The much anticipated debut album by Lee Mirabai Harrington launches on Friday, Feburary 5! Beyond the Beyond: A Mantra Music Experience” delivers high-spirited & ultimately transcendent renditions of ancient Sikh, Hindu & Tibetan Buddhist mantras in styles ranging from gospel to rock, traditional, disco & beyond. Known for her rich and powerful voice, Lee sings with devotion, dharma and love, bringing you into a space of devotion and joy!
We wanted to get to know a little bit more about Lee and the making of “Beyond The Beyond” – she took some time out of her travels in India to answer some questions for us! The more we learn about Lee, the more we love her!
Get To Know Lee Mirabai Harrington
Q. Tell us a little bit about you – what are your passions in life?
A. At this point in my life, spirituality is my biggest passion. And being of benefit to all sentient beings. I’m trying to really embody my Bodhisattva vows on a daily—an hourly—basis. Helping animals is a big passion for me—especially dogs, because I just love dogs so much and think that everyone can benefit from canine companionship. One of my favorite sevas is to chant mantras for animals at my local shelter. I do energy work with the dogs, too—a beautiful modality called called Pranic Healing. We have a totally hip shelter full of conscious people, so there are quite a few energy workers on staff. I’d love to see sound healing and energy medicine become part of daily life at every animal shelter in this country—it’s an inexpensive and simple way to maintain a vibration of calm and healing in such high-stress environments. So if anyone reading this is a healer, please consider offering your services to your local animal shelter. This can even be done remotely. This past summer, my shelter in upstate New York was under extreme stress because we took in hundreds of animals (dogs, cats, birds, horses, goats) from three separate cruelty/hoarding cases. Everyone was overwhelmed—the staff was stressed, the dogs (the most vocal of the lot) were freaking out. I did what I could with my mantras and healing modalities, but I am a humble beginner and the energy felt too dense. So I contacted a few groups of healers and animal Reiki practitioners on various Facebook pages, sent them pictures of the animals at my shelter, and asked them to send reiki and light. The effect was incredible. The next time I went to the shelter I felt a shift. This is why we should include all sentient beings in our daily prayers. It does make a difference.
Anyway, to continue the dogs-are-my-passion theme, I also write about dogs for a magazine called Bark and published a book with Random House about rescuing an abused dog called Rex and the City. My other passions are yoga, reading, hiking, Mother Earth, Mother Ocean, the sun, the sky, and the moon. I’m an Aquarius, so part of me is always out in the ethers. And finally, I am still technically a literary editor and an author, even though I’ve been focused mostly on music for the past three years. I look forward to getting back into my 90% finished novel so I can bring that forth into the world. During the past three years I’ve been calling the eight tracks on “Beyond the Beyond” my “song children” and I am happy and proud to have delivered these beautiful Aquarian octuplets. Now my novel child needs my attention again. May all beings benefit.
Q. What do you hope to accomplish in your life?
A. On a practical level: I’d also like to bring forth two or three more albums and two or three more books. They are all in progress to a certain extent—my job is to clear away any internal obstructions that are preventing those creative works from coming forth. On a spiritual level (note that I list “practical” first—egads!), my goal is to be of benefit to all sentient beings every second of every day. I love what my Buddhist teacher always says: “The focus is on practice, not perfection.” As I write this, there is another voice inside me shouting, “Your goal should be enlightenment in this lifetime!” but at this particular moment in time (I am writing this from an ashram) I can’t wrap my mind around that. Let’s just say that enlightenment is on the List of Things To Do.
