The names of Krishna are the repository of all happiness. They are the greatest wealth! If we chant properly, we will not experience material miseries (spiritual miseries like the feeling of intense separation from Krishna are another thing!). So the question arises as to how we can chant nicely, even if we are not yet pure devotees. How can we control the mind? How can we keep ourselves from thinking of a million and one things that we have to do or would like to do? Chanting properly takes practice, but we should approach the practice in a positive fashion. Instead of thinking: "Now I have to control my mind and not think of other things," we should be thinking: "Now I will concentrate on Krishna’s names which are non-different from Krishna. By concentrating on Krishna’s names, Krishna will give me all intelligence, and I will love Him more and more." In other words when we approach the holy names in a negative fashion (that is what we should not be doing) we often think more about what we should not be doing than what we should be doing. It is often said that "you can’t do a don’t"!
So, you may ask: "What is your method of chanting and hearing? How can you stay so focused on Krishna’s names?" There are basically two different situations where we are chanting; in kirtana and in Japa, and I approach both differently. As far as kirtan is concerned, it used to really bug me when the person chanting could not keep a tune, or was a bad singer, or was arrhythmic (couldn’t keep a beat). It seemed that I was surrounded by people with these particular talents! Even I was sent to countries where everyone had those talents! Then I realized that Krishna had arranged the situation, so I could fully appreciate His names. We know that there are two degrees of the stage of ruci (according to the Madhurya Kadambini). The first degree is when one has a real taste for kirtan when the person leading is expert in singing and the instruments are all in tune and played by experts. The second or higher stage is when one has a real taste for kirtan regardless of the expertise of the persons leading or accompanying the kirtan (as long as the name is being chanted by devotees who are following strictly).
In order to encourage devotees to come to the higher stage aSrila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura sometimes would have the worst singer lead kirtan! So, I realized that by the grace of my spiritual master Srila Prabhupada and my grandfather Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, I was being pushed to come to a higher level of appreciating the holy names. Finally I surrendered, and understood that actually the musical accompaniment was just the vehicle in which the holy names arrived, and that I should not be attached to the vehicle. I should be attached to the passenger (Krishna in the form of His names) in the vehicle. So with practice I was able to turn off (not hear) the musical accompaniment and only hear Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama Hare Hare!
Then every kirtan became extremely relishable. The holy names are amazing. You will never get enough of Them. You will pray for millions of tongues and millions of ears to chant and hear! My previous attachment to the vehicle was like someone who was attached to the dinner plate rather than on the prasadam that was on it. Imagine rejecting tasty prasadam because it was served on a cheap leaf plate rather than on a silver plate. It doesn’t make sense. So, when I am attending kirtan, I simply hear the Mahamantra and also think of the meaning of the Mahamantra: how I am begging Radha and Krishna to situate me at Their lotus feet, How I am begging Radha and Krishna for Their mercy, how I am begging Radha and Krishna to give me compassion, etc. Kirtan becomes an ecstatic prayer session now regardless of the musical accompaniment.