mantras

Tibetan Sound Healing, by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche

I was attracted to this book principally because of the title. I like chanting and have a daily liturgy practice, and my sympathy with this kind of approach comes from my devotion to the Medicine Buddha and the many years during which I worked as a spiritual healer. So I began this review in a state of optimism which was rapidly followed by finding myself confronted with the demon of deep cynicism.

Tenzin Wangyal who is based in the US, is a well-respected Rinpoche in the Tibetan Bön tradition and he is probably best known for his volume on dream yoga. The central teaching in the Bön religion is that of dzogchen and this informs the approach that Tenzin takes in this work.

Title: Tibetan Sound Healing
Author: Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche
Publisher: Sounds True
ISBN: 978-159-17942-7-1
Available from: Sounds True, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

This is a slim and simply set-out volume with an accompanying CD and it focuses on the meditative chanting of the ‘Five Warrior Syllables’.

Tenzin writes a lucid introduction in which he outlines the principal aim of the practice, which is to spontaneously awaken positive emotion through the chanting of the Warrior Seed Syllables (take note Buddhists, you will find the Om and Ah inverted in the Bön tradition). By positive emotion is meant the Four Immeasurables, or Brahma Viharas, common to both the Bön as well as all Buddhist traditions.

Each Warrior Syllable has a corresponding colour, light, and chakra or energy centre, which is usually visualised as a ‘wheel’. This is the five chakra system of Crown/Forehead, Throat, Heart, Navel and Secret (genitals).

Tenzin advises us to support the chanting practice by engaging with what he calls ‘The Three Excellences,’ which are having a clear personal intention to gain Enlightenment for the sake of all beings; connecting with openness as your ‘natural state’; and transferring any merits accrued for the sake of all beings.

Tenzin recommends particular postures and various breathing exercises known as the Five Tsa Lung Exercises, which are outlined at the end of the book, and although the information is clear, this section would have benefited from illustrations.

Tenzin regards the chanting practice of the Warrior Syllables as a meditation in its own right. Tenzin states that the chanting of the Warrior Syllables should be a daily practice much as any form of meditation which is to prove effective.

Tenzin’s view is that when chanting mantras or seed syllables the sound is not so important as what he calls the ‘essence’ of that sound which remains with us. He then loses me as a reader by stating that when making the sound ‘…we are relating to the breath and vibration of the sound itself.’ The term ‘vibration’ reminds me of my days spent in the Healing Development Group where we used a similar but Hindu version of the chakras and seed syllables and where ‘vibration’ of the sound was all important. I personally found it enjoyable but rather vague and ‘woolly’.

The practice itself begins with the syllable ‘A’. Tenzin addresses the realm of ‘space’ from that which surrounds us to that which ‘is’ us and as the

… ground within which all the other elements play…it is changeless….primordially pure…the wisdom body of all the Buddhas, the dimension of truth, or dharmakaya.

And it is from this base — that is ‘A’ — that the other seed syllables of Om, Hung, Ram and Dza emerge.

Tenzin tells us that one outcome of chanting the seed syllable ‘A’ will be that deep inside we will experience an openness. At the same time he asks us to visualize white light emanating from the chakras at the crown and forehead. As we open to this experience Tenzin suggests that our mental obscurations will be released and so we will continue to open and experience ‘space’.

This all sounds apparently very simple and very appealing.

Tenzin’s approach is very rooted in the tradition of dzogchen which is found in both the Bön religion and the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. In terms of meditation this involves an opening to experience and a transformation of the ’self’ to the point where one is no longer attached to the ‘self‘. This will be for some readers quite different from the perhaps more familiar way of making effort and of working in meditation.

I may sound cynical here but while there is a part of me that enjoys chanting and enjoys visualizing light pouring from my chakras I do not expect this to lead to an experience of ‘awakening’ just yet. I think that you would have to be pretty far along the spiritual path for any ‘whizz-bang’ experience to take place.

However, through engaging with the Five Warrior Seed Syllables over a ten-day period my lung capacity increased, which as an asthmatic was a real joy. I was able to engage the sound with the appropriate chakra, and had a strong sense of energy and light moving in the chakras.