Lee’s Creative Process
Q. Can you give us a sneak peak into your creative process?
A. I rely almost completely on my intuition during the musical creative process. In a way I had to rely on intuition for this project, because I don’t have much formal musical training. I think I prefer it that way—it’s very fun and liberating not to have to think through the creative process so much and to just allow yourself to receive the music and usher it through. I love that music is so immediate and fluid and, well, aural. For most of my creative life I have been a writer, and am in a constant internal dance with my Inner Writer and Inner Editor (also known, in its less enlightened moments, as the Inner Critic. So I’ve become quite familiar with which part of my brain is “on duty’ during the creative writing process. I look forward to doing another album so that I can continue to learn more about my creative process as a musician. As a writer I know what times of day I write best, and I know how to bring myself into the best state of mind for writing (thanks to Kundalini yoga!). I don’t necessarily know yet when my “best” musical times are. Maybe it’s during the Amrit Vela hours, because a lot of my best musical material has come to me in dreams or semi-trance states. Anyway, my creative process for the album this time around was that I would work with a particular mantra for a long time (months or years) and then at some point—without any effort on my part—a melody would arise spontaneously. That was always a delight and a surprise. They felt like gifts from the gandharvas. If I happened to be awake and near my iPhone I would sing that melody into my voice memo program. Then I’d drag that file into Garageband and spend some time singing the melody until harmonies emerged, as well as various song “sections” or parts. I don’t know what musical terms one would use for those parts, especially in mantra music. Verses? Choruses? For the demos I would sing all the vocals parts—all the way from bass to soprano—until I had built up pretty big response sections. When the songs got to the point where they seemed to have a structure, and clear vocal parts, and full response choruses, I would send the files to my producers. Both of those wonderful producers were immensely helpful in creating all the instrumental parts that support the vocals. I can’t express how grateful I am for their input and expertise. On my end, I tried to remain true to what I “heard” in my head when the songs first came through. The track “Govinda Hare,” for example, came to me almost fully formed just two days after my friend the teacher Shyamdas left his body. The melody is traditional, with some sweet vocal embellishments, and I felt that it was meant to be recorded as a tribute to Shyamdas. As the song played in my dreams, I very clearly heard a toy piano, a harmonica, and a big celestial gospel choir. Those three elements, from a logical musical standpoint, are quite disparate, and that song actually gave my mind the most challenges in terms of the creative process. (I also drove my producers crazy with this particular song.). I questioned the harmonica. I questioned the toy piano (which we presented in the form of John McDowell’s beautiful Rhodes). I even questioned the vocals. Honestly, I almost pulled it from the album because even after two years of working on it, it still, in my mind, wasn’t “working.” But then I got a very clear message in a dream from Shyamdas, in which he said: “Don’t sing this song for me, sing it for Govinda.” He was absolutely right. After that, the energy shifted and I was able to get back into the correct heart space—the bhakti, the bhav—to deliver the song. I also stopped asking questions…which is what happens when you operate from the heart.
Q. Can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind this album, and why you chose the mantras?
A. In terms of my inspiration, it was actually one of my gurus who first guided me to make this album. I had been chanting as a personal practice—and singing response vocals for other bhaktas—for many years, but I didn’t necessarily “plan” on recording an album myself at some set point in time. I honestly didn’t have the confidence—or the experience—to undertake such a thing (even though—and this is going to sound like a contradiction—it had always been a dream of mine to be a musician, to be a singer). But once a master sets things in motion for you, well, it’s best to follow along and allow yourself to be guided.
My other inspiration for making this album is the sheer fact that the world seems to need mantra music very much right now. I believe, like many of us, that chanting mantras or listening to mantras helps raise the vibration of this planet. I also believe that—as one who has taken Bodhisattva vows—my duty is to help raise the vibrations of this planet and of all sentient beings. So my motivation in making this album, in offering this offering, is quite simply to try to benefit other beings. Perhaps my music will encourage others to chant more. To cultivate more devotion in their lives. More compassion. To study the naad themselves. Who knows?
Another inspiration with me (and there always seem to be three: body/mind/spirit) is that I wanted to bring forth more Buddhist mantras into the kirtan lexicon and—at the risk of sounding irreverent—I wanted Buddhist practitioners to have an opportunity to really rock their mantras (I hope my Rinpoche is laughing as he reads this!). In a typical Tibetan Buddhist puja—long ceremonies within which mantras are recited—we’re not singing call-and-response fashion with electric guitars and tambourines; no, we chant quietly, in contained traditional melodies or in monotone. And it’s a wonderful experience, believe me. “Wonderful” is a mundane understatement. But, as I have said many times, singing those same mantras to at the top of your lungs with contemporary melodies, Western instrumentation and a gospel choir is something else altogether.
And for the record, I did seek permission from Rinpoche to record these new melodies before undertaking this massive project. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t doing anything that strayed too far from my lineage or my commitments. We are all so fortunate that this album carries his blessing—the blessings of a realized being!
As to why I chose these particular mantras—three Buddhist, four Hindu, one Sikh—for this album, I had a number of reasons. First and foremost, I have a personal commitment that I will only lead or record mantras/chants that I have a direct experience with and have worked with—and/or or received transmissions for—for a very long time. I think it’s important to have a long-term “personal experience” with a mantra as well as a spiritual experience, if that makes sense, in order to truly embody it and have them embody you. So you could say the mantras on this track are my personal mantras. I have many more personal mantras I could have recorded, because I’ve been on this mantrayana path for a long time, but the other consideration for this album was time length. I tend to carry the mantras for a long time. At live kirtans they are typically around 22 minutes long. So I literally could only fit eight mantras on this album.
