Explosion of Life: An Interview with Jai Uttal
by Chris Grosso
CG: So here we are in lovely Estes Park, CO for the 2012 Yoga Journal Conference. As I’ve been taking in this beautiful scenery the past few days it sparked my curiosity about your personal experience while performing in relation to the various locations worldwide you travel too. Do they affect said experience, or is it based more on the collective energy of the people, or is it Maharaj-ji coming through?
JU: It’s all of the above. One thing that affects the event is where I’m at physically. So at last night’s performance for example, I was really feeling the altitude and my energy was a little low. It changed towards the end, but I felt during the first hour that I just didn’t have much physical energy. Singing, playing and performing, it’s very physical. You’re a drummer Chris, so you know.
CG: Yes, for sure.
JU: Yeah, it’s very physical, spiritual and emotional and for me, I don’t deny that and try to go out of that experience, it’s part of the beauty of it. It’s a physical practice, particularly singing, which is breathing. So last night I was a little short of breath and in that sense, even though it’s very, very beautiful here, the geography here made me struggle. If I’d been here for a week, it would have been different. I would have felt very expanded by the expansiveness of this place. I’ve had that experience being in the foothills of India a lot. The first couple of days I’m there I feel tired because of the altitude but after that, I feel energized. Then, everywhere I look, I see vast spaces and it does something to my heart and psyche, no question.
The collective energy of the crowd is always a big part of it too. It’s not a performance per se, there’s elements of performance, for sure, but essentially it’s a group invocation practice. So when everyone is into it, it’s just so amazing, and when everyone is perhaps not into it, it still can be amazing, but in a different way. It’s always different and yet in a sense, it’s always the same because it’s an internal journey of prayer, calling to my Guru, calling to God.
I would never say Maharaj-ji comes through me, but I will say that sometimes I feel Maharaj-ji comes to listen and I can feel that when it happens. Perhaps, on the other hand, it always happens and I’m just not aware of it. I get distracted sometimes. I find if I’m well rested and I have a good cushion under my butt and a good sound system, it’s usually fine though. If I’m tired and physically uncomfortable, well, I still look at it as part of the practice because the practice is internal.
CG: Right, absolutely.
JU: Sometimes it’s an effortless beautiful flow, and sometimes it’s not and yet, it doesn’t change what it’s about. It seems to me that if we were supposed to be in constant bliss, we would be, but part of being on the path is all the challenges. If we never felt the joy and ecstasy, it’d be a bummer and it’d be like, “why bother?” but it’s as if God gives as enough to keep us going. In the Bhakti tradition, the feeling of separation, the pain, is such a big part of it because that’s what adds the fire to the longing, the movement towards that Beloved.
CG: Yes, that definitely resonates with me and totally I hear you on the geography here taking it out of you. I’ve been here four days now and am just starting to feel adjusted, and of course, I’m leaving after this interview.
JU: Of course (laughing.)
CG: So, I love that you did your Kirtan Kids album. I’ve told you in the past I have a teacher friend who plays it for her kids in class and they love it!
JU: That’s great to hear.
CG: Definitely, and we’ve also talked in the past about your son and that you’re obviously a very loving papa to him. So with that being said, can you talk a bit about the importance of facilitating spiritual awareness in children’s lives and how, in your own experience, you’ve found the most nurturing way to do so?
JU: That’s a great question and like you said, I can only speak from the experience of myself, my son and family, so it’s not a blanket statement for all kids, because I just don’t know. With my son, I feel that he’s a completely spiritual being. It’s not spiritual as the same way of the people in my generation, I won’t even speak for yours, but we grew up in the consciousness that spirituality was something sort of separate from life.
Many of us, in our late elderly age (laughing) are realizing that no, that’s not the case. Spirituality does, needs to, and must be pervasive of everything. People have different beliefs about that but that is mine. If spirituality is separate from life, what kind of spiritual is that? God pervades every molecule so how can we think that spirituality is something else, and I see with my boy that complete awareness. Light is everywhere, it’s in him, it’s in everything. It’s a blissful devouring of life, and complete connection to the spirit world, love, and Maharaj-ji. To spiritual practices like Japa (repetition of mantra) and Kirtan, but it’s not like Japa is one thing and playing Nintendo is another thing. It’s all just a full explosion of life.
So then what’s my job? Of course, as a father, I’m always reevaluating that question. It’s like the eternal question, because my child changes every day, which is cool, but it’s challenging. So I introduce practices, not as a teacher, but rather sharing what I do, so he can join me, or not.
Sometimes as we go through life, it gets challenging and the Divine energy gets beat up a little bit, so it’s important to have little tools that help keep the connection strong. I think Ezra’s generation will have an easier time keeping that connection stronger but still, life is life.
We do Japa together and sing Kirtan together but I don’t frame it as more important than other things we do together. I feel that Ezra, he’s a wild kid, he’s a good and kind kid. He’s not a tantrumy, mean kid, but he’s wild and I love that in him. Sometimes sure, I wonder what I’m going to do with him, but at the same time, he has a passion for doing beads, doing Japa, saying Ram, he loves it. Does he love it more than playing Pokemon? I don’t know and don’t really care, because he loves it.
