Those of you who follow this blog have already figured out that I love chaplets–prayer beads like the Dominican, Franciscan and Anglican Rosaries. (I also love malas–prayer beads used by Hindu and Buddhist devotees for chanting mantras.)
My older daughter just took up lacrosse this past spring, and if you’ve ever seen girls’ lacrosse, you know about “cradling”–the constant side-to-side twisting of the stick the player must do in order to keep control of the ball, women’s sticks not having the deep pockets that men’s sticks do. I think of the prayers associated with each bead as a similar thing–a sort of mental “cradling” that keeps the ball in the air, as it were–keeps me focused and allows my spiritual faculties to work unhindered (or, to be honest, a little less hindered) by my chattering mind. I also use the familiar Dominican Rosary (what most people mean by “the Rosary”) and the similar, but less familiar Franciscan Crown Rosary as aids to intercessory prayer, about which you can read more here. I also use the even less familiar, but wonderfully uplifting Holy Spirit Chaplet[i] for that same purpose, and for the many people who are strangers to this devotion, here’s how it works.
The rosary consists of a medal of the Holy Spirit. three small preparatory beads, and six sets of two large beads each, enclosing five sets of seven small beads. Like the Dominican and Franciscan Crown rosaries, each set of beads is associated with a "mystery" to be contemplated whilst reciting the prayers: 1) Jesus is Conceived by the Holy Spirit, 2) The Holy Spirit Descends Upon Jesus at Baptism, 3) The Holy Spirit Drives Jesus into the Wilderness, 4) The Holy Spirit Empowers the Church at Pentecost, and 5) The Holy Spirit Dwells in the Souls of the Righteous.The traditional way of praying this chaplet is a little complicated; as I am prone to do, I’ve simplified it. (In fact, in some places I’ve outright changed it; you can learn the traditional method here if you wish.)
ON THE HOLY SPIRIT MEDAL
Almighty God, to You all hearts are open, all desires known, and from You no secrets are hid. Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of Your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love You, and worthily magnify Your holy name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen (Collect for Purity, Book of Common Prayer. I begin all my Christian chaplet devotions–with one exception, about which more below–with this prayer.)
ON THE THREE PREPARATORY SMALL BEADS
Breathe in me, Holy Spirit, that all my thoughts may be holy;
Act in me, Holy Spirit, that my work, too, may be holy;
Draw my heart, Holy Spirit, that I may only love what is holy;
Strengthen me, Holy Spirit, to defend all that is holy;
Guard me, Holy Spirit, that I always may be holy. (St. Augustine)
ON THE FIRST OF EACH OF THE FIVE SETS OF TWO LARGE BEADS
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name;
Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread, and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil. Amen.
ON THE SECOND OF EACH OF THE FIVE SETS OF TWO LARGE BEADS
Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you;
Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen
ON EACH OF THE SEVEN SMALL BEADS BETWEEN THE SETS OF TWO LARGE BEADS
Glory to God, Transcendent Majesty, Incarnate Word, and Indwelling Spirit,
As it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever. Amen. (Traditionally, this is the familiar “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit," etc. I prefer this version because it is not only more gender-neutral, but also more beautiful and, because it is longer, it allows more time to “hold in the light” each person for whom I am praying. It also just makes the whole exercise a little less like falling down the stairs.)
In the traditional version, one recites the Apostles’ Creed and the Our Father on the last two large beads, but I prefer to maintain the Our Father/Hail Mary pattern.
One other chaplet I am fond of is the Adoration of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament Chaplet. This one, as it turns out, I actually pray in the traditional manner–but not in the traditional circumstances.
This simple chaplet consists of a medal of the Blessed Sacrament[i] and thirty-three beads, one for each year of Jesus earthly life. It is traditionally prayed during Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, when the consecrated communion bread is exposed to view in a vessel call a monstrance, and the faithful pray in the presence of Christ in this form.
As Eucharistic Adoration is not part of my tradition, I most often pray this chaplet when, for whatever reason, I find myself in a Roman Catholic church rather than and Episcopal one. Since I, as a non-Catholic, am forbidden to receive Communion in a Catholic church, the chaplet gives me something to do while the other worshippers are communing. (I find this far more edifying than my former practice of sitting there and being resentful.) Here’s how the devotion works:
ON THE BLESSED SACRAMENT MEDAL
Oh, my Jesus, as I cannot now receive You in Holy Communion, come spiritually into my heart and make it Your own forever.
