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2. Improving the Chanting
Overcoming Indifference and Distraction
Question: While chanting the holy name, the devotees very often struggle with the anarthas of indifference and distraction. What remedies do the scriptures and the acaryas suggest in order to overcome these two serious obstacles?
Answer: In order to overcome indifference to any activity, one firstly has to become aware of the significance of that activity. Hence, if we are negligent in executing our devotional service, we should remember the unique chance of coming into contact with Krishna by chanting.
According to the Harinama-cintamani, there are only two spiritual objects in this material world: first ourselves, the jwa souls, and then the holy name. Consequently, nothing better can be had in the material nature than the holy name, the Lord Himself in the form of transcendental sound vibration. Everything else is dull matter. Someone who has indeed realized that he is a part of Krisna, but is in an alien atmosphere in this material world, cannot stay indifferent towards the holy name, because he knows that the holy name—which is fully spiritual—connects him with his original spiritual home. By chanting attentively, he perceives a spiritual atmosphere which resembles the kingdom of God. Then he becomes aware that chanting actually means to arrive finally, after a long tiresome journey, at the spiritual realm and there take shelter of Krishna's lotus feet.
Distraction is also a great obstacle in performing devotional service. It is the cause of the very offense from which all other offenses are brought forth, namely to chant the holy name without attention. Only by successfully overcoming all distraction, one will be able to chant with concentration and delight. Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura offers a support to become free from distraction: One should sit regularly for some time in a quiet place where it is possible to fully concentrate on the holy name. In his house in Mayapur, Srlla Bhaktivinoda Thakura constructed a small room of 75 x 75 cm size, locked with a thick door. In this room he would chant peacefully and with full concentration. He recommends everyone to find a similar place, which is quit and where one can stay alone, fully absorbing the mind in the holy name. Then only can one enter the depth of chanting.
Chanting in the Association of Devotees
Question: On the other hand, it is said that the inability to focus the mind on chanting can be overcome by sitting near an advanced chanter. Isn't this a contradiction?
Answer: No. Of course, we need the association and the example of other devotees to develop the desire and the knowledge how to improve our chanting. Nevertheless, the fact is irrefutable that in the end we have to know on our own how to chant. For migratory birds it is certainly an inspiration to fly together with other birds in the same flock. Actually, each birds is fully dependent on the flock, but still, every single bird has to fly on its own and cannot take a rest on the back of another one. In the same way, we all have to become competent and learn by ourselves how to chant with full concentration. We all have to learn how to control the mind ourselves. No one can do this for us. We should, of course, seek inspiration by observing the example of others, but in the end, we ourselves must do the work.
In other words: both aspects are important. Sometimes we should chant in the association of well-trained devotees to become inspired, at other times we should go to a quiet place, in order to withdraw from all external distraction and put to test the quality of our chanting. Sola Bhaktivinoda Thakura gives a second advice: In order to overcome distraction, one should very distinctly pronounce the holy name and listen very carefully. This is of course a question of practice. He still admits that it is very difficult for the conditioned living being to overcome the anartha of distraction on one's own strength. Yet, by the mercy of the Lord it is possible. Therefore, it is essential to humbly and intensely pray for the Lord's mercy. This, he concludes, is the only possibility for the jwa soul to finally become liberated from distraction. From these statements, it is obvious that to avoid distractions is an extremely difficult, yet unavoidable task. The stage of chanting with diversion can only be overcome by the sincere endeavor to follow the three recommended steps, namely:
1.To go now and then to a quiet, secluded place for chanting;
2. To chant the holy name distinctly and to listen well; and finally
3. To pray intensely for krishna's mercy.
In essence, we must endeavor seriously to avoid distraction, by surrendering completely unto the holy name. This is the only chance.
Turning the Mind Towards the Holy Name
Question: It is very difficult to control the functions of the mind— thinking, feeling and willing. Do we have to turn off these functions while chanting, or can the mind still be engaged in krishna's service?
Answer: It is most important to concentrate the mind on one point, on one activity. Thus, instead of thinking, feeling and willing, the mind should simply be focussed on the holy name while chanting. Then only the mind is engaged in the service of chanting. There are also some useful mechanical means:
1. Chant at a time free of disturbance—preferably early in the morning.
2. In order to calm down, breathe deeply before chanting.
3. The bodily position influences the mind. Therefore, chant sitting in an upright position.
4. Before chanting, surrender to the Lord in the mind. The following prayer is very much appropriate:
kayena vaca manasendriyair va buddhyatmana vanusrta-svabhavat
karomi yad tat sakalarh parasmai narayanayeti samarpayami
Whatever I have done with my body, said with my words, thought with my mind, perceived with my senses, or comprehended with my intelligence, I offer it to the Supreme Lord, Narayana.1
5. Write down and look at the mantra from time to time.
6. Display pictures of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu and His associates, Sri Sri Radha krishna and the spiritual master.
7. Chant in the right association, best in the association of the spiritual master. (This is even possible in a lonely place.)
After a certain time of spiritual progress, krishna's different quali¬ties will automatically reveal themselves in our mind when chanting. First the holy name of the Lord appears, then the form, then the qualities, and finally His Was.
Appreciating the Holy Name
Question: What is the reason if one becomes repeatedly inatten¬tive, in spite of having heard again and again about the necessity of attentive chanting?
Answer: The primary reason is forgetting to listen attentively at the moment of chanting. Therefore, one cannot fully appreciate the holy name. In order to avoid this, Srila Prabhupada recommends to recite the following two verses before chanting—because they place us in the right frame of mind:
ayi mukta-kulair upasyamanam paritas tvam hari-nama samsrayami
This is the first verse of Srila Rupa Gosvami's Sri-krishna-namastaka? It states that the tips of the toes of the lotus feet of the holy name are constantly worshipped by the glittering chain of jewels known as the Upanisads,2 and that the holy name is loved by all liberated souls. The second verse is spoken by King Pariksit:3
nivrtta-tarsair upagiyamanad bhavausadhac chrotra-mano-'bhiramat
ka uttamasloka-gunanuvddat puman virajyeta vina pasughnat
Glorification of the Supreme Personality of Godhead is performed in the parampara system; that is, it is conveyed from spiritual master to disciple. Such glorification is relished by those no longer interested in the false, temporary glorification of this cosmic manifestation. Descriptions of the Lord are the right medicine for the conditioned soul undergoing repeated birth and death. Therefore, who will cease hearing such glorification of the Lord except a butcher or one who is killing his own self?
In other words, only those persons can glorify the holy name who are no longer interested in their own praise or in the glorification of the material world. These two verses draw our attention to the extraordinary nature of the holy name and help us to remain attentive while chanting.4 I would like to offer a further means in this connection, which helped me personally again and again. I often say to myself that the Lord is present in three forms in the material world: as the Deity, as the holy name, and. sometimes directly as an avatar a. Among these three forms, the holy name is the most merciful, and while chanting I have the possibility to associate with the Lord directly in this form. By meditating in this way, I cannot stay indif¬ferent or inattentive while chanting, because after all I am aware that at this time, I am associating with krishna. This meditation helps me a great deal.
Ultimately everyone has to find the most effective method for himself. In any case it is advisable to begin with a short meditation on chanting, for if one thoughtlessly jumps right into action, the mind will easily drift away due to not being fixed properly. But, if one has become aware of the importance of chanting, then it is easier to. gain proper respect and undertake a greater effort to overcome inattention.