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Monday, 8 October 2012

Dharana : Mantra Meditation is the new Black

Been trying to write about this for weeks but I find it ....awkward.

If it makes you awkward too then you can just substitute a different prayer/mantra. I used omnamashivaya for meditation practice, the pranayama mantra for pranayama (gayatri works nicely too), Soham during asana.

-----------------------------
Update Nov2012

I recently switched to a loving kindness mantra

I use several versions of this EG.

May I be Safe, may I be well, may I be peaceful, may I be happy

This takes me 10 seconds to mentally chant on the inhalation and again on the exhalation. For twisting postures I cut it in half and split it between the inhalation and exhalation.

other versions

May you be Safe, may you be well, may you be peaceful, may you be happy

or

May we be Safe, may we be well, may we be peaceful, may we be happy

or

May we they Safe, may they be well, may they be peaceful, may they be happy

see my earlier post
http://grimmly2007.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/live-lightly-metta-sutta.html

back to the original post.....
------------------------------------------

Also there two ways (at least) to look at the meaning of the word yoga. it can Union, with Brahma, with God or as I'm more interested in, as clarity, focus, peace. this approach to mantra can work for either or both

'It can be seen that Patanjali's definition of Yoga does not suggest the usual connotation of Yoga as union. Yoga meaning union requires at least two separate principles to come together and ultimately unite, like prana and apana in Hatayoga, but in this sutra only cittavritti is dealt with and no union with another principle is suggested. Vyasa in his commentary says Yoga is samadhi, or a state of mind and not union. Sankara in his exposition of Yogasutras refers to yoga as samadhana or unalloyed peace. He says that Patanjali has used the word not in the meaning of yoga as union (yukti) but as samadhana or peace of mind. The word Yoga can be derived from two differentroots yujir meaning yoga as in union and yuja as in samadhi meaningabsolute peace of mind and the sutras use Yoga in the (second) sense,that of absolute peace'.
Srivatsa Ramaswami April 2012 Newsletter

So anyway, on Ramaswami's TT course we practiced asana and then we studied pranayama, approaches to pratyahara, he also taught us Japa mantra meditation. He gave us a mantra and we would mentally chant it, for ten, twenty, forty minutes. The mantra acts as an object, a focus of attention, concentration practice, Dharana.

I've struggled with japa for the last couple of years, every now and again switching back to Vipassana  before pulling out the mala beads again and having another crack at it.

The thing is that the  mantra doesn't have any resonance for me, it's never really taken hold and I haven't  understood why until recently. Perhaps if I lived in India for a sufficient period of time it would be different.

A few weeks ago I came across and started looking at the old Desert Fathers, the Christian yogis, now that was the real 'Christian Yoga'. The men and woman between the 4th and 14th century who would go out into the desert and live in caves for years on end, seeking a direct experience of god, becoming one with brahma as it were. In this old Christian contemplative tradition, more often than not the focus was on prayer, and often a short one at that e.g. the Jesus prayer


The classic formulations of the Jesus Prayer

Short form

Lord Jesus Christ have mercy

Long form

Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner

Now I'm not convinced I have the God gene or indeed a religious bone in my body, never had much of a christian upbringing plus I Majored in Philosophy at Uni ( Canterbury) so a fair dose of Phil of Religion which tended to consist in challenging the arguments of Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes etc. Being Canterbury I had friends in Theology though and was part of a Heidegger reading group of philosophers, theologians, scientists. Theology is perhaps the only department philosophers are truly in awe of, those guys can think. But huge issues with Christianity, the Church, dogma wherever I've come across it, the Church's clumsy approach to issues of the day.

I did teach at a Christian prep school though where I was supposed to teach a class weekly on Religion. Came in for the first class, wrote Religion on the blackboard then added an S and taught them about Buddha...kids loved it...parents not so much.

