The Chanting Cure

Kathleen Campfire Kirtan 2017Chanting, group song, and devotional singing has been a part of every world culture and religion for uncounted ages. In Catholicism, the Mass was chanted for hundreds of years in Latin. The text for Jewish rituals were sung by the rabbi. Muslims as well as many others chant aloud daily. As it turns out, group singing may be a better cure for depression than therapy or medication. (Learn more in the Time magazine article Singing Changes Your Brain.)

Jewish mystics also practiced melodic vocalizations without words and recognized the power in the emotional element of sung versus spoken words. Kabbalists viewed song and meditation as assisting the soul in reaching the seventh level of heaven–the realm of the throne of God and the angels.

Many indigenous people also saw a connection between the elements of nature and certain sounds or songs. They had songs to sing to the wind, the rain and the land. In the Orient, the five elements correspond to vowels and the sounds of nature. The vowels are the feminine energy and the consonants are the masculine energy.

chanting religionsSome indigenous peoples have highly developed forms of song and music for the purpose of journeying to other dimensions. Much of this art has been lost or set aside in the modern world, but a renaissance has begun! Part of this resurgence is due to the mounting evidence that music and singing have positive benefits on all levels for participants.  

There is power in sound and in chanting of the names of God. This may be due to the inherent physical impact of producing certain vowels and consonants in sequence. (Read more at Vocal Medicine.) Other positive effects occur on the psychological and emotional levels as well as the physical. 

Chanting is an outpouring of gratitude and deep communion with God and our fellow chanters. There is a connection on many levels between people who chant together. Studies have shown that the heartbeats of those who sing together begin to synchronize. Scientists in Sweden have determined that as choir members sing in unison, their pulses speed up and slow down at the same rates. Slow chants produce the most synchrony. Chanting and group singing may be a cure for both a sense of isolation from God and from each other in the modern world.  

Choir Singers Synchronize Their Heartbeats
Singing Changes Your Brain

Campfire Kirtan Initiation

harmonium playingFor over a year now I’ve had this idealized vision of having campfire kirtan with friends. The idea of singing bhajans and chants in front of a campfire out in nature with the summer sun setting on the horizon has been a tantalizing daydream.

In my imagination, the sounds of birds and crickets would blend seamlessly with the droning chords of the harmonium and the soothing strum of a guitar while we poured out our hearts in gratitude to the Source of all life. Wow!

My opportunity for this blissful experience came last weekend. We had had several friends over to celebrate the high school graduation of one of my sons earlier in the day. As the day progressed into evening, my husband Andrew got a fire going in our backyard. He and a couple of friends warmed up their vocal chords with a few cowboy songs while I finished a game of Scrabble indoors. 

Then I brought out my harmonium (named after Astara, the Germanic goddess of spring), several binders of large index cards with chords and laboriously hand-written music, and a stand that is the perfect height for playing sitting in a chair. I xeroxed several chants including the guitar chords and Sanskrit lyrics. We were ready!

campfire kirtan friends

I introduced a chant I had recently learned to the goddess Lalita and began to play. As I leaned forward to pump the bellows, the harmonium shifted on the uneven ground. I adjusted. It shifted again. I adjusted again. Shift. Adjust. I was getting the hang of this! Just as we were really hitting a groove and everyone had picked up on the words, I felt something crawl up my right leg.

MKosterCampfireKirtanThere was no way I could brush off the ant without breaking the rhythm of the song. I ignored the ant, hoping it would not bite. Soon another ant followed the first and then another.

The first one reached my shoulder and crawled out onto my arm. I remembered past years when this particular campfire location was plagued with ant hills and we all sat cross-legged on chairs to avoid putting our feet on the ground. That wasn’t an option now.

After the first chant ended, I moved the harmonium and stand to more stable ground. I checked for an ant hill by my right foot, finding nothing. Assuming the bhajan-loving ants were random ants far from home, I stayed where I was and started the next chant.

The next hour was an exercise in concentration. Mosquitoes arrived and bright green gnats. The random ants continued to find my right leg and make the long trek up to my arms and shoulders. I tried blowing them off my arms in between sung phrases to no avail.Finally I gave up and ignored everything except the music. In the end, I incurred only a few mosquito bites and the ants and gnats proved to be harmless, though annoying. 

campfire kirtan

The fire was beautiful. The drumming and guitar were a welcome change from the hours that I spend playing my harmonium and chanting alone in the safety of my home.

