Japa – Taming the Senses

The idea behind this post came from a question asked on the Desire Tree forums. A user asked if they could do their japa with a timer, instead of beads. He said the different feel of each bead was a distraction, and made the japa harder to do. I gave a rather long answer (as I tend to do) and wanted to say a lot more – this post is that.

Some people were confused about how to use a timer, but I actually get it. I would not do it, but I understand. On my walk around the river, one round of the river (3.5 km) is 9 rounds of chanting (measured with beads). That just happens to be my walking pace and my chanting pace. So, could I chant as I walk and not use beads? Maybe… but I know me, and it would be inattentive chanting. Two times around the river would be 18 rounds – but probably not very good rounds. I know devotees that use a clicker counter, a digital counter, or count on their fingers. I have not heard of anyone chanting by timer only. Any chanting is better than no chanting, but I wonder if Srila Prabhupada would count that as japa. 

The different feel of the individual beads, for me, makes my beads feel like home.  I replied to his post because I recently got a new set of beads. The new beads do feel different from my “comfortable” set. I am quickly getting used to them, but they are different.  My old beads were rough carved when I got them, and over the years have smoothed out, but still each bead feels individual: different sizes, bumps, dips, etc. They were certainly not precision milled. The more I used the same beads, the more comfortable they became. The feel of each individual bead was not a distraction, but almost like an extension of my senses. The new beads have much fewer imperfections but are just “different” than what I have been used to. They do not distract me, but are just not quite yet “my” beads.

Maya And The Mind

The mind is under the control of maya. We need to regain control from maya. As you progress in Krishna consciousness, or even try to progress, maya will throw distractions in your way. Get used to the beads and make them your friend. Do not let maya use the beads as a distraction. When the beads are no longer a distraction, maya will likely throw something else in your way. That is just the way it works. We are tried and tested every step of the way. They say for every step you take towards Krishna he takes 100 steps towards you – but I would add that with every step you take, maya tries to trip you.

“A man must elevate himself by his own mind, not degrade himself. The mind is the friend of the conditioned soul, and his enemy as well.”

Bhagavad Gita 6:5

My mind is easily distracted… very easily.  For me, I see the beads as a way to engage more senses. If I chant on beads out loud, as we are instructed, I get much better results. My sense of touch is engaged with the beads, my mouth is engaged in chanting, my ears are engaged in listening. As my senses are engaged my chanting feels much better.  To me it is kind of like distracting my senses, so they do not make my mind wander. (I doubt this is any official description, but the analogy works for me.) 

Involving more senses keeps me focused better.  I tried the clicker counter, but my mind would wander too much. I tried chanting under my breath (subvocal) and my mind wandered too much. I chant quietly but audibly – on beads – and my mind does not stray… as much (I am not yet perfect ha ha).  I can sing bhajans all day and not get distracted, but japa is different and requires more concentration.

Develop A Taste For Japa

Japa is difficult for some to get the real taste and appreciation. There is no immediate sense gratification return on your effort. Dancing in kirtan is fun, honoring prasad is great, and association with devotees is wonderful – even if you do not think of Krishna. They have an immediate physical benefit.

We have all seen overly exuberant dancers during sankirtan. Drunk, but enjoying the dancing. It would seem that thoughts of Krishna are not foremost in their minds. But even without thinking of Krishna the dancing, eating, and association are fun. The joy is better if they are done for Krishna’s pleasure – but not strictly a requirement.

Japa is just you and Krishna. Any outside influence is actually a distraction. The alone time takes practice and concentration. I am certainly no expert, but I have been chanting, off and on, for almost 40 years… and I hate to say it… 2022 so far has been some of my best japa in a very long time. I feel a closeness with Krishna stronger than my enthusiastic, heady ‘early days’. 

When I first started chanting in the early 1980s I was a newlywed. I had no money but also no responsibilities. The japa was wonderful. Over the years instead of getting better, it got worse. That is not the way I thought it was supposed to work. What happened?

Japa Is The Foundation

For years I chanted my rounds because I promised to chant my rounds, when I was initiated. For years I chanted my rounds and it felt like homework. For years I chanted my rounds because it was expected of me. And it began to feel as repetitive as those last 3 sentences. I actually started to lose my taste for japa. Eventually japa started giving me a headache. I really do not know why. I thought I was doing it right, and it just did not work. As if Krishna was not interested in my chanting.

Years later I heard something that really made sense. “If you do not feel anything while chanting, it is because Krishna felt nothing from you during your chanting.” Sounds almost like victim blaming, but I think it is completely correct. If my japa felt like homework – why did it? Was I approaching it incorrectly? I was a single father, dealing with my disability, work, and bills; was my mind really on my japa? So many things could have been wrong on my end. Krishna did nothing wrong during my japa, it simply was not accepted. That is on me.

As I lost my taste for japa the rest of my sadhana suffered. Then, with no firm base, my devotional life crumbled.

It is recommended that we rise early and chant our japa. Trying to do half the rounds in the morning and half in the evening…leads to skipped rounds far too often. My guru recommended that we wake up early enough to chant all 16 rounds before mangala arati. As a single father, that was not always easy for me. I would try to chant my rounds between mangala arati and the deity greeting.

My guru was always busy, he had to get his rounds in before people started vying for his time. He did so much service he always wanted to do his japa early. Looking at his great love of Krishna, and the amazing service he did, one can see that his methods were correct.

The point is that our japa is the foundation that all our other service is built upon.

Without a taste for chanting, it is difficult to maintain spiritual life.

Tamal Krishna Goswami

Do’s & Don’ts For Devotees

When we take initiation we agree to some do’s and don’ts. There are four don’ts but only one thing we promise to do. There are a lot of assumed do’s, but only one is part of the oath of initiation. We are expected to do service, participate in temple activities, a lot of assumed things for us to do, but the only thing Srila Prabhupada requires us to do is chant our rounds.

We agree to follow the 4 regs:

  1. No meat eating
  2. No intoxicants
  3. No gambling
  4. No illicit sex

Those are the 4 don’ts, the only thing we promise to do is chant our rounds. That is how important Srila Prabhupada thought japa was. In biographies of the early days we see devotees complaining that their service did not allow enough time for them to chant their rounds. Prabhupada would tell them if that is the case – just chant and sleep. Japa is more important than service.

Srila Prabhupada of course knew they were just making excuses. But his message was clear – japa comes first.

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