There are some things that’s it’s almost impossible to teach by telling, or even showing, the student what to do or how to do it; the best you can do is to say how it ought to feel when done right. Singing is one: advice like “feel as though you were sipping air from a teacup” doesn’t mean anything until you’ve finally done it. Meditation that involves an internal mantra or prayer word–like Centering Prayer, Christian Meditation, or (I suspect) Transcendental Meditation–is another. When Fr. Thomas Keating, one of the founders of the modern Centering Prayer movement, says that we should internally repeat our prayer word as gently as “laying a feather on a piece of absorbent cotton,”[i] most of us will have no idea what that means until we’ve tried it. Maybe not even then.
I find it helpful to think of myself, not as “saying” or “repeating” my prayer word, but rather as “allowing” it to say itself–as though it were something I were inviting to happen rather than “doing.” Of course, like a Buddhist monk who, instead of “ringing” the gong, “invites the gong to sound,” I’m certainly still “doing” it–but if I think of it as “allowing,” I do it differently.
When I go about my daily tasks like folding laundry or cleaning the kitchen, I often repeat the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”) internally, which redirects my mental energy away from daydreaming, planning, or brooding and allows me to experience my experiences much more vividly. (For instance, the other day I was rinsing the soap out of the underside of a saucepan lid by swirling the water around the upturned lid. At each swirl, a little warm water would slosh out of the lid onto my hands. It felt just as though I were juggling balls of warm water. I would never have noticed that if I allowed memory and anticipation to hijack the here-and-now. A small thing, for sure–but why should all the magic be in the past or the future?)
What makes this prayer exercise work is absolute gentleness in the repetition; if I’m saying the prayer to shout down my thoughts, the prayer just becomes, itself, an even more oppressive thought.
In sitting practice, I find it helpful to link the repetition of my prayer word to the breath. (In case you’re wondering, I say “Trust” on the in breath and “Love” on the out breath.) In order to keep the word from feeling like something I’m banging out on an inner anvil, I try to think of it as something carried in and out on the breath itself–almost as though it were passing over an infuser and carrying the fragrance of the word with it. I call this process “baptizing the breath.”
Suppose you worked somewhere where you had to wear an ID tag. Once the gatekeeper got to know you, you wouldn’t have to actually hold up the tag every single time you went in and out–just wearing it where it was visible would suffice. But if the gatekeeper didn’t recognize you, or there were a heightened state of security for some reason, you would show your ID again for a while.
Likewise, once you’ve established that the in breath carries the scent of your word and (if you have two words) the out breath is likewise redolent, you don’t have to “say” the word internally every time; you just let it come and go with the breath. Then, when you find you have wandered, let your breath “show its ID” again for a few cycles until you’re back in the moment.
It’s almost as though the word has to die “to the flesh”–to go from being something solid to being incorporeal, something that can float on a breath–in order to do its work in us. Jesus said that if He did not “go away” to the Father, He could not send the Spirit to His disciples. (John 16:6) Perhaps, like Jesus, if the “bodily” prayer word does not die and ascend, it cannot participate in the Spirit–the word for which, in both Greek and Hebrew, is “breath.”
Keating, Thomas, O.C.S.O.: Open Mind, Open Heart
You cannot see the seer of the sight. You cannot hear the hearer of the sound. You cannot think the thinker of the thought. You cannot know the knower of the known. Your own Self lives in the hearts of all. Nothing else matters.–Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, W.B. Yeats version
Most of my encounters with God are like this:
LUKE: I'm looking for someone.
YODA: Looking? Found someone, you have, I would say, hmmm?
The little creature laughs.
LUKE: (Trying to keep from smiling) Right.
YODA: Help you I can. Yes, mmmm.
LUKE: I don't think so. I'm looking for a great warrior.
YODA: Ahhh! A great warrior. (laughs and shakes his head)Moses may tell us that “the Lord is a mighty warrior,” but if we look for God expecting to find that, we are generally disappointed. Like Yoda, God often appears in small, even slightly embarrassing forms–a wise but unprepossessing a person, for instance, or someone in need, or a baby in a feed trough.
The God “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28) simply doesn’t behave the way we expect. For one thing, how seldom it occurs to us that the God whom we seek is all the while seeking us:
The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls, and upon finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Matthew 13:46) I think this parable is often misunderstood. We hear references to “the pearl of great price,” but they often sound like the person making them thinks the term applies to the kingdom—but the kingdom is the merchant, not the pearl. We are the pearl. It is us that God seeks, and gives everything to acquire.