Next time I’ll try the other side of the fire where there may be less ants. Maybe I’ll invest in some insect repellent to deal with the mosquitoes and the gnats!

My initiation is over. By next weekend I’ll be ready to schedule another campfire kirtan. Or a moonlit kirtan. Or a mountaintop kirtan….

Neoplatonism and Mysticism

neoplatonism founderThe term neoplatonism refers to a school of thought that was founded by Plotinus, a Greek philosopher who lived from 204—270 C.E. During this period cultures that had not had much contact with each other were for the first time studying and responding to each other’s sacred texts and philosophies.

Gnostic, Jewish, Christian, and pagan philosophers all debated and interpreted the philosophy of Plato, attempting to reconcile their own belief systems with the cosmology it presented. Neoplatonism is known for synthesizing aspects of the speculations of these various faiths into a single cosmology.

In neoplatonism, the universe can be divided into three basic categories: the One, the Intellect, and the Soul. From the One emanates the Intellect, which engages with itself as an Other, dividing itself into Forms, whose unity constitutes the expression of the One. Numerous individual soul’s then contemplate these Forms, and from their basic potential manifest action in the world, and it is this action of the Soul that generates the material cosmos.

It is through contemplating the material world as one’s own creation, the physical manifestation of the Soul’s contemplation of the Forms, that are themselves the expression of the One, that the Soul achieves salvation. For Plotinus and neoplatonism, contemplation is the creative principle. It is contemplation that manifests the potential present in the One. Even action is seen as a form of contemplation, but the lowest form.

school of neoplatonismThis view of the universe, while it has been influenced by the traditions that Plotinus was in contact with, does not place a creator god at the center of the universe like Islamic or Christian mystics would. Each link in the chain, from the One, to the Intellect, to the Soul, plays a vital role in the manifestation of the cosmos. In and of itself the One is unchanging and does not act.

The term mysticism is quite hard to define. It has taken on many meanings in many different traditions. When the term is used today, it is usually referring to traditions, practices, or philosophies that are said to lead to a direct intuition of divinity. The term finds its origin in the ancient Greek mystery schools, so-called because their rituals and practices were kept secret and only revealed to initiates.

As time has passed the term has taken on new meaning. It is now most commonly associated with any tradition that claims direct intuitive experience of God or the divine as its highest aim. Loosely speaking, a mystic could be anyone who has had some degree of personal experience with and understanding of the Divine.

Mysticism can be found all over the world in various forms. However,  in the western and Islamic worlds most forms of mysticism can find their roots in the philosophical developments that were taking place throughout the Hellenistic world during the first half of the first millennium.


BenKarlsen2017Guest Author: Ben Karlsen

Ben is a philosophy major at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana focusing on Tibetan Buddhism. Ben has an ongoing interest in psychology, religion, neuroscience and consciousness research. Ben tutored his younger brother Christopher for several years in topics of mutual interest such as astronomy, Greek mythology, programming and science. Ben is my oldest son and I am also grateful for the many hours we have spent together in fascinating conversations!

Sacred Geometry and the Universe

From the simplest atoms to the largest galaxies, geometry determines the structure and function of the universe. This was known to many ancient civilizations, although it is perhaps most evident in the philosophy of the Greeks. To these ancient philosophers, the study of geometry was the study of the fundamental principles that governed the creation of the universe. The human mind was seen as capable of penetrating into the mysteries of universe and allows us to perceive the necessary truths of mathematics and geometry.

Over the entrance to Plato’s Academy, the following phrase was posted: “Let no one unversed in geometry enter here.” The study of mathematics and geometry were seen as foundational practices, through which a student could train their mind to the point that they could grasp the highest principles of metaphysics. In studying geometry, the student was not learning something new, but rather penetrating into his or her own intuitive understanding of the order of the universe. In the same way that one can see that all of the structures geometry follow from basic axioms, one can then realize that all of metaphysics follows from the fundamental principles of existence: the One, the Many, Being, and Becoming.

sacred geometry Penrose patternDuring the first millennium, there was an explosion of interest in metaphysics. Christian, Gnostic, and pagan theologians all worked to uncover the order of the universe. While different philosophers disagreed on many details based on their Christian, Islamic, Gnostic, or pagan views of reality, the model of the universe that was presented in Plato’s Timeaus was viewed as a mutual starting point. From here, theologians set forth their own metaphysical systems, attempting to reconcile their own faiths with mystical philosophy.

