Repeating the sacred syllable and pondering its meaning lead to its understanding.
YSP I:28 — Bouanchaud translation
I confess that I struggled with this sutra for most of the week. I was hung up on the mantra aspect of it for too long. The fruit of our vital conversation came immediately upon opening your email Christmas morning: Repetition is the mother of all learning.
Yes, of course. I had allowed myself to bog down on the specifics of the sutra instead of taking a global approach to it. As soon as I read your words, the entire thing snapped into place.
This summer I did a lot of reading and studying on the human brain, neurophysiology and the advances of research in that area. When I studied my introductory anatomy classes, some 25 years ago, it was assumed that adult brains were incapable of change. Essentially, once we reached a certain stage of development, our brain architecture was immutable and all that was left was the unavoidable decline of age or the precipitous decline of injury. Stroke victims weren’t offered much in the way of treatment because, well, we all “knew” that brains couldn’t heal themselves. Thankfully, a lot of the future neurophysiologists were asleep during that lecture because they didn’t “know” what all the rest of us “knew” and they disregarded it completely. Today, because we now do know that brains can ‘rewire’ themselves, stroke victims are given treatments to help heal the brain after injury. People with massive brain traumas aren’t assumed to be beyond help and children born with autistic brains are given help to manage their brain functions.
One of the principles behind all these developments is Hebbsian learning, if you wanted the Google search term for it. It reads:
When an axon of cell A is near enough to excite a cell B and repeatedly or persistently takes part in firing it, some growth process or metabolic change takes place in one or both cells such that A’s efficiency, as one of the cells firing B, is increased.
The somewhat snappier way to remember it is “Neurons that fire together; wire together”. In short, it’s all about repetition. Repeating something, an action, a word, a thought, is an essential part of learning. When we repeat stuff (word, action or thought), we literally make changes in the architecture of the neural pathways of the brain. We reinforce existing pathways. If any of this rings bells with the yogic notion of samskara, you are not alone. It immediately brought it forward in my mind and I suspect that Hebb’s postulate is as large part of the explanation behind the mechanics of yoga teaching on samskarah. We live in exciting times, Jenni. I believe that modern western science, so often seen by some as its enemy, will prove to be yoga’s greatest ally.
So back to the sutra in question. Among many books that I read this summer was The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, MD. I can’t lay my hands on my copy of it right now, so I’m rather dancing around my memories of his ideas instead of quoting it exactly. One of the central ideas that stuck in my brain as I was reading was the notion of language and how it impacts the brain. Doidge argues that one of the better things we can do for ourselves as we age is learn additional languages because language acquisition and use works four major functional areas of the brain simultaneously. When we’re chanting (arguably anything and not just “ohm”) we’re working these four major areas of the brain. I “hear” it even if I’m chanting silently. I visualize the word as I’m chanting. I attach meaning to it. It’s part of my symbol manipulation processes and if I’m chanting aloud, I’m activating the speech centers.
So what happens when we chant, either aloud or silently in a meditative sense? I think we’re rewiring our brains with a more godly focus. I suppose it depends on which mantra one chooses for this type of mediation. For the record, I don’t use “ohm”. I’ve replaced it with a phrase imbued with great meaning within my own religious tradition.
Thank you, Jenni, for having helped me understand this sutra more clearly. Already I’m benefiting from our collaboration in this vital conversation.