Moreover, “looking for someone” is predicated on the assumption that someone is elsewhere than we are. Luckily, the Psalmist knew what nonsense that is:
Where can I go then from your Spirit? where can I flee from your presence? If I climb up to heaven, you are there; if I make the grave my bed, you are there also. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast. (Ps. 139, 6-9)
“Wheresoever you look,” says the Qu’ran, “there is the face of God. (6:103) Like yeast in a loaf of bread, there is no place where God is not.
(Jesus) also asked, "What else is the Kingdom of God like? It is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened.” (Luke 13:20-21)[i]
Both our expectations of what God is like, and the fact that, as the Ground of All Being, God is utterly inescapable, make our little daily theophanies terribly easy to miss. Like someone looking through glasses in search of those very glasses, we do not see that the consciousness by which we seek, the faculty of awareness itself, is God-in-us, allowing light into our souls as the eye allows light into the body.
The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. (Matthew 6:23-23)
So if there is any spiritual light in me, any awareness, any here-and-now-ness, that is of God. Which must be the reason that the more in the moment I am, the more fully present and aware of myself, the more I feel that I am not alone. Whether at a party or family gathering, or while washing the dishes, I am most aware of the Presence when I am most recollected and present to myself. And once I have touched the “Self that lives in the hearts of all,” I am able to see that Self in others–to “seek and serve Christ in all persons.”[ii]
Found someone I have, hmmm?
[i] I am indebted to Swami Jnaneshwara Bharati at the Center for Non-Dualism for this interpretation of the parable.
[ii] Baptismal vows, Book of Common Prayer
Dame Evelyn Glennie
When we were small, our caregivers–with all the best intentions–taught us something that simply isn’t true: that we “hear with our ears.”
OK, perhaps there’s some truth in that statement–about as much as saying that we experience the sunshine with our eyes. But if we only wore dark glasses without using sunblock, we’d quickly realize how much of the truth we were missing.
Sound, like light, impacts our entire bodies. No matter how good digital sampling becomes, no digital piano will ever replace a real one because, though my ears may be taken in, my knees will know, as there are no hammers hitting strings inches from my knees on an electronic keyboard.
Another picture of Evelyn Glennie, because why not?
The first full-time touring classical percussionist of the 20th century, Evelyn Glennie, is deaf; she plays barefoot and “hears” through her feet (as well as the rest of her body.) Sound is a tactile phenomenon to her; she describes the sound of the snare drum as being alternately like “bullets” and “velvet.”
During a performance of Schönberg’s immense Gurrelieder, for extended orchestra and multiple choirs, I “heard” the first entrance of the male chorus in my sternum. And did you ever notice the small, white fireworks whose sound, though immensely loud, is deep enough that we feel the impact in the chest more than in the ear?
Sacred Harp Sing
At Sacred Harp sings, I often notice that the book vibrates in my fingers from the impact of my voice.
I could go on with myriad examples, but the point is that hearing is a full-body experience, and if we become really aware of the sounds we produce and receive, it can help us tune in to our bodies–which is, after all, the best way to come fully into the present moment.
When I am having trouble focusing in church, I often find it useful, during some part of the liturgy in which everyone is speaking or singing in unison, to let the words means themselves for a while–without my having to work at meaning them– and just let the sound of all those people behind me fill my back like wind filling a sail. (Because I have smallish kids, I am invariably seated right up front.) It brings me right back into the present like no amount of applied willpower possibly could.
Here’s an exercise you can try:
The chakras, a chain of “energy centers” that runs up the spine, are very useful focal points for body awareness. When meditating on them, I use the associated bijas for each chakra, chanting the syllable while holding my awareness on the area of the body in which the chakra resides.
- Hum a little while on one note. Where do you feel the vibrations? If you’re like most people, your lips are pressed together, and all the resonance is in your lips, teeth and jaws.
- Now try humming as though you had a raw egg in your mouth, and you didn’t want to break the yolk. Your jaw is slack, your tongue down, and your lips just touching. Most people report that the resonance drops down into the chest and even the belly when they hum this way.
- I usually practice five to ten minutes of body-awareness chanting–generally on the bijas, or “seed-mantra” syllables “MA” or “OM”–as a “warm-up” before mantra meditation. But occasionally, I devote the entire practice period to body awareness through meditation on the chakras.
