I’ve been wanting to blog about mantra meditation for a while as I believe it is valuable and greatly and widely misunderstood. I have been meditating on and off for maybe 35 years and I wish to pass on my experience (for what it’s worth).
There are many practices that fall under the banner of ‘meditation’ so this post is strictly regarding the use of a mantra, a sound or word. In recent years, meditation has become more widely practised and it is no longer seen as the oddity it once was: film director David Lynch and his team meditate on set morning and evening. But contemporary strident atheism tends to link it with religiosity and any potential benefits may then be eschewed owing to the general antipathy to all things ‘religious’.
Meditation does have a purpose, but if you think that purpose has anything to do with being a better person or in achieving some vague spiritual or divine goal I think you will be disappointed. One of the key statements that opened meditation for me was from a wise practitioner of Advaita Vedanta when he said that “meditation is like dipping the mind in gold because it works better afterwards.” I have often observed that upon starting meditation, without my specs, I can barely make out the time on my bedside clock whereas upon emerging from a 30 minute meditation it is crystal clear.
Neither is meditation a quick fix; it took me many years to discover how to meditate productively and overcome the desire to control the practice. This is because in learning to meditate there is an aspect of the forceful use of mind whereas the achievement of successful meditation requires complete relinquishment of mental control. In other words the mind has to learn not to interfere once having established the basic practice. This is not easy, it is yet just another of life’s many paradoxes or conundrums.
The word ‘mantra’ is a Sanskrit word made up of the root ‘man-’, which may be translated as ‘mind’ and the suffix ‘-tra’ which means ‘instrument’ or instrumentality. Thus literally mantra = ‘mind-tool’.
To more fully understand this it is useful to learn a little about the paradigm of mind embedded in the Veda (other paradigms exist). It is in five parts:
Ātman: one’s self, simply an inactive witness of the following:-
Manas: everyday thinking mind; uses language and gets things done
Buddhi: the discerning and creative aspect; seat of reason which works properly only in stillness and silence
Chitta: the emotional ground of being, the memory storehouse; gets things moving; motive force
Ahankāra: the ego or sense of personal or limited existence, the ‘will’.
None of these are separate entities; it is rather that they are aspects of the single mind, like the facets of a gemstone.
Problems inherent in this paradigm of mind:
1 If buddhi is underdeveloped ever chirpy manas will tend to take over; in serious imbalance the mind can become ‘manic’
2 If manas is uncontrolled it will assume the role of the mind’s controller, and instead of the self being in command of the mind the constant chatter from the manas invades all aspects of thinking and deleteriously affects the ability simply to attend
3 If buddhi is undeveloped the mind can be flooded by the emotion of chitta
4 If buddhi is undeveloped memory can become impaired
5 If buddhi is undeveloped the ego becomes the principle source of self-identification and the universal aspect of self or ātman is forgotten.
So, the principle function of meditation is to strengthen and clarify buddhi so that it may assume its proper function of the mind’s controller in place of the ever-helpful but over-chatty and intrusive manas. The word buddhi has the same root as the word Buddha, which means to ‘wake up’. This is what leads to the well-known Buddhist exchange:
Once a student asked the Buddha, “Are you the Messiah?”
“No” answered the Buddha.
“Then are you a healer?”
“No” the Buddha replied.
“Then are you a teacher?” the student persisted.
“No, I am not a teacher.”
“Then, what are you?” asked the exasperated student.
“I am awake.” the Buddha replied.
So how does it all work? It begins, like all action, with a desire of some sort. Necessarily meditation is not taken up if there is not some vague idea or belief that to do so will be personally beneficial. So a source is needed, like, for example, The School of Meditation in London. Most mantras are traditional, and are said to be ‘special’ words having greater spirituality than ordinary words. However, it is quite possible to try meditation with an ordinary word like ‘love’, for example.
When the mantra is transmitted it is usually in a quiet and comfortable environment where the recipient may relax without intrusive noise or other sensory pollution. The ‘ceremony’ or ‘initiation’ may involve a recitation from whatever tradition the mantra belongs and may be accompanied by a gift of flowers and money. The mantra is spoken by the initiator and repeated by the initiate and then with words of advice on how to use the mantra the new initiate will be given an opportunity to practise for a little while and any immediate questions will be answered.
Upon leaving the room the new meditator will be given a further opportunity to practise without any further advice and after 10-15 minutes the practise will be checked and that’s it. If the meditation is to become established regular meditation checks or tutorials are offered to the initiate with increasing time intervals between each; the principle aim of these tutorials is to deal with any issues that may arise with the practice and provide assistance where necessary.
The basic advice is to pause deeply before beginning meditation, to allow any mental and physical tensions to be let go of or be surrendered and then with a still body and quiet mind, the eyes are closed and the mantra is repeated with a steady rhythm silently in the mind. This is known as ‘japa’ – repetition – and it is the prelude to meditation: once the mantra is ‘heard’ clearly and it is repeating regularly the direction is to let the mantra ‘go’. This doesn’t mean ‘anything goes’ mentally speaking, but to keep the mantra in mind but to relinquish any control over the practice.