For all of these thinkers, the material world was seen as the result of the unfolding of the Divine Intellect. On the most fundamental level the universe emanates from the One, which is itself beyond all concepts of being and non-being. It is complete, perfect, and eternal. From this One is born the Dyad, the inseparable unity of the active and passive forces. With this division of what is ultimately One, and beyond being, into subject and object, the root of the universe is formed. It is based on this that the universe in its infinite forms takes shape, and it does so according to geometric principles of symmetry and harmony, as can be seen clearly in the natural world.

Various sequences of numbers and ratios, such as the Golden Ratio or the Fibonacci sequence, can be seen all over the natural world, from the way in which shells spiral to the growth patterns of trees. Using the golden ratio, an English physicist named Roger Penrose found a way to create an expanding pattern that never repeats (see image). As we learn more and more about the structure of the universe, we continue to find more and more examples of harmony and symmetry.

When modern physicists try to decide what theory is more likely, the one that is most harmonious and symmetrical is chosen. This is because over time it has been proven again and again that our universe is a masterpiece of geometric symmetry and order. From the most fundamental particles to the largest super-clusters of galaxies, the place of geometry and symmetry as essential to the creative principle of the universe is evident.


BenKarlsen2017Guest Author: Ben Karlsen

Ben is a philosophy major at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana focusing on Tibetan Buddhism. Ben has an ongoing interest in psychology, religion, neuroscience and consciousness research. Ben tutored his younger brother Christopher for several years in topics of mutual interest such as astronomy, Greek mythology, programming and science. Ben is my oldest son and I am also grateful for the many hours we have spent together in fascinating conversations!

The Mandala and the Mind

Mandalas can be found in the artistic traditions of many world religions and philosophies. The word mandala comes from the Sanskrit word for circle, and traditionally refers to the the use of the circle in the sacred art of India, but today the word is used to refer to a much more universal piece of human symbolism. The symbolism of a mandala connects the themes of unity and growth, often representing the coming together of opposites to form a whole. The Yin-Yang or symbol of the Tao, diagrams of the I Ching, the Sri Yantra, and the Bhavachakra are all examples of mandalas in sacred art.

mandalaThe most extensive use of mandalas can be found in the rituals and art of Tibetan Buddhism. Mandalas are most often depicted as two dimensional colored diagrams, often featuring a Buddha or seed-syllable in the center, with concentric rings of other deities and various symbols surrounding it. Tibetan monks are famous for their representations of these diagrams drawn in colored sands. These mandalas can take weeks to make and are constructed by monks as a ritual offering, destroyed after completion to represent the impermanence of all things. However, many people are not aware that these two dimensional mandalas are actually blueprints for the visualization of a three-dimensional palace, and play a very important role in almost every form of Tibetan ritual practice.

The palace and its surrounding environment are vividly visualized down to the smallest details in meditation and are used as a powerful transformative tool. The descriptions of these palaces not only describe the palace itself but the entire surrounding universe. The palace is located on Mount Meru, the Axis-Mundi in Indo-tibetian cosmology, which is surrounded by the various continents and visualized as being made entirely of jewels, resting on top of disks of fire, water, and earth. It rests on a thousand-petaled lotus, surrounded by eight charnel grounds (burial vaults or buildings) inhabited by spirits of all kinds, which in turn are surrounded by a ring of iron mountains forming a protective barrier.

mandala1In the center of the palace, which has five walls made of colored jewels representing the five elements, the central Buddha resides in a throne room, surrounded by his or her retinue. Advanced practitioners can visualize the mandala with such great detail and clarity, down to the individual hairs of the head of the deity, that it is perceived as being even more vivid than waking reality. Some are said to even be able to visualize entire sets of mandalas in full detail in a space the size of a small seed.