There are many teachings on the correct or most efficacious way to use chakra bijas, and they are as divergent as they are passionately propounded. As Sound Yoga teacher Russill Paul says,
The Tantric tradition from which this sequence is derived never had a central authority that determined any specific methodologies and so there exist a variety of possibilities within the tradition offering a number of variations on the same practice.
Not wanting to take sides, I have devised my own method, in which I chant each bija for a given time period, with my awareness resting at each chakra on the way up, and ending in a period of silence.
I felt free to devise my own method because, for me, chakra meditation is strictly about awareness and intention. I do not know what it means when teachers say that a certain bija “opens” or “activates” its associated chakra–in fact, though I try never to rule anything out, I am generally skeptical about claims that mantras, mudras, “healing sounds,” or other aids to practice have an empirical effect on us. For me, a bija mantra is a string around my pranic finger, helping me to focus on the area of my body to which it points by dint of association built up by repetition and practice. I suppose it’s almost Pavlovian in a way: just as my dogs know food is coming when they hear me pick up their bowls, my awareness goes straight to my muladhara chakra the moment I begin chanting “lam.”
Here is the version of the chakra bijas that I use: the “a” is pronounced like the “o” in “come,” and the “l” is pronounced with the tip of the tongue on the hard palette:
Muludhara (“root”) Lam
Swadhisthana (sacral) Vam
Manipura (solar plexus) Ram
Anahata (heart) Yam
Vishuddha (throat) Ham
Ajna (brow or “third eye”) Sham (Aum is also common)
Sahasrara (“crown”) Om
Imagine that you are chanting each bija "into" the associated chakra; see if you can feel the resonating vibrations of your voice in each part of your body. Feel free to experiment, both with the various methods that are taught–for instance some teachers chant the bijas, some whisper them, and some speak them silently and internally–and with methods of your own that you may find more helpful. To quote again from Russill Paul,
Although there is a classical system of Kundalini Yoga that has been standardized and which must be respected, it is also necessary that we stay true to our personal experience and experimentation especially if it is rigorous and put to the test over a substantial amount of time. Rather than have our powers of perception dulled and our awareness lack the conviction of personal experience, mantra shastra is, in the final analysis, a science that is based on research and experimentation. Furthermore, there are exceptions to every rule, so we must learn to learn from our body as much as from our head...At the very least, you will know what works for you.
Is there such a thing as too many pictures of Evelyn Glennie?
Yogash chitta vritti nirodhah. –Patanjali, Yoga Sutra 1.1.
Life rarely presents us with laboratory conditions for meditation. Unless we want to spend a lot of our practice time gritting our teeth and willing distractions away, we need to adapt to circumstances. Which is not my strong suit.
I have always been drawn to dhyana meditation, or “one-pointed concentration.” Sri Ramakrishna, the 19th century Bengali saint, likened the mind in dhyana to a continuous stream of oil being poured from one vessel to another. The field of awareness is narrowed to one object–whether the breath, a mantra, or “the lotus feet of the Lord”–and all else is excluded from it as the meditator “gathers the scattered energies of the mind into one place.”[i]
This way of meditating has always appealed to me more than mindfulness meditation, in which the meditator observes whatever comes up, internally or externally, remaining open to what the moment brings. I don’t like remaining open. Jodie Foster once said that she didn’t like live theater because the audience can look wherever they want; as a filmmaker, Foster prefers to control the view. I, likewise, prefer, when possible, to choose the object of my awareness in meditation.
Plymouth Weekly Meeting
But sometimes–or often, depending on one’s circumstances–that just isn’t possible. For instance, my children attend a Friends (Quaker) school, and most Thursday mornings I accompany my older daughter to Meeting for Worship in the austerely beautiful 18th century meeting house. In traditional Quaker worship, anyone may speak if they feel moved to do so, but the speech proceeds out of, and falls back into, silence; often, the entire period goes by in silence.
But “silence” is relative. When you’ve got a big room full of kids ranging from kindergarten to sixth grade, fidgeting on the creaky benches, coming in late on the creaky floorboards, asking to go to the bathroom or for someone to pass them the tissues–even if they aren’t speaking aloud, it would be a stretch to call it “silence.”
