In the movie, “The Karate Kid,” Mr. Miyagi begins to teach karate to young Daniel by having him do chores requiring simple repetitive movements. Who can forget the memorable Zen wisdom of “Wax on wax off”?
Repeating a mantra is a spiritual equivalent of Mr. Miyagi’s training method. This has been the core of my meditative practice since I started studying yoga thirty-seven years ago. If I had gotten a dollar for every time I’ve said a mantra in or out of meditation, I’d be rolling in riches.
Since that didn’t happen, the question is: have I benefited spiritually from the countless hours I’ve engaged in mantra meditation? I don’t know. But I suspect that I’ve frittered away much of the potential benefit by failing to understand the difference between waxing on and waxing off.
Most of the time our minds are full of useless thoughts. Repeating a mantra such as “Om” is supposed to clear out a lot of that unessential mental debris. Instead of cultivating many different thoughts (most of them weeds), we’ve thinned the garden of mentality down to a single crop.
This monoculture of consciousness would produce a boring blandness if the mantra was all that we were aware of. What’s the point of trading the rich diversity of our external and internal worlds for an endlessly repeated word (or words)? However, the basic hypothesis of mantra meditation is that clearing the mind of clutter enables us to perceive reality more clearly.
When I’m not wearing my contact lenses, I usually have my glasses on. Like right now. I don’t clean them very often. Between me and my computer screen are a bunch of blurs. Dust. Grime. Dirt. Water spots. Still, all that isn’t as bad as how my dark glasses looked after my wife wiped them with a cloth that had gotten smeared with hand lotion. Wax on. Couldn’t get it off. Couldn’t see clearly. Had to put on another pair of dark glasses before I crashed the car.
This points to the problem with the mantra meditation hypothesis. A mantra can just as easily obscure as it clarifies. It all depends on whether you are waxing on or waxing off. I’ve come to believe that a mantra filled with meaning is akin to the greasy cloth that my wife used to try to clean my glasses.
That word, or words, leaves a mental residue. For example, a traditional Christian mantra is “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Assuming that you know English, it would be almost impossible to repeat those words without thinking about Jesus and mercy. You may stop yourself from thinking about other things, but Jesus’ mercy is certainly going to be on your mind.
I believe that mantra meditation can lead to a clearer view of reality. Inside of my head, I feel like I’m getting closer to the essence of life, existence, and consciousness when I sit on my meditation cushion in darkness and silence, repeat a single syllable, and become aware of what remains. Outside of my head, I feel more connected to other people and the world when my mind is filled with the simple unifying sound of a mantra rather than many divisive thoughts.
For a long time, though, I repeated a mantra that had a significant meaning to me. I realize now that this meaning was like Mr. Miyagi’s wax. Every time I repeated the mantra I was rubbing something onto my consciousness, rather than clearing something off.
Basic rule of car cleaning: you don’t use the same cloth to clean the wax off that you used to put the wax on. Applying this principle to meditation, I’ve come to the conclusion that the more meaningless a mantra is, the better. It shouldn’t be associated with a person, theology, metaphysics, or goal that has any meaning.
Churches have stained glass windows. Those images are there to capture your attention and prevent you from seeing what is, in reality, outside the church’s confines. A mantra with meaning has an equivalent effect. Every time you repeat it, you’re placing a conceptual filter between you and what is really there.
I don’t know if we ever can see through the glass of our consciousness, clearly. But we certainly have the option of either adding onto the mental grit and grime or removing as much as we can.
Wax off. Wax off. Wax off.
Like I asked before, “Mantra meditation: what’s in a word?”