Kirtan: A path to the heart

The eternal flame of Spirit dances within every one of us. But sometimes we forget. The demands and stresses that come with living in the 21st century can keep us distracted from our true home, the inner temple of our own hearts.

Kirtan, which is call-and-response chanting or “responsory” performed in India’s devotional traditions, can be a way to remember our ever-present connection with Spirit, the I AM energy, God, the Life Force, a Higher Power, or whatever we want to call it. The language we use to express love does not matter; whether we sing and chant devotional phrases in Sanskrit (the primary liturgical language of Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism), Spanish, English, or any language, our voices create physical vibrations that carry the intention of our hearts. Regardless of our language, religion, political position, ethnicity, or station in life, these vibrations act like a pebble dropped into a pond, sending forth ripples of compassion and love that spread ever outward.

Some of us may feel uncomfortable walking into a church, chanting, or praying, as a result of feeling judged in the past. Practicing kirtan with people who create a supportive, safe, and accepting environment can be one way among many to become reacquainted with our inner love and continue the process of healing the perceived wounds that prevent us from practicing forgiveness, compassion, and dana, or generosity in our own lives. The more we can suspend our own judgment of ourselves and others (which is a practice of the intellect, and never of the Heart), the more we can see ourselves, others, and the world through our hearts, an act of which the intellect, or small mind, is incapable.

More than a muscle

Why all this talk of ‘the heart’? The intellect, which resides in the domain of the small mind, would have us believe that the heart is nothing more than a muscle in our chest that pumps blood. But being heart-centered is much more than simply a metaphor for kindness.

When we see ourselves and the world primarily through the lens of our intellect, we witness illusion rather than the reality of love. This illusion is fear based, and would have us each believe that Life (which is energy) can be threatened. Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj put it plainly when he said, “The real does not die, the unreal never lived.”

Any sort of attachment (attraction or aversion) is the result of misperception, and is based upon memory (a characteristic of the intellect). Desire is simply the memory of pleasure. Fear is simply the memory of pain. These are the two sides of the ‘coin’ of attachment.

Shifting our focus and attention back to the heart allows us to turn away from our intellect (a servant of the heart), to turn away from fear and scarcity-consciousness, returning to our natural state of unconditional love, which is our birthright. Residing in our natural state of unconditional love, we effortlessly find ourselves surrounded by abundance and filled with joy. The world becomes, in the words of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, an “unceasing banquet of delight.”

Note that this does not affect my abilities to use my intellect for its intended purpose of serving. I am still perfectly able to call upon my analytical abilities as I need them, relaxing and resting in tranquility when I do not. No need to let my intellect torment me day and night with fears, worries, and strategies for vanquishing my (perceived) foes. Like a lawnmower, I can start it up when I need it and put it in the garage when I’m done. The intellect is invaluable tool, and makes a fantastic servant. But a lousy master.

Getting back in touch

While we could fill a library with the multitude of pathways for becoming more heart-centered, two techniques in particular are my favorites, due to their simplicity.

Hand on heart

The first is to simply place my hand on my heart when I’m talking with someone. (Yes, it’s that simple.) On a subconscious level, this shifts attention and awareness to my heart, and affects my perception accordingly. On a conscious level, the more I can actually feel the warmth of my own hand on my chest as I listen to what the other person is saying, the more I’m reminded to bring forth my heart-awareness into the conversation. If I find I’m becoming angry or judgmental, I can press my hand into my chest or gently tap my chest with my finger to help shift my focus downward, out of my head and into my heart.

What I like about this technique is that I can practice it without anyone knowing what I’m doing. During kirtan, of course, this is not a concern for me; it usually feels safe to assume that most of us in the room singing, chanting, and dancing are interested in becoming reacquainted with our heart-centered Higher Self. But when I’m standing in line at the coffee shop, still half-asleep and feeling a little grouchy, it may not feel as easy to be so open.

The great part is that, in times like this, I don’t have to tell anyone why my hand is on my heart; no need to go into all that with the guy behind the coffee counter. And yet we’re both still getting the benefit of this practice. (It’s almost like I get to be an undercover spy for a moment; they think I’m just putting my hand on my chest, when actually, I’m reawakening love and compassion.)

Alternately, I can wear a necklace with a pendant that hangs down and rests against the heart area of my chest. This is a great adaptation for those of us who may have physical difficulty raising an arm to place a hand on the heart. During kirtan, I can place my hand on my heart as I chant, sing, weep, or dance. In doing this, I complete a sacred circle of love and energy in one of the most simple and powerful ways known to humanity through the ages.

Eyes closed

A second method I use for shifting my atttention away from my judgmental intellect and back to my heart is to close my eyes when circumstances are safe for doing so. (Yes, it’s that simple.) This technique is especially effective for me when I’m performing music during kirtan. I commonly find that when my eyes are open in that setting, I can become easily distracted by the beauty of the participants, who are often smiling and appear to be glowing with joy. (“Oh my God, she’s so hot!”) Closing my eyes while I play bass, for example, helps me to maintain focus on my own heart, and on my intention to be of service.

Kirtan is one path that can take us back home to that ever-present connection within ourselves; the connection with our own peace, joy, and compassion. And as we shift our perception back to seeing with our hearts, we realize we never actually left. In truth, we were home the whole time.

Tim Birchard, M.Ed. is a recording musician, Reiki master-teacher in the Usui tradition, and adult educator. He is a founding member of Blue Lotus Feet, an improvisational kirtan group based in Durango, Colorado dedicated to raising spiritual awareness and nurturing inner connection in the Four Corners region and around the world. For more information, contact Tim at or visit .



Filed under Living a joyful life

6 responses to “Kirtan: A path to the heart

  1. Like the hand on the heart thing….. wow… so simple.. it never occurred to me before. Like the article.

  2. surelay

    ” I commonly find that when my eyes are open in that setting, I can become easily distracted by the beauty of the participants, who are often smiling and appear to be glowing with joy. (“Oh my God, she’s so hot!”) Closing my eyes while I play bass, for example, helps me to maintain focus on my own heart, and on my intention to be of service.” Reiki is a way of life, closing my eyes just don’t work for me… It gets worse.

    • Surelay, my friend… do you know Reiki? Love to hear about your experience with it!

      • surelay

        A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away… I can’t stand still so Reiki is only a few tunes on the pod now. It doesn’t take much but ” you ” have to invest a lot of time on yourself to ” recharge ” for our ways of living. I discovered that our subconscience works 24/24-7/7 one morning after a night on ” repeat “. I have more than 3 hrs of Reiki s ” tunes ” and they often ” rings and glims ” while I sleep. Lol, Pink Floyd s ” Momentary laps of reason ” and some other songs ( from them ) are doing me the same. Sometime we feel like having slept for Eternity. Music is for your Soul but Reiki is for your Inner You. Space is vast and you don’t always need to live ” in proximity “.

      • Please tell me more via e-mail ( What songs?

      • surelay

        No problema, I will need to get to my imac. Stand by. I’ll get back to you.

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