So I used to struggle valiantly to exclude all the hubbub from my awareness and practice Centering Prayer–a Christian form that resembles both mantra japa and vipassana in that a single word or short phrase (the “prayer word”) is repeated internally, often synchronized with the breath, as a way of keeping the mind from wandering. But the effect, under those conditions, was more like covering my ears and shouting, “La, la, la, I’m not listening!” The prayer word, rather than keeping me from being hijacked by my thoughts, became a thought itself–something to think rather than being available to the moment.
When I finally grew tired of doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result, I decided the time had come to give mindfulness a try. Jon Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and
nonjudgmentally.” In theory, that sounds like it should include concentrative dhyana meditation–one does, after all, pay attention to the object one is contemplating–but in practice people generally make a distinction between focusing the mind on an object and observing the mind itself, or the experiences of the moment.
Yoga Sutra 1.1
I have written before about how internally repeating the Prayer of the Heart, or “Jesus Prayer,” while doing everyday chores quiets my mind and makes my experience of what I’m doing more vivid and immediate. As I become more available to the moment, my awareness–both of myself, and of the ever-present Spirit–becomes sharper. What I am doing, then, is using a prayer word, not in a concentrative way, but as a tool for mindfulness. The prayer is a gate that allows my experience in while excluding my otherwise incessant mind-chatter.
So a prayer word or mantra can, it seems, function both as a tool for dhyana, helping maintain the attention on the chosen object while excluding outside experiences, and a tool for mindfulness, helping us attend to our experiences while suppressing the inner monologue. It is a gate that opens both ways. Which is where the above-referenced two-thousand-year-old Sanskrit scripture comes in. Here it is again:
Yogash chitta vritti nirodhah.
As is often the case with ancient texts, there are divergent opinions about the precise meaning of this sentence. One of the more widespread translations is:
Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. In other words, when the mind is as unruffled as a pouring stream of oil, entirely concentrated upon one object without distraction, that is yoga.
But there are other translations; for example:
Yoga is the mastery of the activities of the mind-field. That is, when distractions occur, and we acknowledge and accept them without judgment or commentary, that is yoga.
So which is the better translation? Is it about quieting the mind, or about making it do what we want? Is yoga both dhyana and mindfulness?
I’m prepared to say that it is. One of the differences between scripture and “content,” it seems to me, is that while the latter may mean one thing or less, scripture can almost always mean one thing or more. For instance, consider Jesus’ words about the Kingdom of God:
ουδε ερουσιν ιδου ωδε η ιδου εκει ιδου γαρ η βασιλεια του θεου εντος υμων εστιν. (Luke 17:21)
You won’t be able to say of the Kingdom, “Here it is,” or “There it is”–all the many translations agree on that much. But about the next part, translators are about evenly divided. Did Jesus say,
…for the Kingdom of God is within you,
…for the Kingdom of God is among you?
The controversy hinges on the meaning of the word endos, which in many contexts means “within.” (Eg., “endoscopy” = “looking within.”) But the word can also mean “among,” or “in the midst of.”
While scholars cite linguistic evidence and/or theological arguments–none of which are, in my opinion, either conclusive or interesting–in support of their favored interpretations, the meaning seems perfectly clear if we view the text in the light of experience rather than doctrine. If we invite God to reign in our hearts, then the Kingdom is within us. And if we are as connected to each other as the branches of a single vine (Jn. 15:5), and if we are to care for each other as for Christ Himself (Mt. 25:31-46), and if Jesus is present whenever two or more are gathered together in His name (Mt. 18:20), then the Kingdom is manifestly among us as well. Anyone who has ever felt the movement of the Spirit in his or her own soul as well as among the gathered community knows this to be true. It means both.
So when a scripture seems to have two equally defensible meanings, we can assume that both are valid. In interpreting Yoga Sutra 1.1, if circumstances dictate that I must meditate in different ways at different times–if I see myself as both a yogi, struggling to achieve liberation through spiritual practice, and a bhakti, dependent on divine grace and longing for true devotion–and if experience tells me that the same meditative tool can be used in ways that point to both translations–why argue any further about meaning? Why posit a dilemma where none exists?
One final thought: purist practitioners of mindfulness meditation may object to the use of a mantra or prayer word. And from a purist standpoint, they may have a point. But being as much a bhakti as a yogi–a devotee as well as a practitioner–I need to bring a note of devotion with me into my meditation. Pure mindfulness, for me, is too lacking in content; I need to smuggle in a little devotional meaning, even if only in the background. Which is why I continue to use a prayer word in both dhyana and mindfulness practice: for me, it works both ways.
i. Swami Tyagananda, Boston Vedanta Center