Listen to CNN or any news channel or read the newspapers and you will find the word mantra used to mean any oft-recited saying, whether positive or not. For instance, James Arthur Ray, well-known from ‘The Secret’, uses motivational mantras promising endless spiritual and financial wealth, while the tea-baggers believe their mantra that ‘socialism is bad.’ At least Obama’s mantra, ‘Yes we can!’ is an affirmative one.
This use of the word mantra has arisen from the traditional custom of chanting sacred sounds or names, as done in many religious practices. Spending a few hours singing a foreign language (many chants are in Sanskrit) may not sound like a lot of fun, yet it has a remarkable effect. It really does uplift the spirit. We were at a concert with Deva Premal and Miten, masters at chanting and at getting the audience to participate. The room was filled with melodious voices.
Sounding in this way is not only a means of worshiping the sacred but also creates harmony by unifying voices into a synchronized whole. This is particularly effective if the sound does not require thought, such as chanting in Latin, as it is the sound that is important and not the meaning. However, the unity can easily be lost if the thinking mind intrudes.
Deepesh Faucheux, who was a Catholic monk, told us in our book, Be The Change, about the effect of the Gregorian chanting in his monastery: “Gregorian frequency works on the brain in a particular way to elevate us to a spiritually altered state. It was always a collective chant—what is called ecclesia. A group of people with a single purpose of worship attuned together, their behavior, sensibilities, and moods all harmonized. The frequency of the sound deeply affected us, it smoothed out the rough edges, anger or fear. It was like Prozac! I would get very high, even transported. It made many of the petty things that happened seem totally unimportant and made life in the monastery bearable, even blissful. It was the only therapy the monastery needed. But when we stopped chanting in Latin and tried to do it in the local dialect, many of the monasteries and convents fell apart because the people started fighting with each other. They had lost that shared integrative quality.”
Apart from calming the mind and reducing friction, chanting can also be powerfully healing. Miten shared the moving story of a woman who had been deeply depressed for two years, gaining a lot of weight and waking up each morning hoping she would die. A friend played her Deva and Miten’s CD and she began to sob, followed by a huge release. She played their music constantly and one morning, when she woke up, for the first time she was able to appreciate the sun filling her room. She had thoughts of how she could share love, instead of longing to die.
Deva and Miten hear such stories constantly, especially from people who know nothing of the meaning of the chant but, feeling a lack of shared spirituality in their lives, then experience a deep and joyful resonance with the sound.
Ed learnt chanting when he lived in India. While on a teaching tour a man came to him and asked for Ed to come to his home to visit his ailing wife. When Ed entered their simple mud hut, he chanted a healing mantra—Om Namah Shivaya—over the woman’s bed. She immediately lit up with a big smile and grasped his hand.
Mantra meditation is like spiritual food; it awakens our creative process and nourishes our spirit, while habitual or agitated thinking patterns are released. In the process we discover the silence behind the sound. It is like a broom that sweeps our mind free of clutter. What more could we want?
A mantra is a word or phrase that has special meaning, such as shalom, peace or shanti. It may be the name of a spiritual being, such as Mother Mary, Hare Krishna, or Namo Buddha. In the east Om or Aum is a favorite sound as it means the sound of the universe. Or, as the western spiritual teacher Ram Dass, says: “Each person can use the mantra ‘I am loving awareness.’ Just repeat this and become loving awareness. Then share that loving awareness with all others.”
To practice mantra meditation, sit comfortably with a straight back. Take a few deep breaths and relax your body. Then begin to repeat the mantra, either silently or intoning it out loud if you are alone. Repeat it in rhythm with your breathing. If you get distracted or drift off into thinking, just bring your mind back to the sound.