I say I never had a Christian upbringing but of course growing up in the West you can't really avoid a Christian upbringing, it's there somewhere, in some form or other in pretty much every book we read, movie or TV program we watch, in everything we say and hear, it's in our language, our use of language, metaphors we use, the images we see, and not just the more obvious religious art. And then of course there's Christmas and Easter, the different movie versions of the little baby Jesus story, whether it's The Greatest Story ever told, The RobeBen Hur, years and years of those.
lol



And then later of course there was Blake and Dante and Milton.....

Heidegger referred to it as a worldview, and it's one of the arguments for working within your tradition.

I did live in a cattle truck in the Negev desert for a few months one year reading the Bible pretty much cover to cover, more out of curiosity than anything else. Thought about joining a monastery once too, mainly for the solitude and study, not being a believer was a bit of a deal breaker.

So obviously I had problems, big big problems with words like

Jesus
Christ
God
Sinner

Mercy, not so much except in this context.

And yet because of the culture I've been brought up in, there's also a resonance, gravitas. Grow up in India and Shiva, Kali, Krishna are going to mean something to you deep down in the marrow of your being, for me Shiva isn't so scary, Kali merely a little disturbing ( OK a lot, some scary imagery there)...Ganesha kinda cute, Krishna... frustrating. It's a similar thing with icon's images of Shiva, Ganesha don't really have the same impact for me as for example the Pantocrator of Hagia Sophia which I find quite powerful
Mosaic from the Deesis Panel of the South Gallery of the Hagia Sophia (1185-1204)
So exploring the Jesus prayer as a mantra was ....problematic, awkward at first and yet I also felt that I was saying something and the, for me,  problematic words, would startle me sometimes to attention, the mind cant wander so much when your saying Sinner or Christ and of course attention, focus, is what we're after right.

I would have been happier with the short form, less challenging but the interesting thing about the Jesus Prayer is how you use it, chant the first part on the inhalation the second part on the exhalation. I tend to breath quite long and slow so I want a slightly longer mantra and around the same length to both parts. That left me with the long form, which, as I said, isn't necessarily a bad thing as the heavy words of the thing keep bringing you back to attention.

Of course I can soften it somewhat, think Brahma for God, Vayu for Jesus perhaps. Mercy is loving kindness, ahmisa, and even sinner I can use as transgression, as not living up to my yamaniyamas. I can do that but of course all those other connotations of those words that I grew up with are always there, floating around in the background.

Something about the repetition of mantras, the growing familiarity perhaps, but they do become comforting, calming. There are certain Indian mantras I'd chant along to myself throughout the day, kind of like the way a line from a song would get stuck in your head and you'd find yourself humming it all day.

Same thing with the Jesus Prayer, it gets stuck in your head and you find yourself coming back to it again and again throughout the day and this of course is also the point, constant prayer or in the yoga tradition, constant focused attention.

But the interesting thing, the really interesting thing is the placement. You place you mantra or in this case your Jesus Prayer in your heart, that's where it lives and so when you chant it, out loud or mentally it's not in your head but on the breath and in your heart, your attention keeps coming back to your breath and to your heart ,to one point, sound familiar, ekagrata one point awareness.

So here's how I've been using the Jesus Prayer in my practice. Now just as Ramaswami will say you don't have to use and Indian mantra if that makes you uncomfortable you don't have to use the Jesus prayer either. I recommend though a mantra or appropriate , meaningful line from a song that can be split into two equal parts and that has nicely balanced syllables ( see the top of this post for links to other mantras).

Two approaches

Linking the prayer to the breath, first half on inhalation, second half on exhalation

and

Linking each syllable to the beat of your heart

So in my asana, through all two hours or more of my Ashtanga practice on every inhalation I'm mentally chanting

Lord Jesus Christ Son of God

and on every exhalation

Have mercy on me a sinner.

In pranayama practice I've reluctantly dropped my beloved pranayama mantra and use the Jesus Prayer there as well. Chanting it slowly, mentally in full once on the inhalation, on the inhaled  retention, the exhalation and exhaled retention fort suryabheda. For nadi shodhana I chant it once on the inhalation, repeat it four times on the retentions, twice on the exhalation and once more on the retention.

