In Naomi Levy’s beautiful new book, Einstein and the Rabbi, she shares the Hasidic teaching, “There are ten levels of prayer, and above them is Song.”
This past weekend, I spent a lot of time singing. I went to a couple of religious worship services and sang and sang… and then sang some more.
Now let me tell you, I was not in a good mood when I showed up, but I left feeling so much better. I was a little shocked, because there was no problem solving or unpacking of the issues, no talking about them. There was just song.
I was reminded of the primacy of song, and why every spiritual tradition involves singing in some way.
In the Jewish tradition, there is a word, nigun (pronounced nee-gune), which refers to songs without complicated lyrics or a set tune, but rather with very simple sounds in repetition. It’s a term for what so many of us often do naturally – make up a song of “da-da-dahs” or “la-la-la’s”. Or we might pick a simple phrase – “I love you” or “it’s okay” – and sing it in repetition, varying the tune organically.
When it comes to singing for spiritual and emotional reasons, niguns work particularly magically. We aren’t worrying about what words come next or how to sing the song right. We get out of the thinking, language-based place in our heads into something much more intuitive. And the repetition of the sound offers a kind of container to go deeper and deeper into the intoxication that comes with singing our hearts out. We go into that special place that chanting takes us to.
There’s so much emphasis on “getting still” in spiritual circles these days, on being in silence, on “quieting the mind,” that we may have ended up mistakenly associating spirituality with quiet. And our spiritual practice may entail something very hushed – silent prayer, meditation, yoga.
But of course, spirituality is not just about finding quiet in a noisy world. It is about finding the sacred in the mundane. It is about re-contacting our aliveness after experiences that have deadened us. It is about crying out to something larger than ourselves. Song allows us to do all of this.
And spirituality aside, singing is also – a host of studies show – one of things we can most reliably do to change our mood, to simply feel better.
How can you bring more singing into your life? Perhaps through spiritual music you sing along in a house of worship. Perhaps singing along to a favorite artist in your kitchen as you pack lunches or scrub dishes. Perhaps adding chanting to your yoga or meditation practice. Perhaps singing again in the shower or the car if you’ve gotten out of the habit.
So just a simple reminder today to sing – it is potent medicine.