“The best way to take a thorn out of one’s foot is with another thorn.”
– Swami Muktananda
Swami Muktananda was one of India’s most famous 20th Century meditation teachers, and in the above quote, Muktananda is talking about the meditation devise of mantra. He goes on to say, in his book, Meditation, that, “according to the meditation scriptures, when one wants to still the mind, which revels in thoughts, one takes the help of one thought, the mantra… Mantra is a cosmic word or sound vibration. It is the vibration of the Self, and, when we immerse ourselves in it, it leads us to the place of the Self.”
The human brain is a thought-making machine and, for modern humans, thinking is an addiction, the principle devise by which the ego reconstructs itself moment-to-moment, holding sway on our psychological experience. It gives us the gift of abstract mental forming capacity, but brings the curse of personal identity experienced in separateness in form and its accompanying insecurity. It is the purpose of meditation, in both the multiplicity of Indian traditions (Vedic, Tantric, Yogic, et al.) that become linked in Western understanding into Hinduism, and in the Buddhist traditions, to break that hold and to open the practitioner to a deeper realization of the truth of who they are beyond thinking and egoic separateness.
Both traditions refer to ego as the small self, as distinguished from essential, true or original Self, that which is in union with life. The realm of small egoic self is viewed as conditioned into us by society and creates a schism between a person and the true possibilities for life, and is considered to be the source of human emotional suffering (note the use of small-case vs. upper-case “s” – the English language has inherent awkwardness in expressing these very non-Western concepts).
Hinduism names Brahman as the universal and divine Consciousness that is the source of all that is. Its practice, in which meditation plays a central role, seeks to awaken within the practitioner the realization of their true Self as Atman, the individuated aspect of Brahman Consciousness. Buddhism, which emerged as a kind of reformation of the Hindu traditions and is much more specifically a psychology or philosophy for understanding the true nature of life, shares the belief in consciousness as the source of all that is without anthropomorphically deifying it. It seeks through meditation to awaken the realization of our Original Nature as the unconditioned consciousness that precedes the conditioned and limited egoic form of the personal self. In either tradition, the first challenge is to break the addictive hold of conditioned thought patterns, and here, mantra plays a very important role. Even meditation as a purely secular psychological practice for alleviation of stress and anxiety can be enhanced through the use of mantra.
At its most basic level, mantra is an object of meditation, in other words, something for the awareness capacity of the mind to focus upon. The word meditation means concentration, and without an object of concentration, there is no meditation. The object of meditation ultimately in both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions is the true Self, only method and the religious/psychological interpretation of true Self differs. In developing the capacity to comprehend, let alone meditate upon, the true Self, it is first necessary to train the mind’s capacity for stillness with what is referred to as “single-pointed awareness,” for ego exists within a perpetual motion thought stream and dissolves in sustained stillness. Mantra facilitates this mental stillness. This is the “thorn” with which to withdraw the thorniness of mental chatter.
In the Buddhist tradition, most typically (with some exceptions) the breath is the object, the touchstone, for meditation. Mantra or chanting can be additional important objects. In the Hindu traditions, breath also is a primary object of meditation, but with mantra playing a supreme role. Breath and mantra support each other, only the emphasis on which is supporting which is at issue. Within the Buddhist tradition, it might be accurate to say the breath, in many cases, is the mantra. Breath is not only the sensation of this life-giving phenomenon, for without breath, there is no life, but it is the sound of that which gives life. To be one with the breath is to be one with life.
As Muktananda said, “Mantra is a cosmic word or sound vibration of the Self, the true speech of the Self, and, when we immerse ourselves in it, it leads us to the place of the Self.” The Self is our sacred center. It might be called the Soul. Within the Hindu traditions, God is not a separate Supreme Being. God (Brahman) is the great consciousness of all that is, and it infuses everything. Humans have a very special capacity of self-awareness that can be awakened into realization of the consciousness of God as the source and truth of who they are. This individualized consciousness is Atman, or Self, that links to Brahman. In example, Muktananda teaches a mantra, “So’ham”, meaning, “I am That”, “That” meaning Divine Consciousness. I am one with Divine Consciousness. No separation.
To use mantra is to call to and awaken this consciousness. To use mantra is to first corral the discursive, distracted, thinking egoic mind, but then, very importantly to awaken the Self, our divine Nature. Without the theological overlay of Hinduism, Buddhism believes the same, but in a more specifically psychological manner. In Buddhist meditation we are awakening to our Original Nature or Buddha (Awakened) Nature, that which is free of psychological programming, and at one with the moment and life.
Whether the mantra is “So’ham, or “OM” – the sound of all sounds, or “Ram” – a name for God in the Hindu pantheon, or the English word “One” – not the number, but the concept of unity, or the sound and sensation of life giving breath, to use mantra is to quiet the egoic mind, and to remind and awaken the truth of our union with all life, the truth of who we are, our true Self. It awakens us from the illusion of the small separate egoic self as the limits of who we are into interconnectedness with all of life, the infinite Self. This is the insight that leads not only to spiritual realization, but, very importantly, to psychological liberation from the crazy insecure world of the ego.
Try it. Sit with dignity and relaxed alertness, breathe, be aware of your breathing, and with the exhale, silently say “One”, and be One – with the breath, with the moment, with life, and most importantly, with your completely sane and possibly divine Self within, beneath the chatter.