Pratyahara
withdraw the senses and allow the prayer to rest in your heart, you don't chant it exactly but it's there like an echo, of course it is you've just been chanting it for a couple of hours

Meditation practice.
This is where you link the prayer to your heart and this will then carry over into your asana, pranayama and pratyahara practice. I didn't mention it before because you can just worry about linking it to the breath in the beginning but it's when you link it to the heart also that it really becomes interesting.

So breathe in and follow the breath down into your chest, you'll end up in the area around your heart, keep the attention there as you exhale and re enforce the attention with each inhalation. After a while you should begin to notice the beating of your heart. (try it in the bath with your ears under the water or put some earplugs in till you get the hang of it). Now, still mentally chanting half of the prayer on the inhalation, half on the exhalation, link the syllables of the prayer to your heartbeat.

And that's all there is to it. in the beginning you might want to chant it quietly aloud or just move your tongue in your mouth but without making a sound. or you might relax the tongue completely and chant it mentally. After a little while it begins to chant/say itself right there in your heart.

And if you want to get really fancy, light it up. As you bring attention to the heart imagine a light shining there, effulgence.

The prayer/mantra, heart, breath, effulgence they all get connected, focus on one and all the others come online.

You can repeat it using mala beads or use a timer, ten fifteen, thirty minutes, longer it's up to you. Start with ten perhaps, I tend to do thirty.

As I said, once you've set up the relationship to the heartbeat you can bring that into play in the other aspects of your practice.

Bringing it all together
When you first step on the mat take a moment and breathe, engage the prayer now allow it to link up to your heart, that will regulate the pace of your practice. You'll lose track of your heartbeat but in certain postures you'll be able to more easily bring it back, either way the prayer/mantra ends up taking up residence in your heart.

Richard Freeman talks about keeping heart awareness throughout your practice, on the exhalation the attention shifts downward towards mula bandha and then up towards the heart on the inhalation but the idea is to keep the heart present in the mind as you exhale to mula bandha and keep the mula bandha online as you inhale to the heart, both the heart and mula bandha are constantly online, present.

So you can do the same here with the prayer, still give attention to mula bandha but the prayer, the mantra lives in the heart and is brought back there constantly.

Another nice link with Richard Freeman is that there's something about the word mercy that causes me to relax my palate every time, Richard would love that.

And like I said, it doesn't stop with practice. Because your saying chanting the prayer/mantra for three hours in the morning during focused asana/pranayama/pratyahara/meditation practice and again for another hour and a half or so in the Vinyasa Krama evening practice, it soon takes up residence. You come back to it again and again throughout your day, tending to it and pretty much allowing it to just do it's thing, calming and grounding.


Philokalia

I can't mention the Jesus Prayer without mentioning the Philokalia, this is a book of sayings of the desert fathers stretching from the 4th to the 14th century. The prayer crops up a lot there but it's interesting for it's insight into the contemplative tradition, these desert yogis were writing it all down. More on the philokalia on another post perhaps.

There's a shorter version Writings from the Philokalia that is mostly concerned  with the Jesus prayer.

Something similar perhaps to the version the pilgrim carried around in the delightful little book call the Way of the Pilgrim


....or you can just read Salinger's Franny and Zooey, if you haven't already as an intro.

16 comments:

  1. Hi Anthony

    interesting you should post this. I already told you about my 'problem' with chanting, and of course mantras are a similar story... but recently I realise their power in asana.

    I took part in the Yoga Aid 108 Sooryanamaskar challenge and when doing then on my own in preparation, after the first half or so when the body was not scared anymore and the mind started to wander, I realised how potent the repetitive recitation of a chant/mantra could be. I used the 'sahanavavatu' one and linked each string of the chant with one breath. It helped a lot!
    I guess it is also for me a matter of finding something I can relate to and I want to bring another example. I tend to fall into a pattern of intrusive thoughts whenever I do some repetitive activity which only uses little brain power (weeding, hoovering, cleaning the house etc). I realised that singing is a great way to focus the mind out of negativity. I typically choos a song which lyrics are somewhat related to the thoughts I am haivng. In Italy we even have a saying 'sing and you'll be alright' which I am sure makes sense in this light.

