Chardi Kala

We all have bad things happen to us. We all have levels of experience that could range from mild irritation to unspeakable horror. Can you imagine, though, that, regardless of your experiences or circumstances, you could find a place within you that is a true aspect of your being in which you could rest in perfect peace and joyfulness?

In the Sikh religion, there is a concept–or state of being, actually–called chardi kala. Diligently entering the state of chardi kala is a fundamental practice of Sikhism. No matter how lousy your life circumsatnces are, you can always access this state, where your sense of peace and well being is constant.

I learned about chardi kala from Valarie Kaur, civil-rights activist and founder of the Revolutionary Love Project. Kaur tells the story of Baba Punjab Singh, a revered elder in the Sikh community. Papa Ji, as Kaur refers to him, was the victim of a mass shooting by a white supremacist at the Sikh place of worship in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Despite becoming completely immobilized by his injuries, except for his eyelids, he was able to signal to visitors that he, indeed, was constantly able to go into the state of chardi kala and find peace in his being. It’s a remarkable story and a remarkable practice. Check out chardi kala. There are a number of videos on YouTube that deal with it.

Department of Peace

I first became aware of efforts to establish a cabinet-level Department of Peace in 2001, when Dennis Kucinich, a Democratic representative from Ohio and candidate for president in 2004 and 2008, introduced a bill to do so. A version of that bill was brought up in Congress again every year from 2001 to 2011. There seemed to be a lot of energy behind it at the time, at least, more than I had ever been aware of. But it wasn’t a new thing. Wikipedia tells me that in 1793, Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, came up with a plan for a Peace Office that would be on the same level as the Department of War. The first legislative bill calling for a United States Department of Peace was written and introduced in 1935. People have been pushing this idea in Congress and reintroducing legislation for a Department of Peace ever since. I have no hope at all that we’ll see such a thing in my lifetime, but it is most definitely long overdue.

The Music Mind Experience

Have you read Karl Berger’s book The Music Mind Experience? Check it out. It encapsulates the essence of Karl’s and Ingrid Sertso’s basic music practice. It is as close as words on a page can bring you to the experience of a Creative Music Studio session.

Karl is working with a European publisher on a new edition of the book . He’s been holding Zoom sessions with CMS participants to gain insight from their Music Mind experiences. I’ve attended two of these. It’s been really inspiring to meet some new CMS people and to bask in their perspectives.

The following is a review that I wrote of The Music Mind Experience. Please don’t publish it without permission.


© 2021, Robert E. Sweet
There’s a story from ancient Japanese folklore* about a musician who studied with a great master to learn to play an exquisite new flute that no one had heard before. After countless hours of practice, he’d go to see the master to check his progress. Repeatedly, the master’s only response was, “Something lacking.”

Maybe you can relate. You’ve worked hard developing your musical craft. You’ve learned scales, chords, and theory. You might even have achieved technical excellence on your instrument. You’ve studied the masters. Maybe you attended a prestigious music school and got a couple degrees. Perhaps you’ve attained some level of professional acclaim and success, however you define it.

But there’s still something lacking. There is a constant yearning for some missing element. You reach and you reach and you’re not quite sure what you’re reaching for. And without exposure to the proper environment or the proper mentorship, you might never discover that the something lacking, the missing element . . . is you. There is an untapped essence of what is uniquely you, an essence that, when reached and unleashed, brings a warmth and a vitality, an ineffable quality to your sound that leaves listeners with an experience that stays with them, quite possibly even transforms them.

KarlBerger has committed himself to reaching and teaching about that essential nature that is within all of us, which, when expressed through sound, is a clear and unequivocal affirmation of our humanity. Since founding the legendary Creative Music Studio (CMS) in 1973, Karl has been teaching musicians and nonmusicians how to develop a personal relationship with the universal elements of music, which transcend style and tradition.

