An introduction to Mantra and Chant Work.
As we know from recent scientific developments, the “material” aspect of matter is an illusion. Everything is vibrating, everything is alive. If we were to accelerate any given vibration until it was audible, we could hear the signature note that each object is broadcasting. In other words, if essentially all is vibration, then essentially all is sound.
Most scriptures tell us that the first seed of Creation was Sound. In esoteric texts there are innumerable references to the use of sound for healing and/or potentially destructive uses. Some sources explain how the Pyramids were built by moving enormous stones through the power of sound, and we all know the famous image of the opera singer breaking a glass at a distance with the power of her voice.
These are all bits of information and knowledge that can help us start to understand the potential behind the practice of Mantra and Chanting.
The concept of “Gods” in Eastern Traditions:
We can think of a Mantra as a unit of energy that connects us with, and awakens in us, a certain primal force that could be said to reside dormant in our very DNA. They can be keys that unlock certain forces within us, and once awakened, or re-membered, they can bring us closer to our center and our full power as human beings.
In the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, for the most part, Mantras are connected with what is imperfectly termed “gods”. In western terms I think we can understand these forces better with Jung’s term Archetype. Each of these “gods” have a certain “power” that can be actualized in us through their invocation.
In other words, these are not actual beings residing in the clouds, but Archetypes that reside in us as potential, and through tools such as Mantra, Chanting and Visualization, we can access and cultivate these potential powers consciously.
For example, Shiva is a most beloved “god” in India. He represents the destructive power of “God”. In order to build something new sometimes we have to destroy or let go of that which doesn’t serve us anymore. The pain we may have to go through is directly proportional to the attachment we have to that which needs to be destroyed in order to make space for the new. The dance of Shiva is a reminder and in fact a celebration of the reality that the only constant in Life is Change, and that it is actually a fabulous Dance, a dance performed to the sacred rhythm of Time, and that ultimately it is all Maya, or illusion. This is not an excuse to bury or deny our need to mourn and/or feel our emotions fully, but it is a very important perspective that can help us move through life with more ease, wisdom, and a lighter step.
So… when we find ourselves stuck with outmoded behaviors, or we need to change our physical reality, we can call on the power of Shiva by using Mantra. This is a powerful psychological tool that can empower us, depending on the strength of our connection with the Archetype… almost instantly.
There are a myriad forms that can connect us with the energies of forgiveness, compassion, abundance, joy, creativity, assertiveness, love, etc. Whatever capacity we want to cultivate or enhance, it won’t be hard to find an Archetype to aid us and accelerate our process.
Now, having talked about the psychological aspect, the student of spirituality may well be puzzled by the devotional aspect of the practice from the Hindu standpoint. Do these people really believe there is some fat guy with an elephant head in heaven that can grant us wishes? To that I would reply that the western mind doesn’t seem to question fat naked little children playing trumpets in the clouds in our own culture, or babies being born without sexual contact, or saints in “heaven” listening to our needs.
All of these religious aspects need not be ridiculous if we again approach it from a Jungian perspective. Maybe we can allow for the possibility that these Archetypes, through the working of the Collective Unconscious over literally thousands of years, do take a life of their own in some metaphysical realm. In other words, they become a specific reservoir of energy that we can tap into in order to further our spiritual path.
When we express our devotion to Rama, we are expressing devotion to the qualities of faithfulness, unconditional love, protectiveness of the family, and high values that the figure of Rama represents. Ganesha opens our capacity to move through life with joy, ease, devotion and wisdom. In Buddhism we have figures such as Avalokistewara (related to Kwan Yin in China). He/she represents the quality of total compassion, and the total commitment to help our fellow passengers on this existence to attain their highest potential.
Each of these entities have their mantras, usually several, through which practice we can call upon their particular energy for our own healing and empowerment.
All of these philosophies, or religions, as the case may be, believe in the ultimate Oneness of the Creator, or Original Creative Source, but they allow for the fact that within Creation the One divides into the Many, and different aspects then take certain “personalities” in order to accomplish the Work.
In Africa these gods or archetypes line up with the elements, and so we have the personification of Fire: Shango, or Water: Iemanja. In the Hindu system Indra is the personification of the energy of Fire, and we could say that Saraswati, the patroness of the arts and learning, is the equivalent of the Mother Iemanja. When we express devotion to these figures we are bringing their energy into our lives. To the outward eye it may seem that we are paying homage to “idols”, and in some cases this may be accurate, but the proper practice is a sound spiritual and psychological technique that mirrors techniques such as NLP, where these figures would be called “anchors”.
Now, having touched upon the psychological and devotional aspects of the practice, lets discuss the meditational benefits of it. In Eastern philosophy the mind has been likened variously as a mouse, a monkey, or an ox. The mouse is always looking for the cheese, and mainly concerned with it’s own survival, and yet it’s very smart about it, so it is a good symbol for the ego. The monkey is always tricky and restless, like the constant workings of the mind, and the ox is slow, plodding and hardheaded, like our usual deep seated attitudes, habits and beliefs.