ON THE BEADS:
Lord Jesus, ever present in the holy sacrament of the altar, have mercy on us, and on the whole world.
For reasons that I will write about later, I have found myself becoming ever more dependent on structured devotions like chaplets, and the more I practice them, the more satisfying they become. If you find it difficult to sit in utter silence during your contemplative prayer time, you may find rosary practice as fruitful as I have.
Not to be confused with the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit Chaplet, which is different.[i]
The Eucharist, or Holy Communion
I have always had heart trouble–by which I mean that I have always lived primarily in my head. In meditation, it is always much more natural for me to put my awareness in the ajna chakra between the eyebrows that in my chest area. When I chant the bija mantra “Yam” into the anahata chakra, I become aware of the heart center through the tingling of the sound vibrations, but maintaining awareness of a spinning green light, or any other attempt to be “aware of the presence of God in my heart” has always felt artificial and contrived. No matter how many times I mentally repeat the Jesus Prayer while going through my day, I keep “hearing” it in my head, not in my heart.
But I discovered this passage in Abdul Baha’s Prayers and Meditations, concerning those people with discernment to see the divine majesty everywhere:
Surely the lamp of Thy love is burning in their hearts, and the light of Thy tenderness is lit within their breasts.
This passage leapt out at me, demanding my attention, so I treated it as a subject for lectio divina, or "holy reading" meditation, repeating it slowly and deliberately in silence as thought it were mantra or a Centering Prayer “prayer-word.” I found it very focusing. Certainly, the image of a burning lamp in my heart was much easier to hold in awareness than an abstract “heart center” (even one with a rotating wheel of green light in it) and a flame much more concrete than an abstraction like “love.”
Something else that has plagued me for years is my tendency to sublimate and somaticize difficult emotions. When my mom was dying, I had suffered from fainting spells; before leaving home and fiancée for graduate school halfway across the country, I endured shortness of breath. My tendency to live in my head has pushed my body into advocating for my heart, demanding attention for my emotional challenges. Through the practice of yoga and, perhaps, through meditating on this image from this passage, I hope to be finally be able to allow, as the Eastern Orthodox contemplatives put it, the “mind to descend into the heart.”
A woman friend opened my eyes years ago to the way we men become very invested in our props when on dates. She told me about being out with a young man who, after dropping and breaking his carefully selected bottle of wine, became more upset than she could possibly account for at the time. Why was the wine so important to him, she wondered? Only later did she realize that men set the scene for wooing and seduction through the strategic deployment of such props. Things like flowers, candles and soft music are, for most men, more like magic talismans for producing the desired result than expressions of anything like love.
I often think about this story while preparing for prayer, smiling as I dim the lights, change the shrine flowers or light a stick of incense. “I know,” I say to God, “that you are perfectly aware of my use of these props, and that you know I intend them as an offering of devotion and an aid to my own recollection, their resemblance to preparing my dorm room for a hot date notwithstanding.”
Maybe it’s my background in Protestant Christianity that makes me elevate devotion over technique the way I do. Maybe the correct pronunciation of Sanskrit mantras really is essential to their efficacy; maybe the position of the tongue in the chakra bijas really does stimulate the pineal gland, or whatever. Many people of many millennia have believed so. But to my mind, emphasizing technique in this way is the spiritual equivalent of carefully laying the scene in one’s bachelor crib. And yes, of course it absolutely is love and desire that impels us to cultivate technique–but if the love isn’t paramount, the technique is empty, however efficacious it may seem in the short run.
I recently read a book about mantra meditation by John Dupuche, a Catholic priest with a doctorate in Sanskrit, who specializes in Kashmir Shaivism. I found his account of mantra highly resonant with my own: The mantra is a word, not just a sound repeated over and over. It is not a word said to oneself, a sort of soliloquy. Nor is it just a distraction for the mind so as to let the spirit soar. The mantra is an expression. It comes from a tradition and expresses the tradition…It comes from the reciter and expresses the reciter.
