[dc]T[/dc]oday, I want to share with you an entirely new way for you to meditate. This short series has, so far, focused on different ways to use your breath as a focal point for attention, and it’s time to expand that and bring some new techniques into the picture. Today, I will introduce you to the practice of using a mantra in your daily meditations.
The core idea of most types of meditation is that we focus the attention on something and “simply” wait for extraneous thoughts to die down. This happens naturally over time, but the quotes around the word “simply” are badly needed, as most people find this process to be very challenging. Perhaps the single most important point, especially for beginning meditators, is that you must expect these thoughts to intrude on your practice. You will lose the thread of your meditation and you will have to return the mind to your object of focus, firmly, but gently and with love and patience for yourself. If you do otherwise, if you are frustrated by the times your mind wanders or if you see these events as a sign of failure, your experience meditation will probably be a short one. Having said that, the previous posts in this series have used your natural process of breathing as a point of focus; this is convenient because, as long as you are alive, the breath is there. Today, we will move the focus to sound, or, rather, to the sound of a sound.
Mantra (a specific type of matra practice is called “japa” in Sanskrit, so you may also see this word used sometimes) is the process of repeating a sound, either aloud or “in your head” and focusing all of your attention on that sound. This brings up another important point: meditation is not religious and you can meditate regardless of your religious tradition (or of your aversion to religion). I’ll write more on this topic in the future, but, for now, one thing to consider is that many of the world’s religions have used prayers or pieces of scripture as mantras. Hinduism and Buddhism have many obvious examples, but so does Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and every other major religion. This can create some tension for some meditators if they feel they are being asked to repeat what is essentially a prayer to some foreign deity (or, in the case of agnostic or atheist meditators, and deity at all), but this is not at all necessary. You can explore and find something from your own tradition, but the mantra is really about the sound of the sound, more than the meaning behind words.
I was a bit of a weird kid, but I used to do something like this when I was much younger. (I suspect some of my readers did too.) I used to pick a word and just say it over and over in my mind for what seemed like a very long time. (However, I had an even shorter attention span as a kid, and I’m sure I did not spend very long doing this!) At some point, something very interesting would happen. First, the word would lose all meaning and would just become an interesting combination of sounds and feelings that I could imagine my body making if I were to say the sound aloud, but I was usually only repeating the word in my head. After doing this a while, I would then start to feel really glowingly, happy, and, a few times, something very extraordinary happened—I would have an experience of floating and would seem to remember hearing my mother’s voice, but as if I was hearing it through water or under water. I was too young to speculate on what that experience actually was, and, obviously, I don’t truly know today, but I clearly remember this happening several times. As in all things, your mileage may vary, but I think this is a simply example of the power of repeated mind to do something to consciousness.
The choice of mantra (mantra means both the specific sound and the practice of meditation using that sound) is either absolutely critical, or does not matter at all, depending on who you talk to. If you read material on meditation, be prepared for much conflicting information. My guess is that, perhaps more than many other fields, the information does not conflict as much as we’d think at first glance, but, rather, represents different perspectives, different practices, or different emphases. For this week, I would encourage you to pick a mantra, pick a sound, any sound, and spend one of your two meditation sessions a day using the mantra. As for the choice of the specific mantra, here are a few ideas: “Om” is a classic and simple mantra, and you could do far worse than starting here. This link has a list of the mantras used in TM, which is a topic for another day, and you can select your appropriate mantra from this list. You may also simply pick a random word that ends in a “resonate sound” like –ing, -am, –ah, etc. For this week, I’d encourage you not to spend too much time fussing with the detail of what sound to use; simply pick a sound, and begin to use it in your practice.
How do you mantra? First, you sit in your chosen meditation posture, take a few (2-3) deep breaths where the exhalation is long and slow, imagining that all tension and worry leave your body with each exhalation, and the inhalation is relatively faster, deep down into your belly. Always begin each session like this, with these calming breaths, and then move into your practice of mantra, which can be done one of two ways. You simply begin repeating the mantra over and over, either aloud (full voice or very quietly), or completely silently, only in your head. Whichever way you do it, the key is that you focus your attention on the sound of the sound, and you may find it’s easier to go deeper quicker if you do this silently. Do this for fifteen minutes again this week, perhaps stretching to twenty minutes if you can do so without strain and stress. Just like with the focus on breathing, expect distractions, and simply gently bring your focus back to the sound. Do not worry about other questions at this point. Just sit and listen to the mantra as you repeat it. How fast? Relaxed or driving and rhythmic? Loud or soft? What if ___ happens? The answer to these questions, and any others you might have, is to simply sit and listen to the mantra as you repeat it.
One last thought: now you have two different techniques for meditation, and it’s probably a good idea to use both. In fact, most meditators find that using a handful of techniques makes for faster progress and better sessions. (This may be one reason a lot of people fail, as they simply try one thing, get bored, and stop.) You are also likely to find that you dislike some particular kinds of meditation, perhaps rather strongly. Congratulations, you probably just found a practice that will result in faster progress—your mind rebels against what will discipline it, so the practices you hate are usually the ones you need to do. It may be a good idea to do a type of meditation you like every day, and also do a type you dislike, so you get both the motivation to continue and the benefits of the practice that will help you make faster progress.
I’ll end this here, as it got a little bit longer than I had planned. Next week, I’ll give you yet another type of meditation to try, so spend some time this week letting yourself sink down into mantra, especially if this is a new way of meditation for you. Enjoy.