Every detail of the palace and surrounding environment has many layers of symbolism and meaning. The mandala as a whole represents the primordial non-dual nature of the mind as it exists naturally when freed of all conceptual projections of desire, aversion, hope, or fear, the open and infinitely expansive space before the first thought of self and other. Through the practice of creatively visualizing the mandala, a practitioner replaces their normal sense of self and environment, transforming it into the palace of the Buddha, and realizing his or her own identity as being that of the central Buddha.

mandala2At the end of the visualization the entire mandala is dissolved, step by step, into the practitioner, a process which is mirrored in the ritual destruction of sand mandalas. In later stages, after training extensively in visualizing the mandala, the practitioner utilizes the innate creative power of the mind and actually transforms their perceived environment into the mandala through practices involving the subtle body, the energetic system of chakras, channels, winds, and bindus, directly seeing into the open space the underlies all thought.

A similar use of mandalas is also found a number of Hindu Tantric schools. Often the princes or emperors who would sponsor Hindu Tantra in their court would also sponsor Vajrayana Buddhism, which would later develop into Tibetan Buddhism. Because yogis from both traditions would often be in close contact with each other, the traditions influenced each other’s development. Most of the mandalas used by these schools, usually referred to as yantras, are far less complex than their Tibetan counterparts, but they are still used to represent the ultimate non-dual nature of reality. One well known example is the Sri Yantra, representing the union of the divine feminine and masculine principles, the diagram itself showing how reality emanates from this union that contains the potential for all possible existence.

mandala3A less esoteric use of mandalas can be found in the psychological theories of Carl Jung. Jung saw the mandala as being an archetypal representation of the self. Jung spent a lot of time using art as a method for exploring the relationship between symbolism, the unconscious, and psychology, and often found himself drawing mandala-like diagrams. He found the drawings to be powerful expressions of his state of being, and in time he came to see these diagrams as representing his path to the unity of the self.

Jung said of his drawings of mandalas, “I knew that in finding the mandala as an expression of the self I had attained what was for me the ultimate.” Although mandalas are used in many different ways by many different traditions, the fundamental theme of the unity of reality or the self is common to them all. Whether they are used as a part of complex esoteric rituals and practices, or as an attempt to express the self artistically for the purposes of healing or psychological growth, the mandala is undoubtedly one of the most powerful examples of symbolism found in the spiritual traditions of the world.

Ben2017Guest Author: Ben Karlsen
Ben is a philosophy major at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana focusing on Tibetan Buddhism. Ben has an ongoing interest in psychology, religion, neuroscience and consciousness research. He tutored his younger brother Christopher for several years in topics of mutual interest such as astronomy, Greek mythology, programming and science. Ben is my oldest son and I am also grateful for the many hours we have spent together in fascinating conversations!

Memories, Dreams, Reflections by C. G. Jung
Deity, Mantra and Wisdom by Jigme Lingpa, Patrul Rinpoche, and Getse Mahapandita

Stratified Dimensions (Artwork)


Stratified Dimensions is a play on the idea of parallel universes, multiple dimensions, and the warping of time and space. I don’t know much about the actual scientific theories on these topics, but I was an avid science fiction fan for some of my childhood and most of my teenage years. I was never much of a TV watcher but there was one significant exception: Star Trek!

As an adult I’ve focused more on the inner world of psychology and consciousness. I guess I’ve come to feel that the external cosmos reflects to some degree our own inner worlds. It seems to me that the microcosm and the macrocosm are just on different scales and that the universe is both infinitely large and infinitely small.

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Over the Edge (Artwork)



Over the Edge is a small abstract that evokes the feeling for me of going new places and exploring new realms. Sometimes that feels like going over the edge! Every now and then I like to paint a series of small paintings to see if I can concentrate a big feeling in a small space.

When my husband was in film school, he knew a student who wanted to focus on making commercials. Everyone else wanted to direct feature films and full-length documentaries. That particular student said he wanted to make commercials because it was a chance to tell an entire story in 30 seconds. It’s a different challenge. Maybe in some ways it’s a harder challenge.

And it’s fun to paint for someone who may be trying to decorate in a small space. Maybe a piece of art can help them to get a sense of expansiveness in an apartment or condo. Or maybe they want something in an office or meditation room that is highly focused. Small can be beautiful!