The mantra is the essence of the Word that surpasses all sound…the mantra is not so much the vocable, which is uttered with the lips or mind, but an attitude, an emotion, which constitutes the essential self. By reciting the mantra the practitioner undertakes to be true to his or her self.
Thus the mantra, like all words and expressions, is a bridge between the speaker and the one addressed. The mantra is necessarily said to someone. I can become the mantra only if I say it to someone who receives the mantra, who listens and accepts the mantra.
For Dupuche, the mantra expresses the one who recites it, for the sake of the One who hears it–irrespective of linguistics and technical minutiae.
Like mantras, mudras are often thought to have empirical effects on the practitioner independent of intention. According to Kundalini Yoga theory, a mudra is:
A gesture or position, usually of the hands, that locks and guides energy flow and reflexes to the brain. By curling, crossing, stretching and touching the fingers and hands, we can talk to the body and mind as each area of the hand reflexes to a certain part of the mind or body.
While I have never seen any convincing science that supports the notion of hand reflexology, it may very well be that holding the hands in various postures objectively stimulates the nervous system. But for the time being, anyway, you can’t prove it by me.
For Buddhists, mudras have a primarily iconographic and symbolic function, similar to stereotyped hand gestures in Christian icons. Different positions of the hands have different meanings that help the viewer to “read” the image.
My own position, as usual, falls somewhere in between. For me, a mudra–like everything else in spiritual practice–is about intention. When I use a mudra while chanting or in silent meditation, I am implicitly aware of–though not explicitly thinking about–the meaning of the gesture as it relates to my intention for that period of practice. While meditating on the sahasrara, or “crown” chakra, I may use the dhyana mudra, which is associated with deep concentration and devotion; I may use the vismaya mudra, associated with clear spiritual perception, while focusing on the ajna, or “brow (“third eye”) chakra. But I do so, not because I believe that holding the hands a certain way will objectively facilitate the desired result, but as an aid to honing my intention–a mission statement for the practice, a string around my spiritual finger to remind me of what I am doing and why. A string on my finger–not a ring through God’s nose.
In spiritual practice, it seems to me, all is offering–all is devotion. We offer mantra and mudra as gifts of love, not as techniques for producing a desired result–just as a man gives a woman a ring, not to facilitate an acceptance of his offer of marriage, but as a way of declaring his own intentions and desires.
If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit or water, I will accept it. –Bhagavad Gita 9:26
Ninety per cent of life is just showing up. –Woody Allen
This morning I went to the chapel at my parish church, where we have daily morning meditation. (My wife said, “Are you sure you have time for morning meditation today?” I countered that Gandhi meditated an hour a day, except on very busy days, when he meditated two hours. She pointed out that Gandhi didn’t have his mother-in-law coming over.)
Because I arrived at the last moment, I took a seat on a bench rather than on a cushion or prayer stool. The result was what I should have expected: I kept nodding off. (This is my main reason for using a traditional meditation posture–it keeps me awake.) I was disappointed, because I have a to-do list as long as my arm today, and I was counting on the meditation to ground, center and energize me.
Fortunately–and here is where my Christian undercoat starts to show through the yogic veneer–I rely on grace as much as, or more than, my own poor efforts. (Yogis rely on grace, too, but it isn’t emphasized as much.) I firmly believe that, whatever my experience in prayer or meditation may be, and however I feel afterward, and irrespective of whether I am alert or dull, God receives my offering graciously.
But “offering” is the operative word, here. If we regard our sadhana, or practice, simply as spiritual push-ups, we advance only insofar as we are at the top of our game. If we regard it as an offering of love, as bhakti (“devotion”), then our showing up and offering the best we have in us at the time counts for something. Simplistic, perhaps, but simple is good.
This is where the old Roman Catholic concept of “merit” speaks to my Anglican soul. When I see old-fashioned prayer-cards or other devotionals which promise X years of release from purgatory for people who pray this novena or that chaplet or what-have-you, it certainly smacks of what I was taught to regard as “works righteousness.” But understood in the proper light, the concept of merit frees us from the fear of wasting our efforts whenever we are at less than full capacity. We aren’t responsible, primarily, for how well we do, but for how faithfully we show up. “Merit” accrues more to our intention and effort than to apparent “results”; if we practice faithfully, we gain merit to offer up for the healing of the world. (The Buddhists also speak of “merit” accruing to spiritual practice, and of offering it for the good of others.) And the effort of praying through drowsiness or distraction is never wasted, even if we don’t walk away feeling the way we wanted to.
