Today Tucson Bob left a comment that got me thinking about my own evolving attitude toward mantra meditation. He said, in part:
I will say that Sant Mat meditation, at least the basic technique of simran (mantra repetition), seems to me to have a dulling, dumbing-down effect that seems to interfere with intuitive perception.
Imagine you are in a wilderness at night. It is pitch black and you know there is a predator out there. All your being, all your senses are fully in the moment listening for some sound or movement to indicate where that predator is. You are fully absorbed in the present situation, in the immediacy of your current reality. No simran is necessary at this time and would actually be a hinderance to full awareness of what is. Your mind is totally quiet absorbing the sounds of the night because of the urgency of the situation. It is alert, ready.
This is a good non-meditation. Be fully present in whatever you are doing. The mind will wander off. No matter, it can't be helped. When you are fully aware again, just be that way.
Tucson Bob and I are pretty much members of the same Sant Mat meditation class. He was initiated into the Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB) branch of this Eastern faith in 1970. Me, in 1971. He flamed out of the movement after about twenty years. Me, after more than thirty.
Between us we've done a hell of a lot of mantra meditation. Like all RSSB initiates, we were given a mantra that consisted of "Five Holy Names" to repeat.
The mantra was supposed to be kept super duper secret. And I did, along with every other initiate I knew. But now, with the rise of the Internet, you can do a Google search and find the names easily. They've also become fodder for what I hope is a satirical web site (but it's hard to tell the difference between spiritual satire and seriousness these days).
The names supposedly are holy because they refer to the rulers, or defining characteristics, of five metaphysical regions of the cosmos: Sahans-dal-kanwal, Trikuti, Daswan Dwar, Bhanwar Gupha, and Sach Khand. Sant Mat practitioners believe that the names are charged with spiritual power by the initiating guru.
They're supposed to be repeated throughout the day, as well as during much of one's meditation time. However, like Tucson Bob said, open awareness of reality that's actually present isn't facilitated by concentrating on a mantra that is intended to lead to another hypothesized realm of existence.
So over the years I gradually became less rigid about my own approach to mantra meditation. Even when I was a RSSB true believer, I experimented with using just one of the five names as a mantra. I found that one was as good as five when it came to quieting my mind.
What's holy about a word? Words aren't reality. "Fire" isn't hot. "Water" isn't wet. These are just terms that stand for something else that does have the ascribed qualities.
I've written some other posts about mantra meditation, here, here, here, and here. The last one dealt with whether mantra meditation is a waxing on or a waxing off (using Mr. Miyagi's karate training language). I said:
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.
True enough, in my experience. But I'm coming to see that Tucson Bob's there's a predator analogy is apt. When we're really open to clear and present reality, we don't want any self-generated sounds or images, meaningless or not, coming between us and whatever is out there.
However, failing complete emptiness I still believe that having a single meaningless sound in my mind is better than the largely random voluminous chatter that all too often fills my psyche. When I need to think in words, I should think in words. Most of the time, I don't. A simple mantra serves to remind me to shut the fuck up.
This is a crude summary of the central message of one of my favorite books about meditation, "Open Mind, Open Heart" by Thomas Keating. Whenever I pick it up, which is often, my churchless self is struck by the subtitle: "the contemplative dimension of the Gospel."
Well, I'll take inspiration wherever I find it. I like Keating's attitude toward repeating a word, or words in meditation. This isn't an exercise in concentration, but rather intention.
The sacred word, whatever one you may choose, is sacred not because of its meaning, but because of its intent. It expresses your intention to open yourself to God, the Ultimate Mystery, who dwells within you. It is a focal point to return to when you notice you are becoming interested in the thoughts that are going by.
…The chief thing that separates us from God is the thought that we are separated from Him. If we get rid of that thought, our troubles will be greatly reduced.
I'm not big on the word "God," so I mentally substitute "Tao" or "Reality" when I read these passages. "Him" becomes "It." Aside from that, the Catholic Keating and the churchless me are on the same spiritual page.
There's nothing holy about a word, or name. Like I said, it's hole-ness that we should be seeking, not holiness – natural open awareness of what's really going on, not an artificial religious imagining.