Meditation is the practice of stilling the mind so we can tap onto the deeper layers beyond these uncontrolled and survival oriented tendencies. The ultimate goal is to reach the place within where we experience the Oneness of Existence, the Still point at the Center of the daily cyclone. The more we connect with this energy, the more it gets incorporated into our daily living, bringing peace and perspective.
The mind is constantly in a state of fight or flight, and the ego uses the mind to trick us into a state of sleep and safety, like a child constantly afraid of what may lay inside the closet.
The ego, having studied a map, will decide that it fully knows the place, and even expound on it’s deep knowledge, to the point of deriding the knowledge of those who actually have been there. Thus, reading a lot in the spiritual realm can be a dangerous thing because the ego will act as if these states described in the books have actually been experienced. At this point we start to act from where we should be, rather than where we truly are at, thus betraying our authentic self. There is noting worse than a “spiritual ego”!
Also, through reading and intellectual work we create ideas that we then turn into goals, and these goals into attachments and fixed notions. One can totally be attached to the idea of non attachment!
We can be attached to the goal of Enlightenment also, and yet this is a totally abstract notion that we really have no idea of what it is in an experiential way… it’s just and idea!… it does not belong to our here and now… and yet the sages tell us that if we could really fully arrive at here and now… that’s where Enlightenment resides.
Meditation slowly softens the rough edges of the mind, and gently guides us to the place of experience, rather than ideas. Now you may very well ask: experience what?… Experience is traveling, meeting new people, learning things, the pleasure of a bike ride in a sunny day, a delicious meal, etc. Here, however, we are talking about experiencing Being, experiencing the essential spark of Aliveness within us, burning like a tiny flame in the vast darkness of the Unknown. Here we are talking about letting go of the waves and plunging into the bottom of the Ocean. Here we are talking about connecting with the central reservoir of Life Energy that feeds all this electrical currents that turn into “experiences” in our daily life.
There are countless meditation techniques within the various traditions. The technique of Mantra consists of the repetition of a word, or a phrase, that gives the mind a strong focus, or anchor. The repetition can be done vocally, or whispered, or just recited inwardly. Now, if we do this mechanically and without the proper “meaning” and intention, it becomes simply a very basic form of self hypnotism. I have noticed, living within cultures where this tradition is very strong, that a lot of people do this mechanically, out of habit, and they have lost the original intention. When we practice the form but we lose the essence of a practice, we get very minimal benefits.
There are different “degrees” of the practice, all of them beneficial, as long as we “show up” for them. We can do the full practice in our home or meditation room, in which case it involves, preparing the space, honoring the “deity”, sitting in a comfortable position and reciting Mantra. It is good to finish with a period of silence, concentrating on the breath in a natural and relaxed way. I would recommend in this case a minimum of fifteen minutes.
Another “degree” is simply taking advantage of moments within our day when we can take a break and do some Mantra practice as a form of focusing. A last but important way is to try and keep Mantra going through our ongoing activities, let’s say while we drive, or walk towards any given destination, while we eat, or do the dishes. This practice will connect us deeply with the Mantra and will also deepen our state of presence within these activities. We could call it a form of “self remembering”.
I would recommend to choose no more than three or four Mantras, so you can cultivate a deep connection over time. In some Mantra texts it is said that you go through three stages: you begin by saying Mantra… then, Mantra starts saying itself through you… and thirdly, the Mantra is “saying” You into Life, or, in other words, the direction of the energy is reversed and you experience true Grace.
All of this can have serious religious overtones, that one can choose to incorporate or not. For instance, quoting Bhaktivedanta, the father of the Krishna movement:
“The more attentively and sincerely you chant these names of God, the more spiritual progress you will make. Since God is all powerful and all merciful, He has kindly made it very easy for us to chant His Names, and he has also invested all His powers in them. Therefore the names of God and God Himself are identical”.
I want to make it very clear, though, and I hope from al of the above you have already gathered, that you need not believe in God to benefit from this practice. It helps, however, to have some sense of a Higher Power and particularly and openness to accept that there are many dimensions of “reality” that we are unable to perceive in our “normal” state of being (which so many teachers have called “sleep”). In the more esoteric ideas about Mantra, it is claimed that the practice can in fact open up the Doors of Perception.
One of my Teachers explained to me that some powerful drugs can open these doors, but that they should open from above towards us, as Grace. When we use substances we force the door open in the “wrong direction”, and we can actually “break the hinges”, causing madness, depression, and a state of spiritual blindness, as if we had looked straight at the sun and burned our eyes.
Meditation prepares us for higher states of being, where we are functioning with finer and more powerful currents of Life Force, without burning the vessel.
- The question of Initiation
- Some Mantra Examples
- The use of a Mala