If you read the words of an opera or a popular song without the music, you may not be too impressed. The words may lack power by themselves. Add the music, however, and you have a much different experience. The music brings the words alive. Similarly, a prayer or mantra may be enhanced by the music of a chant. The rhythm presses it into our mind. The cadence fixes it in memory. The chant enthuses the spirit.
Before there were melodic songs, there were chants. Probably, before there were words, there was chanting. The songful repetition of voice in chanting, is primal. It works on something deep in us. Cheerleaders at sports events use chants to draw up the emotional energy of the crowd. The crowd that chants powerfully together becomes one force that empowers their team. The players themselves may engage in an energizing chant, as simple at "GO! GO! GO! GO!" as they crowd together before a football game. They are synchronizing their psyches, pumping up their emotional energy, and directing it toward the common goal of winning the game. All those lungs pumping and voice boxes vibrating in unison at high volume, the shared emotional intensity, create a powerful communion.
Religious chanting, while more benign, also has the purpose of focussing attention and drawing up the spirit. When a spiritual community chants together, it is drawn closer together. The chanters are joined in a spiritual exercise that synchronizes their bodies and minds. As we chant together, we feel the vibration of our own vocalization in our bodies. Simultaneously, we hear the same sound coming from the group. What is inside us is the same as what we perceive as outside. We are joined with the group in our spiritual endeavor. The illusion of our separateness may dissolve.
Solitary chanting, too, is a powerful spiritual tool. The chant focuses our mind on a spiritual thought and gets our body involved. Its repetitive nature keeps the mind from wandering too far, and brings it back when it does. In time, the mind becomes clear, and the direction of the mind is set on the spiritual ideal represented by the chant. The sound and the mind become one, and they join with the universe in that oneness.
The Gregorian chant of Christianity, the chants of aboriginal peoples, the Buddhist and Hindu chants, the Islamic call to prayer are quite different from each other, but each carries the spirit of the chanters outside of their bodies with the expiration of breath and the projection of sound. The holy thought is propelled beyond the confines of the individual mind and body out into the common space shared by humankind. Rising from the dark inner spaces of the individual soul, the chant reaches to the exterior world and beyond.
A chant is best learned in the context of a spiritual community. It is difficult to describe the practice in the written word. We encourage you to find a group to chant with. An alternative would be to chant along with a recording, or just find a prayer, mantra, or spiritual text and create your own music with it. Let the rhythm and cadence come from the words themselves, let the melody come from your soul.
Explore these links about chanting:
The Gregorian Association
Chant audio files at Vipassana.com
© 2002 Tom Barrett