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Painting with the Angels

Beyond-the-StarsI have developed the practice of praying to the angels before I start a painting. My intention with my art is to create something that brings inspiration and healing to others. I figure that angels have a different perspective, so I welcome their help. It’s not that I feel like they are painting through me as in channeling, but we are partners in the effort.

For my side, I’ve got years of education in the arts and untold hours of practice. I understand how paint works and how fast it dries and what is needed on the practical level. At the same time, I am trying to depict energy and realities that are not strictly in the physical. Since angels are non-physical beings, I figure that is more their realm of expertise. So we blend the physical and spiritual and see what happens.

When one of my sons was recovering from a severe concussion, it was a comfort to read books to him about angels. I was amazed how many accounts included angels coming into the physical world to protect people and help them. Apparently the veil between dimensions is very, very thin.

Universal-FireAnd I think of the fluidity of the physical and spiritual dimensions in another way as well: who knows but many of us are embodied angels and maybe there are angels who were once men. I don’t think the boundaries are either strict or permanent. And maybe we can see into their realm or feel into their realms more than we realize.

I have grown to prefer abstract art because it feels like a window into another place rather than a reflection of the place where we find ourselves now. I want to create windows into beautiful, colorful places. Some artists have the goal of asking people to look more closely at the world around them–to see the details and subtle changes in light or form. That is a valuable service and calling. My calling is to create paintings that allow the viewer to go beyond the physical world into something normally unseen.

River of Fire (Artwork)


River of Fire is inspired by the power of volcanoes. Fire, of course, is one of the oldest symbols know to man. Fire ignites minds and inspires the spirit. Fire burns the dross of the old and impure. Fire ceremonies have been part of man’s religious practice since time immemorial. Fire brings both life and death, and is to be respected and honored. Fire is one of the primary elements in many philosophies that describe the transfiguring cycles of life. When fire is balanced by depth and steadfastness (the cool, steady blue), its power can be harnessed for personal and universal transformation.

The fire element can be used in interior environments to activate the energy in rooms or buildings that might otherwise feel empty or cold. Many modern environments with neutral colors or lots of marble, steel or glass can benefit from powerful fire images. Fire images are recommended for living rooms or reception areas or places where people gather to talk and interact. They would be less suitable for kitchens (which already inherently possess this element) or for bedrooms where calm and peace is more ideal.

The use of fire is intimately tied to man’s evolution and symbolizes the continuity of progress and civilization. The eternal flame is a common theme in both secular and religious traditions. As long as the flame burns, hope continues. Fire worship is closely tied to sun worship. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, fire appears as a burning bush or a pillar of fire or in the flames of the Menorah. 

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Fire Worship
Fire Element

Angel Wing (Artwork)


When one of my sons was recovering from a serious injury and related PTSD, I read stories of angels to him on a nightly basis. I bought every book available on Amazon that included angels, especially stories of angelic intervention in modern times. This was a great comfort for both of us.

My favorite was the story of a grandfather on his deathbed who suddenly sat up and announced, “I have to go! I have to be someone’s guardian angel!” Days later his family had gathered to be present at his funeral. In a freak accident, his great-granddaughter fell out of a third story window onto a cement porch below.

She was rushed to the hospital and examined for hours. The only wounds found were abrasions under both of her arms. When asked about the fall, she insisted, “Grandpappy caught me!” So he had saved his great-granddaughter’s life even before he was in his grave!

I grew up with an awareness of angels in the Catholic church. My mother is devoted to angels to the extent that she decorated her Christmas tree exclusively with angels one or more years. If it is true that angels take embodiment at times for a lifetime or more, she is surely one of them!

There are angels for just about every conceivable situation: angels attend birth, angels guide us after death to the heavenly realms, and they appear to protect in dangerous situations. Angels can also comfort and heal and inspire. Some traditions claim there are specific angels for Christmas or other religious holidays.

This painting is a luminescent representation of a single angel wing. Artistic renditions of angels may depict the wings as shafts of light rather than bird-like feathers. Some angels are considered to be reflections of God’s light and love. Others exude the light of God from within. This angle wing is in the second category. I like the idea that God is within every aspect of His creation and shines from within each form in the material universe.

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