Updated: Nov 10, 2020
A mantra is a tool that we use to learn our habits of mind and gently steer them in a more positive and open direction. We do this through genuine acceptance of our current state of mind, rather than creating an imagined sense of peace. As the old saying goes “the only way out, is through.”
Someone asked a really great question during one of the early meditation classes we’ve been running. She said something to the effect of, “I’m surprised we are using a mantra to do this meditation. Wouldn’t a mantra block out the thoughts we are having? Isn’t this in essence, blocking out our true experience and replacing it with something fake?" The short answer to this question is yes and no.
A mantra is a tool that we use to learn our habits of mind and gently steer them in a more positive direction. Basically, the mantra is what we use to begin to work with our minds. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of different ways to work with your mind. Buddhist, transcendental, or mindfulness practices, mindfulness-based stress reduction, and prayer to name a few. Regardless of the technique, however, there is always a deliberate movement of your attention away from your habitual patterns. This movement requires the centering, or cycling, of your attention from one focus to another.
Cycling consists of two parts. Focusing and releasing. The first step (focusing) would be the placement of your attention on a focal point. As you stay with this focal point you will inevitably get lost (yes, this happens to literally everyone, you’re not doing it wrong). Step two (releasing) occurs once you notice you lost your focal point and have drifted into thoughts or daydreams. You congratulate yourself for noticing you lost your focal point. Then you release the thought and head back to your focal point.
As an example, in Buddhist Vipassana practice, you focus on the sensation of the breath (breath = focal point). As you breathe in and out, thoughts eventually enter into your field of awareness (distraction). The idea would be that you notice these thoughts (hooray!) and realize that you are thinking. At that point, you release the thoughts and gently head back to the sensation/feeling of the breath.
With mantra meditation, we are doing something very similar. Instead of using the breath as our focal point, however, we are focusing on a mantra. You can read more about mantra in a future post, but for now, suffice it to say that the mantra is a word that has a positive, uplifting, and life-supporting quality. So instead of focusing on something neutral, like the breath, we are putting a positive intention behind the flow of our minds.
With the use of a mantra, you are gently changing the direction of your thoughts/emotions. You are replacing whatever thought pattern you are having with a different one. So yes, you are in essence “blocking” the bad, negative, thoughts. The process is a bit more nuanced than that, however. You are not simply forcing the negative or distracting thought habit away.
Think of the mantra as a tool that gently interrupts the typical flow of energy through your mind. As you repeat your mantra, you create a break in the typical flow of your mind. You replace the distracting/negative/unhelpful thoughts with ones that are more adaptive, resilient, and positive; anything that would offer you a sense of relief.
Now, this is where the nuance comes in. You don’t need (or want) to stay with your mantra 100% of the time. This is the part that trips people up. Once you feel your mantra start to slip away, let it go. Yes, you heard that right. Release it. You already did your job. You broke the typical flow of energy through the mind. The pattern is already starting to break. So just let the mantra go… drift into your typical thoughts. Stay with these thoughts for a bit and just notice how they make you feel. What does it genuinely feel like in your mind?
"Can I accept how I am feeling without trying to judge it, change it, or make it be anything but what it is?"
Distracting? Negative? Neutral? If you experience any of this, you may gently ask yourself, can I accept this experience just for now? Can I accept how I am feeling without trying to judge it, change it, or make it be anything but what it is? As you ponder these questions you may even notice that your desire to go back to the mantra prematurely would create more turbulence in your mind. This time you decide to just stick with these feelings and allow them to move through you as best you can. It is only once you have accepted the feelings that you can move back to the mantra.
So how do you know when you’ve accepted it? Simply put, the feeling will change (your experience will shift). Any negativity or distraction will dissolve on its own and you will get called back to your mantra. This is because acceptance, on a deeper level, is always part of the mantra. The most important rule of meditation is to allow the flow. We want to head to more resilient and adaptive mind-states. We don't do this by sacrificing our present experience, however. We do this through genuine acceptance of our current state of mind, rather than creating an imagined sense of peace. Make sense? Again, there is a lot of nuance here. It will be grounds for a future post as well so stay tuned.
As a final note, people often mistake meditation as an escape from life. This could not be further from the truth. If you are working with the mantra correctly it’s going to show you where you are stuck. It will bring up all the areas in your life where you are trapped physically, mentally, and emotionally. As the old saying goes “the only way out, is through.” If you want a true and lasting peace, you cannot hide from your shit. You must learn to accept it and move through it.