Listen to CNN or any news channel or read the newspapers and you will hear many mantras. Whether it’s “Socialism is bad!” from the tea-baggers, or “Yes we can!” from President Obama’s campaign, strong figures often use repeated phrases, either negative or positive, to get people motivated.
This use of the word mantra has arisen from the traditional custom of chanting sacred sounds or names, as done in many religious practices. Such repetition has also been put to music that transcends religious boundaries.
Sitting in a room filled with melodious voices, we were listening to the fabulous Deva Premal and Miten. They are masters at chanting and at getting the audience to participate. Spending a few hours singing a foreign language (many chants are in Sanskrit) may not sound like a lot of fun, but it has a remarkable effect. It really does uplift the spirit.
Sounding in this way is not only used to worship the sacred but also to create harmony by unifying voices into a synchronized whole. This is particularly effective if the sound does not require thought (such as being sung in an unknown language), as it is the sound that is important and not the meaning. The unity can easily be lost if the thinking mind intrudes.
Deepesh Faucheux, who was a Catholic monk, told us in our latest book (see below) 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.”
Next: Chanting as a healer
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, sleeping on the couch as she could not climb the stairs, waking up each morning hoping she would die, and gaining a lot of weight. A friend played her Deva and Miten’s chanting 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 who are feeling a lack of shared spirituality in their lives and who experience a deep and joyful resonance with the sound.
Ed learned 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 see 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.
In this context, 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.”
Mantra meditation is like spiritual food; it awakens your creative process and nourishes your spirit, while habitual or agitated thinking patterns are released. In the process you discover the silence behind the sound. It is like a broom that sweeps your mind free of clutter. What more could you want?
To practice mantra meditation, sit comfortably with your back straight. Take a few deep breaths and relax and settle 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.