Fourth Meditation: Mantra

I confess, I haven’t posted in this blog for quite some time, but I’ll have you know that it’s not because I’ve been avoiding writing for it. The things happening in my teacher training and in my own self-exploration have been too complex for me to share just yet. But I’m working on them. I’m recording my thoughts, and I’m meditating on them. They will complete themselves as the timing sees fit. In the meantime, there’s one piece of my exploration that I can share.

I know all of you have heard the word mantra before, but there are a couple of you who would like a more traditional explanation of what mantra is. In common conversation, we might hear a person say “always be kind to others; that’s my mantra.” And while it may be that person’s mantra, most likely it’s more of a motto. Mantra and motto are not the same thing. A mantra is a syllable, a word, a name, a phrase, an invocation or inspirational statement. It is chanted repeatedly no less than three times, but most likely, the singer will chant a mantra 108 times. The mantra is chanted in a musical way (though many chanters would not call themselves singers and might even feel a little tone deaf).

I’ve been chanting mantra for a few months now, and I’ve begun to notice that after a few rounds, I feel my lips vibrating. After a few minutes, that vibration moves down my throat into my sternum (or breastbone). I am realizing that this also happens when I speak to people in English because the creation of the verbal word is the act of expelling energy through the vocal organs. When I say “Hi, how are you?” the vibration occurs in the back of my mouth. It is pressing itself away from the body, reaching out to the listener. When I say “I am well,” the vibration happens a bit lower, somewhere between my chin and collarbone, moving in for an assessment of the self, of personal truth. In normal conversation, these vibrations are subtle. Over time, they make my mouth feel dry and my voice feel scratchy, but when I am chanting, my voice gets stronger. The musical qualities of chants make every aspect of articulation stronger, particularly the vibrations.

By using Sanskrit, the vibrations become stronger still. That language was designed to vibrate just as Pali, Hebrew and Latin all vibrate at stronger frequencies than many other languages. These languages are all more than vehicles for communication; they are the creators and sustainers of prayers, meditations and sacred teachings. They were created to bring the human mind to a spiritual place though the use of the vocal organs.

They shift the chanter’s energy to bring ancient wisdom deep inside cellular memory. When I begin my day chanting in Sanskrit, in the hours that follow the tune from that mantra becomes lodged in my mind. When I am in traffic or become forgetful of what was on my grocery list, I hum a few rounds and my calm and centered mind engages itself. The mantra has used vibration to create a sense memory for my body, and it has used words to engage my brain’s ability for abstract reasoning. It has done this in a matter of seconds, and it has righted my course. It is helping me to interrupt previous habitual ways of being and make a new choice without a traumatic experience as a catalyst.

I am merely driving. I am merely at the grocery store. I’m merely answering a student’s question. In all of these ways, I could be creating more challenges for myself simply through bad habit. But because of the expediency of engaging my mantra, I’m hardly aware of the possible drama in daily happenings.

As a teacher, I find myself most drawn to the “Sahanavavatu Mantra” which essentially asks that student and teacher join together in peaceful unity to use knowledge for good and that they retain respect for one another in their shared journey. It’s a mantra that I can chant at home before planning my class or in the few minutes prior to the start of that class period. It is also one that I can use as a student taking challenging classes. I’ve even found myself chanting it silently when conversations begin to veer off course and into more ‘dangerous’ territories of gossip and negativity. It’s helpful to have a tool to remind myself that every person I encounter is a master of something that is important for me to learn, and that this something is not always what it appears. It reminds me to be grateful for
the lesson.

I’m trying to educate myself on which mantras to sing for which life purpose. I’m so happy to have the “Sahanavavatu Mantra” since much of my life is spent teaching and learning. And there may come a time when I feel all of life is centered in these endeavors. But that time is not now. If I try to chant Sahanavavatu before writing, for instance, what I intend to be a quick paragraph turns into six unruly pages. The initial thought becomes lost and a new exploration is begun. I end up going back to the original thought, removing it and starting again. I feel elation for the new idea and also frustration that I’ve lost focus.