The mantra may slow down, or sped up; it may become faint or louder, it may even disappear from ‘view’ but whatever happens in detail the aim is to keep the mantra in mind in some way. This is sometimes called the ‘thread’ of meditation. Meditation is also meant as a form of wakeful rest. It is an opportunity to ‘chill’ to let all concerns of the moment go and give way to the stillness and quietness of meditation.
Sometimes the mind is in such an agitated state that meditation is not possible. Here it may be best just to sit as quietly as possible and allow the agitation to gently subside; either that or to attend directly to the cause of the agitation, whatever it may be, and whichever seems most practicable.
Experienced meditators will affirm that each practise of meditation is unique, like leaves on a tree or snowflakes no two practises of mantra meditation are identical. In this sense meditation is always fresh, interesting and creative as it can never be known before-hand how any particular practise will proceed. Clearly, the background state of the mind will affect the experience and over time the strengthened ‘buddhi’ will gently exert more influence and the power to attend to the practice will increase. This may take years, although some initiates take to meditation like a duck to water and rarely find any difficulties.
A meditating friend once gave me a copy of the advice given by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (of Beatles fame) on meditation and I found it personally so helpful that I repeat it in full here:
“In this meditation we do not concentrate, we do not try to think the mantra clearly.
Mental repetition is not a clear pronunciation; it is just a faint idea.
We don’t try to make a rhythm of the mantra.
We don’t try to control thoughts.
We do not wish that thoughts should not come.
If a thought comes, we do not try to push it out.
We don’t feel sorry about it.
When a thought comes, the mind is completely absorbed in the thought.
When we become aware that we are not thinking the mantra, then we gently come back to the mantra.
Very easily we think the mantra and if at any moment we feel that we are forgetting it, we should not try to persist in repeating it or try to keep on remembering it.
Only very easily we start, and take it as it comes, and do not hold the mantra if it tends to slip away.”
“There is no need to try to stop thinking, because thoughts are a part of meditation.
Even if the mind is filled with other thoughts, while the mantra is going on, there is no conflict.
Our concern is with the mantra, and if other thoughts are there along with it we do not mind them, and we don’t try to remove them.
We are not concerned with them.
We innocently favour the mantra.”
Traditionally, the practice of meditation goes through phases; ‘japa’ or repetition has already been mentioned. In ‘letting-go’ of japa the next phase is called ‘dharma’. It is difficult to provide a single concise definition for dharma, as the word has a long and varied history and straddles a complex set of meanings and interpretations. As well as referring to Law in the universal or abstract sense, dharma designates those behaviours considered necessary for the maintenance of the natural order of things. In experience the sense of ‘dharma’ in meditation is that the practice itself has taken over; personal volition has been fully surrendered and the meditation ‘deepens’. This is often accompanied by a sense of disconnection with the body, it is as if the body has become set in stone and the whole consciousness or awareness is absorbed in the practice.
The final stage of meditation is ‘yoga’ or unity. This has been stated as that point where the mantra, the meditation and the meditator become ‘one’. In this stage, which is not guaranteed, it is as if space and time itself has come to rest. It is completely desireless and utterly still; even the awareness of one’s surroundings can seem to be absent. On one memorable occasion I was meditating with a small group of people and I experienced this timeless depth of ‘yoga’ and after the half hour of practice, which seemed like mere wakeful moments to me, the leader of the group asked ‘How was that?’ I was in such a still state that I had no desire even to speak but as the other members of the group spoke they all complained of intrusive noise, especially the sound of jet airplanes coming in to land at Heathrow Airport. So deep had been my experience that I hadn’t consciously heard any planes!
It is experiences like this that keep the practice alive. I have experienced this form of ‘yoga’ many times and for the rest? Well, practice, they say, makes perfect. I will give one more example of the power of meditation: last week, sitting with a group of a dozen or so second-year students of ‘practical philosophy’ we had an experiment of listening to some music: the slow movement from Mozart’s 23rd piano concerto http://youtu.be/mf711o8jAQA in A Major. It lasts only six minutes, and after the experiment the group was asked to speak of their experience: everybody spoke about the wandering mind and the intrusive thoughts that had happened, with barely any of the music having been heard. For my part, I heard every note, every nuance and every space between the notes and at the end was completely still and fully refreshed.
This power to attend is but one of the principle benefits of meditation, in my experience the mind undoubtedly works better afterwards. So if you love reason, or value a mind able to operate optimally you may be interested in meditation. If you do take it up, give it time, lots of time; nothing of real value comes easily or instantly, it is necessary to do the work, and if you do I firmly believe you will begin to find the natural peace of the mind which seems to be available to so few people.