Holistic Healing: Harnessing the Power of Music Therapy

By Justin Greene, Program Coordinator, Adventure-Based Counseling

At Mountainside, we believe in helping our clients heal mind, body, spirit. To that end, we combine traditional therapies with evidence-based, holistic treatments. In this new “Holistic Healing” column, we will highlight the many effective alternative modalities we use to care for our clients.

We all know what it is like to have a movie soundtrack bring us to tears, for a song to pop up on the radio and remind us of a particular memory, or to attend a concert and feel the joy of singing along to a crowd favorite with hundreds of strangers. The power of music is universal, and music therapy harnesses this power in a more intentional, controlled way.

At Mountainside, we utilize a very specific form of music therapy that has become a curriculum staple during recent Wellness Days: the practice of kirtan.

Kirtan, in its simplest form, is a type of meditation, in which a phrase or mantra, often in Sanskrit, is sung in a repetitive, call-and-response format. This practice began in India centuries ago as a devotional spiritual practice, but like yoga and Buddhist meditation, it has found a place in our modern culture that is much more accessible and nondenominational. A client recently described kirtan as “a hootenanny with meditation.”

Kirtan is traditionally set up with one person leading the chant, often accompanied by several musicians, and the “audience” is less of an audience and more a group of participants. Kirtan is meant to be fully experiential. No musical experience is needed in order to join voices and sing from the heart.

There is a joy to be found in creating music — and kirtan specifically — that has yet to be duplicated. To quote the musician Ragani, “Kirtan is a means of finding our way back to the core of our Being, to our heart, and to our connection with each other.” This last piece, our connection to each other, is why kirtan holds such therapeutic value here at Mountainside.

Thanks to Johann Hari, the author of Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, “connection” has been getting much more press as the true “opposite of addiction.” When we sing together, several things happen at once that help encourage this. First, we are sharing breath, sharing voice. There is a reason why every spiritual tradition has some form of singing and why the words for “breath” and “spirit” in Hebrew come from the same root. Second, and more importantly, singing in a group is a practice in vulnerability. It gives us an opportunity to drop self-judgment – and the projected judgment of others – and simply sing.

Now, kirtan takes this therapeutic piece one step further by adding in the meditative, call-and-response element. Repetition of mantra, either silently to oneself, spoken out loud, or singing, helps quiet the mind almost by accident. In the silence that follows each chant, we find that the mind is typically silent as well. And in that silence, when the mind is present, life feels simple. We are not feeding anxiety, or guessing the future, or attempting to change the things we cannot change. We feel genuinely at peace with how things are right now. And after years of feeling like prisoners of a disease, clients remember there is freedom to be found in sobriety, that joy is accessible, and that we are all truly deserving of experiencing this joy.