There’s a bunch of rules that his school has and they’re not wrong rules, they’re behavioral rules for being in school. Some seem pretty silly, some important, and the first day he brought home a list, which was his homework, and we were supposed to look at it together and then I’d sign it. So we were looking at the list and he told me which rules he’d broken and I realized that I’ve never really followed rules my entire life, for better or worse. I don’t want to be a hypocrite to my son, so I said, “Look, the only rule I beg for you to follow, as best as you can, is to always be kind” and he said, “Okay, I’ll try.” Then the other day he told me how he was mean to another kid and I told him all we can do is try.
So I see Ezra’s generation, and not just him, but many of his peers, as the ones who will save the world. We try, we do our bit, we all do our little bit and it all adds up to something big, so there’s no question about that, but I see his generation as the ones who really have the illuminations and the shakti, the energy. They have the power. So I know that my work as a singer is important, it’s valuable to me and to others, but I think that in the bigger picture, I’m just trying to keep my heart pure and open. It’s almost impossible, but with God’s grace, it seems semi-possible.
In the bigger picture, I see my job as keeping Ezra safe, happy, empowered and loved. His generation is going to do a lot so what I can do for the world is to be his servant. Of course, I’m still his father and disciplinarian but also, I want to nurture him until he’s able to take over and do whatever he has to do in the world. I don’t know what it is, but I know it will be big, and I know it’s not just him but his generation as well.
CG: That’s beautiful. Having worked with children myself for six years, I totally understand what you’re saying about his generation being illumined and of service in the context you described, very cool. So something I’m curious about is regarding your “celebrity” in the spiritual community and how that affects your ego nature? Is it something you have to be consciously aware or is it sort of second nature these days?
JU: The ego is always there and everybody’s ego has different flavors. Mine, rather than falling into thinking I’m great, tells me I’m awful and that I suck, but it’s the same deal. I don’t try to vanquish my ego.
CG: Sure, I get that.
JU: Yeah, the ego is just part of who we are. Sometimes it’s great and helps us move forward and sometimes it’s a bummer. For me, it’s usually a negative voice that I call ego, though you could also call it conditioning maybe. When I was just beginning to have that “celebrity” status, I would think I was a star and rolled with it a little but that was then. Last night for example, there was a big stage but we were on the floor on a blanket (laughing.) So I really feel myself to be a human who struggles, but like I said, the most important thing is my work as a papa.
I feel many, many challenges in my career but I try not to obsess about them. I deal with them, but not obsess. Most of the time, not all of the time, but most of time, when I’m singing and playing music, I feel in my heart, that the ego issues of the heart and mind aren’t there, or maybe they’re there, but they’re not bugging. Before and after they are (laughing). But the “star” status, it just doesn’t mean much to me. Mostly I’m just around home and doing my thing and I feel pretty regular.
CG: Sure I totally respect you view and approach. I was curious because of course, people such as yourself who are able to touch so many lives tend to be held on a pedestal by many people, or Guru worship, and unfortunately with some teachers, a lot of teachers actually, it’s obvious it goes to their head.
JU: Well, I don’t feel like a celebrity, so sometimes when people approach me as such it’s like, “What, who, me?” but then there’s another side to it which is nice, the side when people, if it’s not all projection and bullshit, approach me with a beautiful feeling of respect and I take that in and I like it. I don’t live on it because it’s only part of the picture, but it’s nice. It helps me remember my journey and that I can be respectable, respect myself, and others. So that is one side of it that I don’t want to belittle, it’s nice. Like I feel old, well not old, I do have a lot of energy, but I’m 61 and these days, well I’ve been through a lot. It doesn’t make me enlightened, or this or that, but I’ve had a handful of experiences that have given me some information that I can share with others.
CG: Right, and in the way you describe transmitting those experiences, it’s certainly of authentic value to others and that’s awesome. So going back to the negative and judging voice you said you experience as your ego/conditioning, you and I have talked before about being in recovery and how we’ve been to some pretty dark places our lives, as have a lot of people on this path, substance abuse related, or not. In your personal experience, how have those dark nights of the soul helped you grow in your spiritual journey?
JU: Well let’s not put it in the past tense because every other day I have a dark night of the soul. It’s doesn’t last all day, so I guess I have a dark moment of the soul (laughing). My Guru, Neem Karoli Baba said one time that people call on God when they’re suffering, so there is that. You can’t deny it, it’s not that we wish suffering on ourselves or anyone, but when we feel like we’re against the wall, we just call on God, we just do. I had a dark night of the soul last night. I have such bad insomnia and sometimes with insomnia, you can sort of relax and read a book, but anyone who has insomnia knows that other times, it generates incredible anxiety.