Screwtape, the senior demon who coaches his nephew through his first temptation assignment in C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, put is this way:
Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling; and never let them suspect how much success or failure of that kind depends on whether they are well or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment.
So rather than reproach myself for wasting time and effort this morning, I am going to assume that the effort itself, poor as it was, was still an opening for grace.
Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” (Mark 21:41-44)
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
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
My wife and I recently went to hear Krishna Das–she for the first time, me for the third. (It was her first kirtan, in fact.) On the way home, I described an experience I had during one of the chants.
While I still have Jesus as my ishta, or “chosen ideal,” I long ago came to view Him as one Way among many. But though I have sung many kirtan chants, both other people's and those I have composed myself, I still experience occasional resistance to other divine names–a legacy of conventionally exclusive Christian training. This resistance usually breaks down fairly early (when it appears at all) and so it did on this evening.
I felt the moment of breakthrough viscerally, in my body–as though a golden wash of warmth burst out of my heart and flowed down into my arms.
“And then,” I told my skeptical physician wife, “and you’re going to think I’m crazy, but by the time the chant was over, my hands were hot and tingling.”
“Really?” she said, more curiously than incredulously. She then surprised me by saying, “You have more body awareness than I do.”
Now, my wife is far more naturally athletic than I am, and I would have thought that she’d be more physically attuned than I. However, I have two practices specifically aimed at increasing body awareness. One–body awareness through sound–I will discuss in a future entry. The other is cultivating awareness through attention to the chakras.
Chakra,a Sanskrit word meaning “wheel,” refers to seven “energy centers” in the body, according to Yogic thought.
1. The muludhara, or “root” chakra, located at the perineum (or at the anus, depending on the school of thought,)
2. The svadhistana chakra, located just below the navel (or at the genitals or the spleen, once again depending on whom one asks,)
3. The manipura chakra, located at the solar plexus,
4. The anahata, or “heart” chakra,
5. The visuddha, or “throat” chakra,
6. The ajna, or “brow” or “third eye” chakra, located between and above the eyes, and
7. The sahasrara, or “crown” chakra, located on, or just above, the crown of the head.
The chakras each have their traditional associations–for example, the throat chakra with communication and relationships, the “third eye” with intuition, and the “crown” with superconsciousness and union with the Divine–and “blockages” in, or “imbalances” between them are believed to cause hindrances to spiritual progress, emotional problems and even physical disease.
Let me interrupt myself at this point. If you’re familiar with the Sanskrit word shraddha, you’ve probably heard it translated as “absolute faith in God.” But I subscribe to what I believe to be a more nuanced and realistic definition: the willingness to suspend disbelief long enough to give a thing a try and see whether it works.[i] (For me, this experimentalism is probably the single most bracing and refreshing thing about Hinduism/Yoga; nothing is to be taken on blind faith, but everything is to be put to the test. As Kabir wrote, “If you have not lived through something, it is not true.”[ii])
I am exercising a great deal of shraddha toward most of the traditional beliefs about the chakras. Whether they are each really located at or near an actual neural plexus, whether they literally “open” as kundalini energy passes through them on its journey up the spinal canal, whether they truly become “blocked” or “imbalanced”–any or all of these things may be so, but you can’t prove any of them by me.
For me, the great revelation of the chakras is the enormous leap in body awareness one can make through attending to them. I’ll talk more about that in future entries; for now, I’ll just say that turning our awareness toward these centers can open us up to what is going on in our bodies, especially as they respond to emotional-spiritual stimuli.
Why is this awareness important? Because we are embodied beings, and all our experiences–including our experience of God–are rooted in what Bhagavan Das calls “this precious human body,” the only vehicle we have in our striving toward spiritual liberation.
We are all so overstimulated that it is easy to miss the “still, small voice” of God in our lives. Awareness of our physical being can help put us in touch with the God who is, as the Islamic hadith says, “closer to you than your jugular vein.”