    Here a paper which is directly related to your post, you might like it: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC61046/
    I found it some time ago when I was looking into heart rate variability and the effects of breathing.

    As usual, thanks for prompting discussion with your personal experiences
    chiara

    ReplyDelete
  2. It's always a pleasure to read your posts. Two things: check out Northrope Frye newly posted lectures of the bible on Ontario's TVO site, and second, I heard that Joseph Campbell said that yoga was the ritual tending to the Indian mythic. Here is my own video on Krishna: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DasLAB-CXs8&feature=plcp

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  3. Hi Anthony,

    In the Sahaj Marg meditation that I practice, any type of mantra is purposely avoided because meditation is supposed to be subtle and any type of mantras or repetitions just adds grossness(implying too much of something). Instead, the aim is to focus our attention on the divine light in the heart. It is a mere supposition and you don't even need to imagine it or see it. If your mind wanders as it will, periodically go back to the divine light to anchor it back. That's all there is to it, no gods or goddesses, no religion and a true spiritual practice that anyone from any background will feel comfortable.

    Satya

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  4. Great post. A couple years ago a teacher advised me to spend my meditation practices focusing just on my own heartbeat until...well, until I was in tune with and could sustain a connection with it. It was hard at first, but a helpful technique he gave me was to actually rest my fingers on my wrist or my neck, essentially feeling my pulse, while sitting. It's a good place to start if the heartbeat is hard to find, or to keep.

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  5. I'm currently reading the book "Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep" and there are some very good rudimentary concentration/dharana exercises contained within. Becomes a 24 hr practice when you can carry over into dream... ;)

    ReplyDelete
  6. thank you for the link Chiara, had a quick look, interesting will give it a closer read on my day off. I used soham during asana for awhile, was ok but the mind still tended to wander. What I like about this is the linking the prayer/mantra to the breath and the heartbeat.

    Likewise Zendia, I'll take a closer look at your links at the weekend. Northrope Frye, there's a blast from the past, haven't read him since Uni.

    ReplyDelete
  7. hi Satya. Yes there's that movement in the yoga Sutras to ever subtler objects of meditation until you move to meditation without object. I was exploring meditating on effulgence in the heart in Santorini, easier there, the experience of light is so pervasive in that part of the world, find it harder in grey and cloudy England.
    Here I'm using my ....uncomfortableness with Christianity, my own tradition, to constantly startle myself back to attention. using it as a hook if you will to link the breath to the heartbeat and the effulgence also. What i'm finding already is that the mantra/prayer seems to on automatic a lot of the time, i hesitate to say 'presence in my heart' but certainly a heaviness in my chest. i finding that useful because when i tend to it I can bring the effulgence more easily into play, light it up as it were. It;s an interesting technique, stage, approach not sure which.
    If you ever feel like doing a guest post on Sahaj Marg let me know.

    ReplyDelete
  8. hi kristen, yes i do that too sometimes to check in on the heart beat, also at the beginning of practice with the hands together in namaste for the opening chant, resting over the heart to tune in. It's a good reminder for practice too not let the heart start racing b ut to calm the practice down or take a moment to rest in savasana as ramaswami recommends. problematic for Ashtangi's because there's the idea of keeping the heat up but you can intensify the ujjayi in savasana to keep the heat while still slowing the heart rate.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Will take a look at the book Anon, amused at the idea of 24/7 meditation

    ReplyDelete
  10. Hi Anthony
    Thanks for this interesting post. Curiously enough my practice already quite some years back, oeven before my asana practice began I was chanting the short version of the Jesus prayer for quite some time after having read one book witch deeply touched me about the Russian mystics.
    It opened my mind to Christianity in a way I had never seen before and since I was already familiar with yoga it just sounded like, the way you pointed out “Christian Yoga” guys going out to live in caves and feverously desiring to be one with their father or God, very much in the same way the yogis did, living under certain precepts fasting and so on.