And finally, the third reason I chose these particular mantras for this particular project is that these are the ones that came through. In my liner notes I have little stories about how each chant and melody came through. I like to think that these are the mantras my gurus wanted me to offer this time around.
Does the album have a theme, and or/do the myriad chants add up to a collective whole? I’m not sure. Musically this album is all over the place, as I am combining different musical styles, genres and tones. Again, that’s just how they came out. The Nataraj mantra, now incorporated into the track “Shiva Shakti,” came forth as a disco song. That surprised me, but I honored its incarnation, even though the preceding track (“Gate Gate Paragate….”) came through as a gospel song. In the future I will probably start to think about things like overall themes and cohesiveness in terms of selecting tracks (which will make my producers happy) but I enjoyed the process of following the divine guidance this time around and not asking too many questions. In that sense, the theme of this album is that “the paths are many; the truth is One.” Wahe Guru.
Q. This is your first album – can you tell us about how it came to be? Do you have any special stories from the making of this album you would like to share?
A. I love this question because when you’re making your first album, every moment is special, because every moment is new and exciting and full of surprises. I constantly had what the Zen Buddhists call “beginner’s mind.” In the middle of a vocals recording session I’d often have to pause the session in order to exclaim: “Look! I’m in a recording booth! I’m singing into a top of the line, professional microphone. This is so cool!” This is total ego stuff, of course, and I’d quickly do the preliminaries necessary to clear that out of the way, but I was like a tourist wandering through my own dream life, My awe and gratitude for the experience were very much often right on the surface. I got teary-eyed (tears of joy) a lot.
Recording the response vocals for “Gate Gate Paragate…” remains one of the most beautiful experiences I had throughout the epic journey of producing this album. We were at a tiny study in New York City and our “gospel” chorus—some of whom I met for the first time that day—consisted of lovers of Christ, Krishna, Amma, Buddha, and Shiva. So one could say that our paths differed. But when we sang the Prajnaparamita mantra together over and over again, all of our faces began to shine with the same light of Oneness. And perfect wisdom. And love.
Another moment I’d love to share comes from the day Anthony Molina and I brought Lama Karma Drodhul and Lama Karma Thendup into the studio to record their parts for “Om Mani,” “Om Tare,” and “Gate Gate.” Both have beautiful voices, and both are teachers at Karma Triyana Dharmachakra Monastery, which is the monastery and dharma center where I practice in Woodstock, NY. If you’ve every spent time with Buddhist monks, you’ll know they tend to laugh and giggle a lot, so it was a completely joy-filled day from start to finish. But I’ll never forget when Lama Thendup was recording his solo for “Om Mani.” Anthony and I were so transfixed time seemed to stop. I remember we were sitting on the floor of the control room, both of us in lotus, listening, with tears in our eyes. What we were hearing was sheer, unencumbered purity—a mantra in its purist form. Lama Karma had entered into monastery when he was around eleven years old, I think. This means he has been practicing—and chanting this mantra—for a long, long time. I don’t know what goes on inside his—or anyone else’s—mind, but I can only assume that the mind of a monastic practitioner is simply not as cluttered, as confused, or even as poisoned as the mind of a “layperson” such as myself. I’ve lived a very confused life. Many, many negative thoughts have passed through my mind. I’m not saying this with any judgment. It’s just part of my past makeup. Anyway, people talk about so-and-so having a pure voice, but this was one of the rare instances where I heard a truly pure voice, meaning a purified voice—a voice that came from an unencumbered human, someone who had freed his mind. Hearing his “Om Mani” changed the way I sing; it changed the way I want to sing, and it changed the way I practice. Maybe people who study music already know this, but for me this was the first time I realized that when we listen to a singer, we hear not only the voice—we hear the spirit, the soul, behind the voice. An astute listener can even hear the divine ones moving through the singer, and can feel the way that divine communication moves straight into their own soul. I also realized—or rather, reconfirmed—something we mantra practitioners already know, which is that chanting these mantras can transform your entire being. They can heal you, cure you, lift you, transport you and transport others. I used to skip a day of practice now and then, but after hearing Lama Thendup, my commitment to dharma practice has deepened further. They say that even hearing “Om Mani Peme Hum” once can change your life and liberate you from suffering. Making this album really helped me realize how important it is to keep purifying ourselves so that we can better benefit others.