Karl, along with coauthor Rick Maurer, has distilled decades of his unique training into the 2020 book The Music Mind Experience: Playing, Listening, Singing, Moving (Creative Music Studio; 978-1-7352380-0-5; The Creative Music Studio has always offered a prime environment for the development of one’s own relationship to the universal elements of music. In the early days, CMS sessions would last for weeks. They were a total immersion in a communal setting that was prime for playing, listening, singing, and moving together with some of the world’s most celebrated creative musicians. There really never has been anything else like it. Billy Martin, a.k.a. illyB, writes in the book’s foreword that the CMS experience has “profoundly shaped [his] evolution as an educator, composer, performer and most importantly, as a human being.” And while you can’t reproduce that experience in a book, those who have taken part in CMS sessions will instantly recognize in The Music Mind Experience a codification and succinct explication of all the concepts that Karl has conveyed over the years.

A fundamental principle found throughout the book is awareness. Karl and his wife Ingrid Sertso (vocalist, poet, and cofounder of CMS) have been heavily influenced by the teachings of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and the connections between Buddhist mental discipline and music are implicit in their approach to imparting musical wisdom. The more awareness one can devote to rhythm–Karl calls this “beat for beat attention”–dynamics, and overall deep listening, the less one is likely to be captured by thoughts. “Thinking is much too slow,” Karl frequently tells us. But if thinking does get in the way of heartfelt playing or listening, Karl offers the remedy, which is what he calls retuning.

And while mental discipline and awareness are key parts of The Music Mind Experience, awareness of sound’s effects on the body–and the body’s effects on sound–is also essential. In fact, the total involvement of the body is what is required to know ourselves as musical beings; and we’re all musical beings. In order for us to express what drummer Ra Kalam Bob Moses calls “living music,” we must go beyond the technical aspects of our chosen “axe” and fully involve our total being in playing, listening, singing, and moving.

The Music Mind Experience is a quick read at 178 pages, but don’t let its brevity belie its depth. Listeners and musicians alike will come away with a new appreciation of how music functions in their lives. It’s presented in a question-and-answer format, with valve trombonist Rick Maurer doing the questioning and Karl doing the answering. The appendix contains exercises that will enable you to dig in and explore the concepts that emerge in Rick and Karl’s conversation.

John Medeski, John Scofield, Carla Bley, Joe Lovano, Markus Stockhausen, and several other music luminaries provide testimonials for the book. But the words I’d like to leave you with are those of designer and composer Larry Chernicoff, whose association with Karl goes back to the late sixties when Larry enrolled in a course at the New School for Social Research, which Karl had taken over from John Cage: “You can read about scales and rhythms and chord changes in a lot of other places, but Karl’s teaching goes beyond all that. It’s about where we find ourselves when we play: in the sound and in the moment, in the silence and the story.”

*I discovered this story in Stephen Nachmanovitch’s book Free Play.

Nijinsky is not there.

Vaslav Nijinsky, “the God of Dance,” was regarded as the greatest male dancer of the early twentieth century. When he was asked what made it possible for him to do seemingly superhuman leaps, he said it was possible for him to do so only when Nijinsky was not there. In other words Nijinsky could be Nijinsky only when he danced with no sense of self. He was able to disidentify from any sense of his personality–to dance with no fear, no doubt, no judgment, no anxiety, no awareness of the audience or the person named Nijinsky. This is what the pianist Marilyn Crispell (and many others, I would presume) calls getting out of your own way. It’s a must for creative improvisers. Many musicians–Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, John McLaughlin, to name just a few with whom I am familiar–talk about being simply a means, a channel, a conduit, through which the spirit of the music can find expression. How does one develop the capacity to not be there while performing? It’s going to be a different path for every individual. For some, it will come quite naturally. For others, it’s a lifelong endeavor.

The universe hangs on sound.

Nada yoga is the yoga of sound. A common expression among nada yoga practitioners is “the universe hangs on sound.” It’s a funny expression. It suggests that there is the universe, and there is something that the universe is not, upon which the universe hangs, like a jacket on a coat rack. Despite the semantic twisting one could get into picking the expression apart (Isn’t the universe all that is? How can it hang on anything?), there is much to be gained in a discipline that regards sound as a fundament to everything that we experience. At the Creative Music Studio, we practice listening to sounds disappearing. Try it. Strike a gong or a cymbal or a bell or a singing bowl. Listen to the sound and exclude all else from your awareness. Try to identify the exact point at which the sound disappears. You will become a better listener, and that is crucial for creative musicians. It was said of Leonard Bernstein that the thing that made him great was simply that he heard more music than anyone else.

Explore Nada yoga. Start here.