Mindfulness meditation, as it is known in the West, is a hugely useful and helpful thing to do if you
want to be able to cope better with the ups and downs of life and generally have a better time. Its beneficial effects are well known. Chanting mantra, however, is a different matter.
For the scientists studying the effects of meditation, both as it is happening and over the long term, mantra is a step too far. I guess it’s a bit too close to magic spells. Chanting mantras is an unequivocally spiritual thing to do. You are hailing a god or goddess through the specific syllabic code for that deity, be it Green Tara, Ganesh, Lakshmi or (if you dare) Kali, to name but a few.
I have come to believe, through my own experience, that each deity is a personification or representation of a particular quality of life and of the human condition and that when you chant a mantra you are in effect shaking that quality awake inside yourself.
What appears to be a made up superman or superwoman or super-being is, in fact, a representation of something that already exists inside you – inside all of us – and chanting or praying to that figure puts us in touch with that quality that resides inside us, as it always has; dormant, suppressed, silenced, ignored, whatever. When you chant, that quality becomes active. That’s how chanting effects change, that’s how it ‘works’.
Another important aspect of mantra, when seen in distinction to mindfulness meditation, is that you are not alone in it. From what I’ve read, mindfulness meditation involves paying attention to oneself – to one’s breath, one’s thoughts and feelings and sensory perceptions. Mantra takes you beyond yourself towards an Other – towards the deity in question. Personally I think this is a better way to proceed as it is a more accurate reflection of our lives; let me explain:
We are all subjects (me) and objects (you/them/that/it/etc). Our lives are essentially about how we navigate that duality inside ourselves. The subject in us would probably (if we’re honest) like to have everything just the way we want it. The subject also believes that what we think of as true is, well, true. The object in us, on the other hand, is constricted and limited by the fact that we are not – it turns out – the centre of the universe. To everyone else on the planet we are an object, and it’s they who are busy being a subject, and it’s they who really know what’s true. Satisfying and honouring ourselves and satisfying and honouring others at the same time is a juggling act most of us will probably not have really mastered by the time our lives come to an end. Achieving and sustaining a balance on that is probably part of what people mean when they say ‘enlightenment’.
Having a deity ‘with’ whom to meditate, through chanting, means that even in meditation, we are in relationship and are experiencing the evolving quality of that subject/object duality. The longer we chant a particular mantra, the more indistinct becomes the division between subject and object. The qualities of the deity become more and more familiar to us, and as always happens with a pleasing friendship, we begin to take on some of those qualities ourselves.
I’ve read accounts of some people practicing mindfulness meditation as it is taught in the West and experiencing, somewhere along the line, feelings of fear, anxiety and panic – feelings so strong they decide to stop the practice. I think this is because they have not entered that altered state accompanied but alone. When the subject/object duality begins to dissolve, it feels as if there’s nothing else there and a state of terror sets in. Going into meditation with a deity by your side, through chanting, is a different matter. Personally I’ve never experienced anything unpleasant in my practice (apart from the tears I’ve cried when certain unhappy aspects of my life have become clear – knowledge is power). I allow myself to know that I’m not only a subject but also an object, by hailing up Green Tara and all her benevolent and protective qualities. This means that when, in meditation, I begin to forget that I am an individual and begin to dissolve into a unified consciousness, those benevolent and protective qualities are there for me.
Perhaps if we could let go a bit of needing to feel in control, needing to have things the way we want them and thinking we are right, craving for the satisfaction of our desires, our lives would be a little more pleasant. Hailing up a made up superman, superwoman or super-being, i.e. a deity, is one way of getting off our high horse and taking our place alongside each other. The obsessive self-celebration of our culture ignores the fact that to the man or woman in the street, we’re just men and women in the street.
Om Tare Tuttare Ture Soha