Slowing Down the Mind – Practicing Meditation (Part III)
Practicing meditation requires that you repeat a mantra. The mantra helps you in focusing your mind and in controlling the mind from wandering to other disparate thoughts and feelings.
As parts I and II of this write up pointed to, the mind lacks focus; it constantly oscillates between one series of thoughts to another. What should you do to harness the mind? Become one-pointed. One-pointedness is focusing the mind and discouraging it from running in multiple directions. Being one-pointed brings benefits both in the short and long terms. In the short term, a slower and focused-mind lets you cherish simple, everyday activities that you often complete mechanically, such as eating breakfast, reading a newspaper, having conversation with your spouse or child. In the long term, a slower and one-pointed mind leads you to live a happier and healthier life since you become less perturbed, more patient and tolerant, and kinder to others.
How do you learn to slow your mind and make it ‘one-pointed’? Through the practice of meditation. Practicing meditation requires that you follow a few important steps. Start by setting aside a specific time each day to practice meditation – preferably earlier in the morning, after a good night’s sleep, and before the mind becomes cluttered with everyday activities. Choose a room or a location within your home where you are less likely to be disturbed. Do not sit in the middle of your living room, where your children are running around, or the TV is blaring. After you have chosen a place to practice your meditation, sit on a mat spread on the floor, or if you are uncomfortable sitting on the floor, sit on a comfortable chair. Make sure that the chair is not so comfortable, it encourages you to sleep. What clothes should you wear while practicing meditation? Any casual clothes that you wear at home are adequate – there is no need for any fancy ‘meditation’ attire. What is more important is practicing meditation for at least fifteen minutes a day without fail.
Once you are seated for meditation, without fail, close your eyes. When you keep your eyes open, the attention begins to roam towards external objects – the clothes scattered on the cot, a bird sitting near the window sill, or your spouse walking from one room to another. Closing the eyes helps you in shutting down external images. However, closing your eyes will not automatically shut down your mind. Since the mind has no shutters, it will continue to race from one thought to another, distracting you constantly. What should you do to slow the mind and make it focus? Recite a mantra.
Mantra is similar to a prayer. Mantra is a spiritual principle and a time-tested message that is valuable and effective when you want to focus your mind. During the Vedic period (1,500-2,500 BC), the Hindu sages recited mantras to control their minds and to reach a deeper state of consciousness. In Sanskrit, man means the mind and tri means to cross or go beyond. When you recite a mantra and focus on its meaning at the same time, it helps you to become one-pointed.
Here are a few examples of mantras (or prayers) from various religions and cultures.
Erom Hinduism (Birhadaranyaka Upanisad)
Asato ma sadh ga maya (From ignorance, lead me to truth)
Thamaso ma Jyothir ga maya (from darkness, lead me to light)
Mrityor ma Amritam ga maya (From mortality to immortality)
Om Shanthi, Shanthihi (Lead me to Peace, Peace, Peace)
Buddham charanam Gacchami (I seek refuge in Buddha)
Dhammam Charanam Gacchami (I seek refuge in the ultimate truth) Sangam Charanam Gacchami (I seek to associate with people who live a life of purity)
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the word became flesh.”
From Islam (Sufi prayer)
La ilaha illa’llah; Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim (There is no God but Allah)
As the examples show, mantras were used by people from different religions and cultures, and consequently, mantras are composed in different languages. Regardless, the fundamental objective behind reciting a mantra is the same – helping one to become one-pointed and, through one-pointedness, awaken the supreme spirit that lies within. If this is so, can you then choose a mantra from any culture or religion to recite while meditating? If, after reciting a mantra for sometime – if you are not comfortable with it – change to another mantra? Although there is no prohibition against doing so, I yet will not recommend it. Choosing a mantra that is compatible with one’s culture, religion, and language creates a certain bond between you and the mantra. With a common bond, you are less likely to frequently switch from one mantra to another. If you frequently switch from one mantra to another, it is distracting, and you spend more time wasted on how to say it than focusing on the purpose of the mantra. Therefore, I recommend that you choose a mantra that you can relate to, that is meaningful, and one that you are comfortable pronouncing. After you have chosen a mantra, continue with it.
How should you recite a mantra? Should you recite the mantra like a poem or a chant or, perhaps, should you say it silently within your mind? Mantras are most effective when you recite them silently and when you continually focus on their meaning. Also, silent recital prevents you from being distracted by your own voice and from focusing on its meaning. Recite the mantra as ‘slowly’ as you could. A slower recital, in turn, helps slow down the mind. How do you decide the right speed to recite a mantra? Ask yourself a question, “Am I able to focus on the words of the mantra, while at the same, concentrate on its meaning?” If the answer is yes, then you are saying it at the ‘right’ speed.
As I highlighted, when reciting the mantra, do not let other thoughts to intrude into your mind; focus ONLY on the words and the meaning of the mantra. This suggestion, however, is easy to make, but not easy to follow. The mind is a trickster. It will trick you and drag you away from the mantra and insert other thoughts into your mind. Suppose you are reciting the mantra from the Upanisad, “Asato ma sadh ga maya.” The word asato would trigger thoughts of your assets portfolio. “I should speak to my broker about redistributing my asset portfolio.” The word broker will now lead you to your broken washing machine and that you should soon call the service people. And this chain of disparate thoughts will go on and on. Soon you will be so lost on such thoughts, the mantra and the meditation would be cast aside.
How should you then stop your mind from its digressions and make it focus on the mantra and Its meaning? When your mind begins to digress, do not fight it. The more you fight the digressions, the more your mind will pull you back into other thoughts, and the harder it will be to control it. Instead, be conscious that your mind is digressing from the mantra. With a smile, tell your mind, “you are not going to trick me. I am going back to reciting the mantra.” Take a deep breath, get back to reciting the mantra while focusing on its meaning. You may not succeed right away. For example, during the early days of practicing meditation, if you meditated for fifteen minutes, you might succeed in focusing your mind on the mantra and its meaning, perhaps for ten to twenty seconds. But this should not discourage you. Even a few seconds of ‘focus’ out of fifteen minutes of practicing meditation is worthwhile. As you continue to practice every day, your focus would become stronger and stronger. Success comes only with practice.
After practicing meditation for sometime, you would be interested in assessing whether the meditation is indeed helping you in slowing down your mind and in becoming more one-pointed. How do you assess your progress? Unlike physical exercises, meditation does not show any ‘visible’ signs of progress. If, for example, you use dumbbells to strengthen your biceps, after a month or two, you will observe the tightening of your biceps. In contrast, when practicing meditation, you can perceive the progress only by subtle changes occurring in the way you think and act. You will notice that you are becoming less agitated and more balanced in your thinking and actions. Even when confronting a stressful issue, e.g. achieving a sales target, you will approach the issue calmly and analyze the reasons why the sales performance is falling short. Instead of wasting your mental energy getting angry with your sales supervisor, you will think of ways to achieve the target. In your personal life, your interactions with your family and friends will become more composed and less judgmental. With a calmer mind, you will learn to consider other points of view. In summary, meditation will not only make you calm down, it also will change your conduct and character for the better. These small but invaluable changes in your thoughts and actions are the signs that reveal to you that you are making progress in meditation.
Dr. Ram S. Sriram