There is a step between student and teacher where knowledge exists in experience, where it is itself without being transmitted, only used. And whether I’m searching for a mantra of trusting the process, gratitude, presence or grounding, I have yet to find the
right one.

As many American yogis, I have turned to the great ancient teacher Patanjali to look for an answer, and I have come across something that I’ve found quite freeing.

In Geshe Michael Roach & Christine McNally’s translation and commentary on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, they state that the power of the mantra can only be harnessed if it has “come from a truly holy person, and the person saying it must be someone who is truly kind to others.” Nowhere in this commentary, do the authors claim the mantra needs to be in Sanskrit or come from yoga teachers. In fact, the mantra could potentially come from anyone, and yet mantra cannot just come from anyone.

I am beginning to ask myself in a real way how many truly holy people I know. I am asking myself not “who is god-like” or “who is a Buddha” but at the most fundamental level I am asking, “What do I think makes a person truly holy?”

For me, the truly holy live each moment with the vehement intention to create peace. I think most of the people I know aspire to this intention, but they live their lives with other more pressing motives. I know I do. Little Debbie snack cakes don’t create peace in our environment. The packaging alone has nowhere to go but into the soil, but I love them so much. It’s hard for me to leave the store without a box. If I’m being really honest with myself, I’d admit that I’ve take on more writing classes, not because I see myself as a benefit to students, but because it makes me more money, and I’ll need a new car in the next year or so.

Once I’m in the classroom, I feel transformed. My ego disappears and a higher conversation of the written language springs forth, as I think happens for most writing teachers. But we choose to be functional in our society instead of being truly holy. We make the choice to pay as many of our bills as we can. We are being responsible, not holy, because our culture values personal independence above so many other qualities. To be clear, I don’t disagree with this principle. How could one be holy without having an innate sense of responsibility and care for that which surround us?

I am as god-like as most people I know. And I am so thankful to have my friends and family to love and support me. They are gracious, loving and kind, but they are perfect humans. They are Buddhas. I believe I am a Buddha, but I know in my heart, I have not reached the order of truly holy person.

And I’m working on it. I am trying to acknowledge that my mind struggles with aligning truths in this complex world. I find myself often in an acute fear of the future as though it will be the past repeating itself…or worse.

And so, when the transformation mantra (“Mahamrityunjaya Mantra”) hasn’t work, I’ve turned to poets to find the truly holy. The people of our culture who concern themselves with the sonic properties of our language. I’ve turned to them accidentally, because I’ve memorized a number of poems in the hope that they would become a part of me. My new hope is that even if the poets who wrote these words are not holy all the time, they have conscientiously created something that is. At the very least, these poets are committed to being in constant communion with inspiration, with God or with the deeper self. They have concentrated so completely on their words, editing and reworking them to the point that the mystical editor has said “Yes.”  I’ve found myself repeating lines over and over, some of them from poets I’ve read long ago.

Sometimes they come to me in moments when I least expected them. I wanted to sob on the last day of my perfect writing class that ended in August. I will never see most of those students again. What is the lesson in loss? From Stanley Kunitz’s poem “The Layers” I chant “I turn, exulting somewhat, with my will intact to go wherever I need to go and every stone on the road, precious to me” and though I have no tune to chant to, I bid my students good luck on their next journeys. I know I will think about them for years to come.

As my scoliosis grips my shoulder and prevents me from taking weight into my upper body, he reminds me that he is a genetic condition. I chant from Su Smallen’s “Beloved Is like a Perfect Day” and breathe into the pain. I engage in gentle twists as I lie on my back, and I repeat “Our bodies are made of living, with straps for tumbling through all this, without being let go of.” While it hasn’t fixed the condition (yet), it has eased some of the tension, some of the muscles that have been gripping on for dear life. I’m not going skydiving or even up into headstand anytime soon. But I can trust the process my body is going through.

I haven’t stopped looking for the Sanskrit mantras, and I can’t imagine the day that I stop searching. But as the areas of my life start to appear to me in a different way, I feel as though I have found some truly holy moments in language. As I breathe new life into the words, as they pass over my lips, I create myself anew.