krishna Das kirtan, where you pretty much know what you’re going to get, a workshop with KD can be wholly unpredictable. Case in point: last weekend’s Heart of Devotion Retreat at the awe-inspiring Garrison Institute, a former Franciscan monastery perched on the banks of the Hudson River across from West Point, N.Y. The retreat included two afternoon workshops along with public kirtans Friday and Saturday night, daily chanting of the Hanuman Chalisa with Nina Rao, Shyama Chapin and Ambika Cooper, and morning yoga with Jeremy and Lily Frindel of the Brooklyn Yoga School.
The kirtans were classic KD (well, classic in the current post-Heart As Wide as the World era). It’s the music you know and love, the songs that are playing on your car stereo, the ones playing at the yoga studio. But the chantmaster himself is right there in front of you (and several hundred others), pumping the harmonium and singing his heart out for his beloved Maharaji. And whatever that place is that he goes when he’s chanting, KD takes you right along with him. Repeating the names has a way of “polishing the dust off the mirrors of our hearts,” he has said often.
‘I Survived a KD Workshop’
It was the mid-day workshops where the polishing got a little intense. So intense that KD opened the Saturday night kirtan by joking: “After this afternoon, we’re having a T-shirt made that says I SURVIVED A KD WORKSHOP.” (It took about a day for the photoshopped version of the imagined T-shirt to reach Facebook; the organic cotton version can’t be far behind, we predict.)
What was so grueling about a couple hours chanting and chatting with KD and a couple hundred of your bhakti family? No, folks, it was not the chanting.
‘So, What’s Up?’
If you’ve been to any of these day workshops or retreats with KD, you know the drill: there’s going to be some singing and there’s going to be some talking. The ratio of one to the other, you never know. You have to hand it to KD; he essentially opens up the floor to anybody who wants to ask anything. “So, what’s up?” he said as he invited questions Saturday afternoon in the grand meditation hall at Garrison, the same soaring sanctuary in which the Capuchin friars used to pray.
Think about it: it’s your chance to ask this icon of Western kirtan, this beloved devotee of Neem Karoli Baba, this bhakti rock star, anything you want. What would it be?
The very first question: “Why do you always wear red?” A lot of people must wonder about this, because it came up not once, but twice in the first Q&A (the second asker declared herself “Busted!” for coming in late when KD replied perplexedly “Were you here earlier?”) Note to conference participants: never ask a question unless you’ve heard every question already asked. D’oh! But I digress.
The answer? Well, it’s a long story. Here’s KD’s condensed version for now: “Maharaji said, ‘Wear red. Even your underwear.’ It’s Hanuman’s color.”
After the “red question”, KD was asked if he would relate his experience at Aushwitz with Bernie Glassman’s Bearing Witness retreat. He exhaled loudly, and begged off. “I will, but not now.”
KD on Relationships: ‘Love Is Not Between People; It’s In Us”
Next, he was asked what constitutes a “spiritual marriage?” “It’s so horrible everything else looks good?” KD replied playfully. Then he said he had no idea what that meant. “That’s not the world I live in. What’s not spiritual?” This is what I love about KD, this wry, self-deprecating humor and irreverent wit that just lays it on the line. He makes no claim to be an expert on anything, least of all relationships, which he has essentially said, more than once, that he sucks at. Still, he offered this: “We can learn a lot from relationships. They can teach us a lot about ourselves, because they show us what we are not. But relationships never last!…Love is not between people, it’s in us.” Then, more wry wit: “I’m kind of cranky today, so romance might not be the best topic.” (Several hands went down.)
Later, he came back to the love question. “Maharaji didn’t give love. He was love. You were loved unconditionally. That’s what we’re all looking for. But who can give that? I can’t. Only someone who is love can let you into that room. That room is your heart.” He said Westerners have a hard time believing this kind of love exists, but that it “already lives in us. It’s who we really are. We just don’t quite know how to find it.”
Pulling Back the Proverbial Curtain
Someone asked what sustains him. He paused, finding the words. “It’s not hope, but some kind of wisdom that, in spite of myself, everything’s going to be okay.” He attributed this to Maharaji, who “pulled back the curtains” one day and opened KD’s eyes to “what is.”
“Within each of us there is this sense of well-being,” he said. “This is who we really are, but mostly we’re cut off from that. We need to look at whatever ‘stuff’ is cutting us off from that — whether it’s greed, selfishness, attachments, whatever.” That’s where spiritual practices like chanting, meditation or yoga come in, KD said. “These practices help us let go of our stuff, to gather our longings and focus them on what is most important to us, whatever that is. The result is that we actually start to focus on what’s important, which is finding that missing piece of ourselves that we’re looking for.”
‘Bliss is Our True Nature’
Just when things were getting deep, someone asked a deep question — about the relationship between Sita and Ram in the classic Hindu story, the Ramayana, and who Ram really is. KD’s answer? “I don’t even know who I am, how do I know what Ram is?” Then he dropped a bomb that made my jaw drop — and I don’t think I was the only one. He said: “Look, folks, let’s get real. I know one thing: Maharaji is love. That’s my whole life in a nutshell. All this other stuff, I don’t have a f***ing clue.” Thanks KD, for keeping it real.
When everyone stopped laughing, he paraphrased Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s idea that what most people call bliss is really just a little less pain. “Bliss is our true nature,” he said. “Singing extracts me from all that stuff that has me stuck, and I come back to that place of love. That’s all I know.”
The moment that prompted the “I Survived” T-shirt came later, an exchange between KD and a participant he knew, quite well apparently. Well enough to call it like he saw it. There was sobbing involved. I felt a little like an awkward observer to a spiritual counseling session.
Chanting Brings Stuff Up
But that’s exactly the point, isn’t it? We’re all in this room together, chanting and hashing out our individual “stuff.” And stuff is coming up. Chanting brings stuff up. If you’ve ever lost it in the middle of a kirtan, silently weeping or sobbing and heaving, you know what I’m talking about. And if you haven’t, keep dusting.
“Every time you sit down to practice,” KD said, “you’re breaking that cycle of attachment, so you can let all that stuff go. The moment you let it go, you feel better. But we have big problems letting go. These practices are training us to work with stuff in a new way, to have a vote in the way we deal with things that come up in life.”
Okay, I’m in. Now can we just chant? Then we did, blessedly.
After the chant, just before the workshop ended, he left us with this:
“So much pressure builds up in our daily lives to be someone we are not. That’s why I love these weekends, because everyone gets to see that everyone else is just as weird as they are. It’s okay to be just who we are. It’s crazy to go through life expecting the bottom to drop out at any moment because someone is going to find out who you really are. We have all this stuff that we are trying to hide from others, from the world. What are we hiding from?”
And then there was silence. Looooong pin-drop silence.
End of Workshop #1. I think we survived.