“One needs to do so little, really, to experience God,” wrote Anthony de Mello. “All one needs to do is to quieten oneself, become still–and become aware of the feel of one’s hands. Be aware of the sensations in your hand…There you have God living and working in you, touching you, as near to you as you are to yourself.” [iii]
The great Carmelite mystic, St. Teresa of Avila, knew vividly the value of our embodied experience, and how our bodies allow us to be the Presence of God in the world:
Christ has no body now on earth but yours–no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which Christ is to go about doing good. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
[i] Paraphrased from talks by Swami Tyagananda at the Boston Vedanta Center.
[ii] Translated by Robert Bly.
[iii] de Mello, Anthony, Sadhana: A Way to God. Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1987.
There is a yoga discipline called pratyahara, which means “control of the senses” or "withdrawal of the mind from sense objects." During practice, the mind is supposed to be so focused that no distractions are able to enter our awareness. And that withdrawal is a good thing—I want to experience my experiences fully. But I like to think of pratyahara more broadly than that. When I am on a hike or picnic or retreat, for instance, I don’t want radio, television, recorded music or the internet intruding; I want to withdraw my senses from the overstimulating media that usually occupy them, so that my mind may be more available to the subtler experiences around me.
But even then, my “monkey mind,” as the Buddhists call it, continues to interpose itself between my awareness and the world. Everything I see and hear reminds me of something I need to do, someone who is trying my patience, another time and place in which I saw or heard something similar, something I know, or wish I knew, about the thing seen or heard. Nothing just is what it is on its own terms—everything becomes an object of my judgment and analysis, a springboard for my daydreams.
So I find it useful to regularly withdraw my attention, not from external stimuli, but from my internal commentary on them, which allows things to be more what they are. Be a stranger—be “not from around here,” the better to experience things as for the first time. It helps if the field of stimuli is relatively narrow—any activity I do more or less mechanically can clear a space for contemplative practice—and on a good day, when I am mowing the lawn or cleaning up the kitchen or folding laundry, I will remember to take advantage of the opportunity. Here’s what I do:
I begin by becoming aware of my breathing, which “takes attention away from thinking.”[i] The moment I begin this is one of the most satisfying moments of the day; there is a sense of release and restfulness, but not a somnolent restfulness—rather, a heightened awareness charged with energy even as it calms me, that gives me a pale glimpse of what it means to be “he who in the midst of the greatest silence and solitude finds the intensest activity, and in the midst of the intensest activity, the silence and solitude of the desert.”[ii]
I then begin to pray the so-called Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me. This prayer, adapted from the words of the blind man who called out to Jesus from the roadside, has been used in contemplative practice since the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and is still widely practiced in the Eastern churches. It is prayed over and over, like a mantra.
(A word of explanation: the Greek word eleos, which is translated “mercy,” actually has a broader meaning than we ordinarily ascribe to it, including not only forgiveness but healing. The word has the same root as elia, meaning “olive,” because prayer for healing was—as it often still is—accompanied by anointing with [olive] oil. The point being that a repeated prayer for mercy is not necessarily the grimly penitential exercise it might sound like.)
Now here’s the counter-intuitive part: you’d think that repeating something over and over in your head would just add to the chaos, but in fact it does just the opposite. When the monkey mind is occupied with the mantra, I am actually freed from the distraction of memory, anticipation, plans, regrets, fantasies and all the other busywork that occupies me most of the time. So I am able to see, hear, feel everything much more vividly, without a layer of commentary between my deeper self and my experience. What a potato feels like as I rub the dirt off its surface under the tap, how the ocean sounds on the far side of a stand of trees through which the wind is blowing, the licorice smell of a pile of pulled weeds—everything is novel and intensified, unfiltered by commentary and classification. Experience bypasses the monkey mind and registers more directly.
The Indian sage Patanjali wrote, “The Seer is intelligence only, and though pure, sees through the coloring of the intellect.”[iii] When the intellect is otherwise occupied, the view is less colored. The monkey mind leaves you alone.
"Pray without ceasing." –1 Thessalonians 5:17 This entry was originally part of a larger post at Little Teaboys Everywhere.