So how did I deal with it, not well. I laid there being anxious, but I did repeat God’s name over, and over, and over again. Did I repeat it with love and passion, I don’t think so, but I repeated it, and I know that every repetition of God’s name is a footstep towards that One. Every day I could have a different answer to this, but lately, I do feel that in the journey of Bhakti and Kirtan, our entire emotional range is offered and is expressed. For myself, I can be singing one moment and feeling so joyful and then the next moment feeling full of despair, and I don’t know why, it just is. I feel that all the experiences I’ve gone through in my life, the joyful ones and the painful ones, they add to the picture and completeness of who I am.
So the more of the different corridors, caves and rooms in our heart the we’re able to explore and experience, the bigger our offering and our emotional range, or the pallet of colors we’ll have with which we connect to God and to other humans, because if we can’t connect to humans, we can’t connect to God. I feel for myself, that I’m able to relate to people regarding many different things in context to human spirituality. I say human, not like mountaintop spirituality, but human, you and me, spirituality. There have been many different phases and experiences in my life, which allow me to relate to many people in different ways. I also feel it makes me able to relate deeply to my Guru and to God in my singing and my songs.
This is an eternal debate but I don’t feel we necessarily choose our life experiences. I think karma and grace give us what we need to have. Sometimes you think, “Why the fuck is this happening to me?” and other times you think, “I know why this is happening to me, because I’m an asshole” and yet other times you may think, “Why the fuck is this beautifulness is happening to me, what did I do to deserve it?” Maybe you did nothing, maybe just being a child of God makes us deserve the grace, but everything that happens creates who we are. Sitting with Maharaj-ji creates who I am just as much as sitting in a 12-Step meeting creates who I am.
I can think some things are more important than other’s but even that is kind of weird to say because how is it so, especially if you believe on any level that it all comes from God. I don’t always live that, but I always believe it. So if you believe everything comes from God, how can you say this is more important than that? Some things make more lasting impressions, but that’s a whole nother question. I forget a lot of my moments and days and hours sitting with Maharaj-ji and I wonder how I could forget those blissful times of my life, but I also forget a lot of the bad things that have happened. I understand that as a survival mechanism though, or maybe I just have a bad memory. It doesn’t all have to be cosmic. Maybe I just need to eat more carrots or something (laughing).
CG: You’re preaching to the choir in that answer, my friend. Well, except for the carrots part because I think they’re terribly gross. Anyways, the last question I wanted to ask you is if we were to lay aside all the yoga pants, malas and kitschy spiritual sayings, and go beneath the surface, what does spirituality in that place look like to you?
JU: Man that’s such a hard question because instantly all these aphorisms and statements from The Dalai Lama or a yogi pops into my mind and my mouth wants to say them (laughing), because they’re really real and true.
CG: Absolutely, of course.
JU: But what’s really real though, what’s really spiritual? Oh God, I don’t know.
CG: Yeah, sorry to hit you with this one last.
JU: No, this is good. Well I was just thinking this morning about how does one live right or live truthfully, honestly, lovingly and caring. How do you care for others? I want to know what real devotion is, but then that’s just a word, you know? I was reading recently in the Shrimad Bhagavatam, I don’t read spiritual books that much, I mostly read suspense novels (laughing), but I do occasionally read spiritual stuff. So, the Shrimad Bhagavatam was talking about the highest stage of Bhakti being clear, with open eyes, seeing and completely loving God in every molecule of creation and particularly, in every human being, and serving and loving God in every human being. These are words that are coming out of my mouth now, but I have no idea of what that actually would be like, but I’d like to know what it’s like.
I know that by loving and serving my family, it’s a little step towards that. I know that by remembering my Guru and remembering God, through mantra, singing and praying, I know it’s a little step towards that. I know that singing Kirtan, which usually I love but sometime’s can be a job that I don’t necessarily love, but through Kirtan, I know it’s a step towards that. The last thing is loving people. I don’t exactly know how too. I can be kind and caring to people, that comes naturally, and that’s a little step. What does it all adds up to? Well when I get there I’ll tell you, but right now, I don’t know.
I want to live right and that means learning how to be kind to myself. I was tormenting myself last night with the insomnia and anyone who has insomnia knows that it often leads to anxiety and getting mad at ourselves, which makes it worse. And it’s not just insomnia, in many instances in life. But how do I learn to be kind to myself? Sometimes you can be with a group of people and feel so much love for them while you’re looking around and then you get to yourself and you go, “Ugh.”
CG: That’s the story of much of my life, Jai.
JU: Right, you like to skip over yourself real fast and go to the next person and that goes back to the ego question. It’s a negative ego but only calling it ego doesn’t help. I need to remember that I’m a human being too, so why can’t I love me (laughing)? Last night, I did something, it was only the second time I did it and it’s very silly, but it triggered something for me when I did it the first time last week. I was thanking all the performers who played with me and after I thanked all of them, I looked down and said, “Thank you Jai.” So I’m trying to be nice to me too. It’s kind of childish, but it’s work that needs to be done.
CG: That doesn’t sound childish at all to me. Sounds like important work, but I totally get where you’re coming from for sure. Well, I can’t thank you enough for your time Jai. It’s a pleasure getting to chat with you again.
JU: Yes, thank you Chris. I really enjoyed these questions.
CG: Cool, thanks. Safe travels my friend.
JU: And you as well.