    Soon after that the book the pilgrim came in to my hands, I couldn’t help seeing the same similarities you point out and others, such as even locking the neck, like in Jalandhara bandha.
    So with a sandal wood mala I recited this for quite a while and even though I didn’t have a Christian upbringing there seemed to be a deep resonance with the idea of Jesus at that time, I read the gospels and also found some astounding similarities in the teachings with those of yoga and even the miracles as forms of siddhis and similar stories you hear about Indian saints or Buddhist monks anyway to not to go off the subject of mantra.
    I never used the long version of the prayer because of the sinner thing witch never resonated with me I would stop on the “have mercy on me” removing the sinner and I must admit at the time I did feel an expansion of the heart.
    But at some point I changed to the Maha mantra or the Krishna mantra for the ideas of sinner and Jesus suffering on the cross where some how feeling to negative and I don’t know why the Krishna mantra felt more loving, sweet perhaps, like a close friend, and also there is something about pronouncing the Christ, and Krishna mentally witch seems to have an intense breaking sensation in the mind almost like glass breaking for me, witch seems to brings the mind to a stop similar to the bija syllable Krim related with Kali mantra of energy and transformation ,she who fiercely cuts the heads of every last ego remain in complete lunacy, there is no tenderness or softness in her approach. Also KRIM is a mantra of Indra, KRIM is the thunderbolt or vajra that destroys the serpent of the ignorance and releases the light of absolute truth.
    So I think there is a subtle importance in the syllables itself , so another point of focus is to really sink in to the syllable itself and not so much the meaning for example OM-NA-MA-HA-SHI-VA-YA and of course divided either in 2 or repeated once in the incoming breath and another in the outgoing, depending on the length of your breath, as well as it being 7 syllables you could also travel through the 7 chakras as a kriya practice it seems it all comes to really bring the mind under control.

    But definitely this is a subject I find myself very interested in that deserves a lot more space and attention, but just to round it up. Recently I repeat a mantra that was given to me in India by an Indian sage known as Om Gurudev, sometimes I use mala although he never encouraged it, as it is in the tradition this mantra should remain secret but basically it’s asking for the essence of the self or soul to reveal it self and curiously enough the same emphasis on repeating the mantra within the heart is made and one last thing before I stuck to this mantra I jumped back and forth between mantras al lot, omnamahshivaya, omnarayana, soham, the jesus prayer or simply Om and others, just to see wich one felt right. So the thing is I discovered I really enjoy chanting and I keep these mantras open more for chanting but as an individual dharana I stick to one mantra although I’m not as disciplined in my practice as you, but I do practice it occasionally in meditation, asana, pranayama or whenever it stars playing itself out as in ajapa japa.

    Anyway I leave my post until here because I could just keep on going by the way a pleasure to make your acquaintance.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Hmm.. guest post on Sahaj Marg? Sounds like a great idea. I really do feel that Sahaj Marg has great appeal to Ashtangi types because it has a regimented practice, great lineage, wonderful literature (including personal daily recorded experiences from the original founder and the current master) and comes from the Raja Yoga tradition. In addition, it is entirely free to learn and practice.

    By the way, 24/7 meditation or what we call "constant remembrance" is also a key recommended practice in Sahaj Marg once you get a handle on the daily meditation practice. It is said to be superior to meditation but obviously harder to master.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Thank you for taking the time to write such a detailed comment Quetzalastral. I dropped the sinner bit for a while too but really wanted to balance the chant so put it back. I decided to go with one of the New testament Greek words for sin paraptōma, which means 'miss' I believe, as in to miss the mark, come up short. i like that idea in the sense of the yamaniyamas for example where your doing your best to live up to them as to perhaps the goal of practice. But of course in the background are always all the other connotations i grew up with but as I mentioned, i find that uncomfortableness useful for practice, the word still startles me to attention.

