Hence we have to give ourselves a chance to experience attentive and prayerful chanting. Only then may we understand the difference.
Most likely we will not be able to transform 16 rounds of inattentive chanting into 16 rounds of deep and prayerful chanting overnight. It will be a gradual process. We have to systematically work our way out of the swamp of indifference. This swamp can easily pull us down - so much so that we may lose taste and attraction altogether, and even give up the practice of chanting entirely. To guard against this all too common occurrence, we have to establish new and uplifting chanting habits.
An effective way to start the process is by taking a certain amount of rounds every day - preferably the same number such as four rounds, or six or eight - and these rounds we chant with full care and attention while mindfully turning to Krishna and appealing to Him in helplessness. The remainder of our rounds we may continue chanting as we have done for so many years.
This practice will give us a direct experience of the difference: We will feel how the attentive rounds offer so much more satisfaction to our hearts. And proportionally we will become disgusted with those inattentive rounds, which are indeed like empty medicine capsules.
As a natural consequence we will receive a taste for deep and prayerful chanting and will want to move progressively more rounds into the 'attentive category', while gradually reducing the number of rounds in the inattentive one. It will develop very naturally as our experience deepens. And whenever we face a day with many inattentively chanted rounds, we will regard it as a lost and useless day. We will firmly resolve to make the best arrangements for the next day, so we can again chant attentively.
In this way, we gradually receive a higher taste and experience, which will help us to establish good chanting habits.
* Best to chant early in the morning, before the mind gets too active.
* If for whatever reason we cannot chant early in the morning, the next best practice is to reserve a specific time of the day to regularly chant. This may be a very individual matter, adjusted to our responsibilities and duties. We set our own time schedule for chanting, and this reserved time should only be for our japa and nothing else. It is our time with Krishna.
* To chant in the association of serious devotees gives strength. Therefore, Srila Prabhupada has established the japa time after mangal-arati in every ISKCON temple around the world. We may also chant in our home with our family members or friends. To chant in the presence of Tulasi Devi is also empowering. These days, devotees sometimes establish a chanting group over WhatsApp or other social networks, which can also offer support. Naturally, the personal association of devotees is always more powerful and can never be fully replaced via the Internet.
* We give attention to the maha-mantra through our ears while pronouncing the syllables clearly and distinctly. As a rule, we like to give attention to things through our eyes, but our mantra meditation requires the attention of our sense of hearing. We may close our eyes while chanting, which will help to bring our attention to the sense of hearing. The eyes offer a shallow sense perception and are the foremost sense that instantly distracts us.
However, looking at a picture of our favourite Deities may help us to cultivate a prayerful mood of longing and reinforce our conviction that Krishna is really there. Yet, we should not look at pictures in the mood of trying to pass the boring japa time by looking at so many pictures to distract ourselves.
* Our previous acharyas had a bhajan kutir - a personal 'hiding place' where they performed their bhajan, their personal spiritual practice. As a rule, it was a dark and small cave-like building to withdraw from the outside world and engage in their meditation. No big windows for a beautiful view, which would only be distracting!
Likewise, we can establish a hidden corner in our personal environment, which will protect us from any distractions and external influences - a place where nobody and nothing can disturb us. Of course, a good place is the temple room, either in the nearest temple or in our home. The presence of Srila Prabhupada additionally creates a spiritual atmosphere, which helps us to focus on the holy name.
Moreover, we may ask ourselves the following two questions which will help us keep track of our chanting habits:
* At which time of the day did we chant our 16th round? Was it at 11 am or 11 pm? Naturally, whatever is important to us, we will not leave to the late evening.
* How many rounds did we chant without any interruption? Did we chant 10 or 12 rounds in one go, or did we chant one round here, one round there? Naturally, if we chant many rounds in one stretch without interruption, we have a better chance to be focused.
However, observing these two aspects is no guarantee that our rounds are of good quality. But they will give us some indication of our attitude towards the holy name.
In his book Srila Prabhupada Uvaca, Srutakirti dasa shares the following:
It was easy to understand that Srila Prabhupada enjoyed chanting japa. He always stressed the importance of chanting our 16 rounds. He once told me that as a householder, he used a simple process for completing 16 rounds that we could apply:
"When I was a householder," he said, "I would chant four rounds before each meal and four rounds before retiring in the evening. In this way 16 rounds could be chanted without difficulty." He laughed and said, "If you don't take prasadam before chanting your four rounds then you will be sure to get them chanted."
In New Dwaraka he told me, "In the evening, if I get tired, I walk and chant. If you are tired, then walk and chant like I do. Sometimes, if I am tired, I pace back and forth in the room. Simply, in one room you can do everything. If you are tired, you can stand up and chant, like I do."
It was common to see Srila Prabhupada walk in his quarters or sit in his rocking chair while he chanted rounds. In the evening he sometimes chanted rounds while I massaged him in bed.
"There, I'm finished," he would say.
One day I was in his sitting room in New Dwaraka cleaning around his desk. He was sitting behind his desk chanting japa. As he pulled down a counter bead he looked at me with a beautiful smile and said humorously, "There, I have finished my 16 rounds. Now I can do any damn thing I want."
Your servant, Devaki dd