1.28 tat japah tat artha bhavanam
Bouanchaud: Repeating the sacred syllable and pondering its meaning lead to its understanding.
Desikachar: In order to relate to God it is necessary to regularly address Him properly and reflect on His qualities.
Swami J: This sound is remembered with deep feeling for the meaning of what it represents.
The practice of mantra repetition comes from this aphorism. There are many different approaches to mantra work. In some traditions, a student is given a personal mantra by his/her guru that was chosen for them in particular. Om repetition is another form of mantra work. It’s an aid in meditation in that it gives the ever-chattering mind something constructive to so instead of building grocery lists and living in the past/future. The key point, I think, is that the benefit that arises from mantra repetition is not in the sound, but in the meaning. Each of our translators above underscores the need for us to recite while pondering meaning and significance. To me, this is crucial. If we’re just ticking off 1000 or 108 or whatever number of mindless recitations of whatever with the hopes that we’ll get some good out of the exercise… well, it sounds like magic thinking to me. This is yoga, not Spell Casting 101.
Last week, I delved into the ins and outs of OM, the king of the mantras if you will. I don’t use OM a lot myself. It’s never been something that’s felt particularly comfortable with me. Just for the heck of it, this week I decided to give mantra and chant a good and honest try in my daily practice. After all, yoga is both experiential and experimental, which means sometimes I need to step out of my comfort zone.
This winter in my yoga class, we were experimenting with doing very short meditations – 8 minutes every day for the purpose of developing the skill and the habit of a daily practice. It was good and I’m glad I put the effort into developing it but towards the end of the 8 week session, I was finding the 8 minutes frustratingly short. This week, I returned to my longer practice and I think after the past 8 weeks, it feels very luxurious.
OM MANI PADME HUM – the jewel in the lotus. Last week I did some reading around this mantra and its significance in Tibetan Buddhist yoga practices. In the book The Tibetan Book of Yoga: Ancient Buddhist Teachings on the Philosophy and Practice of Yoga, Geshe Michael Roach added a dimension of understanding for me that took mantra repetition from some silly artifice to something with a great deal of subtle meaning.
While the phrase OM MANI PADME HUM literally translates to “Om, the jewel in the lotus”, Geshe Roach has changed the visual focus from a lotus to a rose. Why, you ask? It’s because he’s writing to a Western audience. I’ve seen pictures of lotuses but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a real one. The closest I’ve come is its botanical cousin, the water lily. I know there’s a North American version of it Nelumbo lutea but it’s not native to Atlantic Canada any more than the Asian version of the plant. It’s for this reason that Geshe Roach substitutes the visual image of a rose for the lotus. Roses are something I know. I can picture them easily in my mind, I can recollect their fragrance, I know what the petals feel like. Roses aren’t objects that exist only in botany texts for me. I can access real life experiences of roses.
In this exercise, I envision a rose in my chest, part of the heart complex is you will. At the centre of this red, fragrant, beautiful flower is a diamond, pure, clear and radiant. The flower is representative of love and compassion for others. As the flower opens, as my heart opens to the experience of the world, the light reflects off the diamond at the centre and radiates outwards to the world. Recitation of the words of the mantra while keeping this vision in my head really helps me concentrate on my meditation. With two things to do, there’s less room for wandering for wanderlust of my little mind. Geshe Roach recommends his students use this technique for the opening two minutes of their daily practice.
The video link above runs about 25-30 minutes and I’ve been playing it during the meditation portion of my practice, sometimes chanting along with the monks and sometimes just listening. It’s been very peaceful and centring. Much to my surprise, I’m really enjoying this as part of practice, which brings me to the obvious point. It’s not the sounds I repeat, it’s the meaning. I don’t think 1000 recitations of “olive oil” would have much impact on my sense of connection with Supreme Consciousness. “OM” on its own doesn’t move me; as part of the larger mantra OM MANI PADME HUM, it’s got a lot of depth to it for me.
Frequent correspondent and regular reader of this blog, Michael from Hong Kong, wrote in last week about how mantra repetition has helped him “habituate to peace”. I love that expression – habituate to peace. So many of us, particularly anyone who has dealt with addiction issues, really understand how habituation can be a severe obstacle. Here is a habituation that decreases our suffering instead of increasing it.
So, to wrap things up, mantra repetition is ONE route to achieving the state of yoga – union with Supreme Consciousness. I’ve found this technique to be very fruitful and I intend to keep it up as part of my practice over the next two weeks while I’m still in the “OM” part of the sutras. I invite you to give it a whirl yourself. After all, yoga is experimental and sometimes it’s a good thing to just stir things up.
Until next week, thanks for reading and Namaste,