Mainly I’d like fans to know that we worked very hard to keep the entire album-making process conscious and sacred. It was vastly important that, if I was going to release a set of songs into the stream of mantra music, the vibrations be as high and as healing as possible. I didn’t have any precedence or guidance as to how to do this, so at the very first recording session down in Maryland I asked Gaura Vani to sing an invocation from his tradition. Then I added an invocation from my tradition and invited the other musicians to do so as well. So that became the precedent. Anyone who contributed to the album was invited (okay, encouraged) to invoke his/her own guru and/or recite that song’s mantra at least seven times before recording. Soon, wherever I recorded, the vocals booths and control rooms were full of pictures of deities and crystals and flowers and incense. We were a traveling shrine room.
With the Buddhist mantras I always did the full pujas before recording sessions, in order to heighten their potency and, of course, to prepare me as the “vessel” to allow the mantra and their energies to flow through unencumbered.
And finally, we always dedicated the merit. After every recording session, every editing session, every graphic design meeting; indeed, any time I pressed the “send” button, we offered up the aspiration that all beings might benefit from our efforts, that all beings experience healing and liberation upon hearing or singing along with our music.
I don’t take the attitude that this music belongs to me or is mine or even that the original melodies—which came to me fully formed—are mine. They all came from the Divine and we are sending them back, slightly repackaged, into the Divine, into the Beyond. That’s why I gave the album the title “Beyond the Beyond.”
The other fun facts are that I gave a copy of an early-pressing of the Buddhist tracks to His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa himself when he came to the US in April 2015, and a copy of the full CD to Ammachi when I was at Her ashram in January 2016. I am not sure if His Holiness Karmapa has listened to it yet, but just the fact that he received the offering is enough. I see him as an emanation of Chenrezig, and Track 1 (“Chenrezig’s Jam) was written for him. As for Ammachi, she kissed the CD rapidly several times, beamed at me, and held it to her heart. Then she gave me a big hug. Track 7 (“Jai Ma”) was written for her and she was the root inspiration for this project. I am grateful for the Gurus’ guidance.
Q. Are there any special contributors you would like to tell us about?
A. I think every contributor to this album is special—and I define “contributor” as everyone from the producers to the designers to the interns who brought us our vegan pad-thais at lunch break at the studio in Amherst to the Angels of Sound Healing who helped make those singing bowls sound so nice. Even the sweet people at the manufacturing plant who applied the shrink wrap are “contributors” and I am grateful to them all. But if you look at my credits page, you’ll see about forty (yes, forty) amazing musicians on the list—I mean amazing. The incomparable CC White sings backup on two of my tracks. And the Tibetan singer Drukmo Gyal Dakini—who I am acquainted with through my study of Tibetan medical mantra and who sings the “21 Praises to Tara” on Track 3—is absolutely ethereal and stunning. I encourage everyone to get her CD “Purification Voice of Tibet.” Other featured vocalists include my friends Gaura Vani, Adam Bauer, Radharani, Irene Solea and—last but not least—Lamas Karma Thendup and Karma Drodhul. My instrumentalists include the superlative Steve Gorn, Hans Christian, Daniel Paul, John McDowell, Anthony Molina and Ben Leinbach, who plays four bass tracks on “Om Tare.” (I seem to have a thing for the bass guitar—five of the forty musicians who contribute are bass players.) Blessings to them all! I’m so touched at their generosity.
Another very special contributor had four legs: I included two faint dog barks on the album, to honor my sweet spaniel Chloe, who made her transition during the recording process in 2003. There might be some debate as to whether pet sounds belong on a sacred chant album, but I happen to think every sound is sacred, including dog barks. Plus, the last words Chloe heard while in her dog body were: Om Mani Peme Hum. She could very well be in the Pure Lands now. Beyond the beyond…
Lee Mirabai Harrington’s Kundalini Yoga Practice
Q. What do you love most about your kundalini yoga practice?
A. Oh, gosh, I love everything about it. I love the science, the precision, the Truth of it. I love the mantras, the mudras, the pranayamas. I love that the teachings haven’t been diluted by creative interpretations and they still carry the potent power of the Master. I love that KY provides solutions. I have been studying Hatha yoga since my late teens and was blessed to discover Kundalini yoga around 2004. I found it, as many people find it, during a great time of need. I was in the midst of a particularly crippling depression—probably the worst one of my life—but fortunately there was still a part of me that sought a way through, a way out. I had tried every medication in the book by that point, but none of them provided the “miracle cure.” I was basically just a walking Side Effect. Plus, I don’t like to take Western meds because, well, they’re Western meds that don’t treat the cause and because I don’t like to support companies that test on animals. I was caught in a net of my own mind. Anyway, the universe guided me to Kundalini Yoga East in New York City. As I write this, I can’t believe how blessed I was to have connected with such caring and amazing teachers. I was basically “prescribed” a series of meditations, kriyas and mantras to help with my particular kind of depression and eventually my system began to reorganize itself. Yes, it was a lot of work (and can we talk about the cold showers at 3:00am?) and yes it took time, but I honestly believe—and feel—that my brain has been rewired and that my physical, emotional and mental bodies have been restored to some semblance of balance, all through Kundalini yoga.