    Interesting what you say about the negative aspect of the suffering of the cross. I find that translates into a positive. Though resistant to the church, growing up with the image of Jesus 'suffering for' is incredibly powerful, the whole story revolves around it of course, the nativity more beautiful and poignant because we know how it turns out, resulting in a warmth, possibly even love for the man or idea of the man if not for the church itself. Either way I find it creates a powerful connection, perhaps why I find that icon so powerful and as you say even the word jesus, perhaps something similar goes on culturally with Krishna or Shiva.

    Ramaswami would say not to worry about the meaning of a mantra so much ( at least in the beginning) but to focus on the sound of the mantra.

    And of course with the Jesus prayer, it's not supposed to create images, perhaps it too is just a tool to bring effulgence into the heart.

    got to stop there as i need to get off to work but thank you again for your sharing your own experience/practice of this.

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  13. Yes Anthony,
    I agree I'd forgotten that sinner comes from the word to miss the target and dharana precisely is to keep the mind focused on the target.

    So definitely it seems that whatever works for the individual to focus on that slowly brings the mind into stillness and a bigger appreciation of the heart or Self, we are so diverse that I think it's wonderful that there is something out there for everyone.

    Thanks for taking the time to answer and congrats on the awesome blog.

    ReplyDelete
  14. This is really great, and is the practice, I would think, of more people than we realize.

    Around six years ago in a time of great existential crisis, I was trying it all - Insight Meditation, Psychotherapy, Zumba, whatever. When the dust settled a bit, what helped was Ashtanga/Vinyasa Yoga and the Episcopal Church. I have used the Jesus Prayer in my practice for some years now as my mantra. I say it to myself during the practice, or during chanting and whatnot. Its never really seemed contradictory to me, they've never seemed at odds.

    A lovely book that probably prevented the orthodoxy of either from bullying out the other was _Living Simply Through the Day: Spiritual Survival in a Complex Age_ by Tilden Edwards.

    He uses the wisdom he gleaned from Tibetan spiritual techniques and also yoga exercises to deepen his faith as Western Christian. Many Christian believers seem to find Asian or other non-Christian faith intimidating or even Satanic -- however Edwards exhibits clearly and simply how wisdom from the east may boost, rather than confuse, a Christian faith.

    Anyway, thanks for this and the book is highly recommended to you and others interested in this subject matter.



    ReplyDelete
  15. This is really great, and is the practice, I would think, of more people than we realize.

    Around six years ago in a time of great existential crisis, I was trying it all - Insight Meditation, Psychotherapy, Zumba, whatever. When the dust settled a bit, what helped was Ashtanga/Vinyasa Yoga and the Episcopal Church. I have used the Jesus Prayer in my practice for some years now as my mantra. I say it to myself during the practice, or during chanting and whatnot. Its never really seemed contradictory to me, they've never seemed at odds.

    A lovely book that probably prevented the orthodoxy of either from bullying out the other was _Living Simply Through the Day: Spiritual Survival in a Complex Age_ by Tilden Edwards.

    He uses the wisdom he gleaned from Tibetan spiritual techniques and also yoga exercises to deepen his faith as Western Christian. Many Christian believers seem to find Asian or other non-Christian faith intimidating or even Satanic -- however Edwards exhibits clearly and simply how wisdom from the east may boost, rather than confuse, a Christian faith.

    Anyway, thanks for this and the book is highly recommended to you and others interested in this subject matter.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Thanks James, amused that you tried Zumba as well as everything else, to deal with your existential crisis. Book sounds interesting, will look out for it, thanks for that.

    ReplyDelete

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A Reminder

from Kalama sutra, translation from the Pali by Bhikkhu Bodhi This blog included.

"So, as I said, Kalamas: 'Don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, "This contemplative is our teacher." When you know for yourselves that, "These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering" — then you should abandon them.' Thus was it said. And in reference to this was it said.

"Now, Kalamas, don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness' — then you should enter & remain in them. Buddha - Kalama Sutta
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