It was the summer of 1968 and I was sitting on the steps of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, singing “We Shall Overcome” with hundreds of students who had just protested at the Sorbonne.
Bhakti Fest reminds me of seeing Led Zeppelin live for the very first time, singing “Stairway to Heaven” with thousands of other kids at the University of Illinois. Or hearing “Our House” by Crosby, Stills, and Nash while being with the girl I loved. It reminds me of the day when music really meant something. It meant something because it reached in and grabbed the essence of who we were in that moment in time.
It reminds me of Beatles tunes and what they meant to me and being in downtown Chicago for the 1968 Democratic Convention, tear gas in the air, but damn it all we were united in wanting an end to the Vietnam war.
More recently it reminds me of electing Barack Obama and the night we learned we’d won. It reminds me of a few times in between, but not enough times. It’s funny how we remember the sublime moments in the course of our life journey.
How rare an opportunity it is to dance with total abandon, rarer still to sing until your throat is sore and the words have trouble coming out. And rarer yet to do so with a crowd of people equally engrossed in the moment, oblivious to anything else, caught up in the trance of the words, the call out by the musician…the response by the audience. Kirtan is what happens at Bhakti Fest, a form of Hindu chanting that involves the artist and the audience in an intimate vocal dance.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not Hindu and I’m not patient enough or kind enough to be Buddhist, but I love yoga. I love the trance of disappearing into my practice so that my conscious self is no longer present. Kirtan is another form of yoga—the same trance, achieved in another way.
When I try to explain kirtan to my friends, I fail completely. “I’m happy for you, Jim” a good friend said to me. I could hear the skepticism in his voice. I could hear his doubt about what had happened to me. I would invite anyone to attend and yet I would also caution people that the gift of kirtan can only be found by yourself, by going inward, by letting go of all inhibitions, by being fully present in the moment, by chanting out loud in response to these incredible musicians. By letting go you become one with the experience.
The event reminds me of other indelible experiences in my past because there are so few times in our lives when we get to meld into the energy of a crowd of like minded souls, united in that one unforgettable moment. Smoking that joint on the steps of the Notre Dame Cathedral changed my life. And I am grateful for having had that experience. There are no drugs at Bhakti Fest but we’re all high nonetheless.
James P. McMahon studied ecology at the University of Illinois because he was curious about his surroundings. He fell in love with rivers at an early age. He’s also fallen in love with yoga. He tries to learn and grow while eating organic food, contributing to a healthier planet and healthier people from his home on the Santa Clara River in southern Utah. You can learn more about Jim and his work at www.cleanairpurewater.com.