I am still far from perfect (and here I again hear my teacher say, “Practice, not perfection) but my KY practice has given me a starting point, a foundation, to return to if I ever feel myself veering off balance in any way. And no animal-tested toxic pills required. Open up my medicine cabinet these days and you’ll find a KY manual, an image of the Medicine Buddha, and a Tibetan medical mantra manual.
If I might, I’d like to add a thank you here to all the Kundalini Yoga teachers out there who continue to hold the space of these remarkable teachings. You’ve saved—and improved—many lives. May all beings benefit from your generosity.
Q. Any advice you can give to beginners?
A. I am speaking as a student here rather than as a teacher, but the best advice I can give comes from Yogi Bhajan himself: Keep up and you will be kept up. Establishing any sort of morning sadhana or daily practice—even if it’s just five minutes per day—will create an internal foundation to which you can always return during those moments of freak-out. Amma calls it the spiritual bank account—your daily practices, pujas, prayers, mantras, affirmations, and simple expressions of gratitude will accumulate merit in this account, and you can draw from it in times of need. My final bit of advice is: when in doubt, choose compassion.
In terms of establishing a mantra practice, people sometimes ask me after kirtans what mantras I think they should use, and my answer is always to find a teacher or a guru who can transmit a mantra to you. In the meantime, I suggest that one use one’s intuition when it comes to choosing a mantra to work with. Often what happens these days, with kirtan becoming so popular, is that a beginner will attend a kirtan, learn twelve mantras or so and find, a few days later, that one of those twelve mantras keeps looping around in his/her head. To me—and I am not an expert—that signifies that this is the mantra that person needs at this particular time. Another simple bit of advice I’ll give is: take advantage of all the amazing resources we have online these days. One can simply Google, say, “mantra for seasonal depression” (for all of you who are in the midst of that up in the Northeast) and come up with dozens of very worthy websites to steer you in the right direction. SpiritVoyage.com is one such site.
Q. You seem to honor a variety of traditions in your music, can you tell us about them and how they impact your life?
A. In this lifetime I have been blessed to discover and walk many paths. I’ve been a classic Seeker archetype in that regard. Sometimes (okay, often) we will hear teachers say that it is better to dig one deep well rather than several more shallow holes, but for now I am digging multiple wells and I love them all. I love the mind training of Tibetan Buddhism and its emphasis on compassion, compassion, compassion. I love the beautiful current of devotion that one rides on the Bhakti path, because I love to be in love, and right now I am in love with God. (And here the Buddhist in me is questioning my use of “I,” ha ha). My physical and emotional systems really thrive on Kundalini yoga and hatha yoga. For me personally, this combination is a good balance. Things might change in a few years as I enter further along my Buddhist path, but for now this is where I need to be and where/how I can be of most benefit to others. Those of us who lead kirtan very often find ourselves in the position of bringing mantra into peoples’ lives for the first time. To me this is a very sacred, important and even delicate role to be playing and I don’t take it lightly. As I said above, I only record chants that I’ve worked with for a long time and I’ll only lead chants that I’ve worked with for a long time. So in that sense, perhaps all these years of studying and practicing in different traditions have been preparing me to offer kirtan and mantra music. What I appreciate is that each of these traditions honors all traditions—there isn’t any conflict in terms of combining practices. I witnessed quite a few of my Sikh friends taking refuge vows this past year with my teacher His Holiness Karmapa. Another friend—a Krishna devotee—brought a group of Bhaktas on a tour of Buddhist temples last year in India. They were all chanting Om Mani Peme Hum as happily as they chant the Maha mantra. We really can all get along, because at the bases of all these traditions is love and compassion and light and truth and the Divine Oneness. That’s a beautiful place to meet. I look forward to meeting you all there!
Editor’s Note: We love the style and diversity of this album! “Beyond The Beyond: A Mantra Music Experience” is a beautiful addition to every yogi’s music library!