I would provisionally recommend this book. Enjoy it for the chanting, breath and visualization of the chakras and light, enjoy listening to Tenzin (who has a nice voice) and you may well feel very moved by the concluding verses on the CD which are dedicated to his teacher.

If you are able to cultivate the four immeasurables (brahma viharas) through a regular practice of the Five Warrior Syllables well you are indeed fortunate. For most of us that is a slow process, of gradual change leading to the transformation of our negative mental states into ones that are positive. Then we can begin to experience the beauty that is the vastness and wonder of ‘space’.

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Avalokitesvara: The heart of the rainbow

As a child growing up in Scotland I had a strong relationship with the Holy Spirit. I would pray for the Holy Spirit to fill me with the love that existed between God the Father and God the Son. I have no idea where I got this sophisticated understanding of the Holy Spirit — but he was the personification of the love that enabled God to let his son be sacrificed to redeem mankind. I prayed that this mighty love would free me and others from the suffering I saw around me. Perhaps it made sense of how God could be a god of love and yet, alongside the beauty and marvels of the world, he could allow so much violence and poverty to exist.

I would escape from home and go to our local Catholic church. I sang in the choir, and climbing up to the choir loft was more than taking a few steps, it was entering a world far from Glasgow’s gang-fights, alcoholism, and pain. High Mass on Sundays, Ave Maria at weddings, masses for the dead — we sang them all. The Holy Spirit was certainly there: I begged for his divine help and was blessed by his presence. (The Father held no promise for me, and the son was too pained.) Sometimes a white dove of peace hovered over me, sometimes tongues of fire, but always the Holy Spirit was love. I had experiences of bliss, of grace, and a burning love for humanity — states of mind that I now understand as the absorbed state of dhyana.

Then came the fall from grace. Aged 13 1 could use reason to question, and Roman Catholicism no longer satisfactorily answered me. I lost my faith. I hid my skepticism and continued in the choir and doing charitable deeds for the sick and elderly. I carried on with everything except God until my integrity stopped me. I argued with everyone about the mysteries of religion and the existence of a creator god. At 15 1 declared myself an atheist and joined the Young Communist League. The rhetoric and sense of comradeship was even better there, but I did miss the Holy Spirit.

So, I put the opiate of the people behind me and concentrated on making the world a better place by other means. Ten years later, disillusioned by the political options and nearing a nervous breakdown after a series of bereavements, I found myself in the Glasgow Buddhist Centre. I was listening to a taped lecture by an English gentleman with a somniferous voice. The lecture had an electrifying effect. I had come home. I immediately immersed myself in Buddhism.

Here was a more rigorous analysis of the world’s wrongs than anything I had so far discovered. Here was the possibility of change: personal and global — and, in meditation, the methods to bring about that change. Here, too, was the possibility of religious experience. I set about examining Buddhism under the spotlight of philosophical questioning. I was suspicious of devotional practices but at the same time I loved them. I felt transported as I chanted mantras. My voice could again be lifted in worship.

I am glad I encountered the Dharma in Glasgow. I heard it in a voice which, not only in accent but in discourse and rhetoric, sounded enough like my own to reach me. Yet what it was saying was new enough to intrigue me. Most importantly I learnt about the Bodhisattva Ideal, that most sublime of human ideals. The heart of this ideal is the desire to gain Enlightenment not only for oneself but for all beings — with the purpose of ending the world’s suffering. So, I met the true love of my life: the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.

Our love affair began with immediate recognition, followed by periods of less interest and then a growing appreciation and deepening love. At least on my side. As he is an archetypal Bodhisattva, existing outside time and space, I can’t speak for him. From the start I loved his mantra: om mani padme hum — homage to the jewel in the lotus. As I understood more layers of meaning to the mantra I loved it even more, but initially it was just the reverberating sound. And I was delighted to learn that while chanting his mantra practitioners imagine each of the six syllables entering the hearts of suffering beings in the six realms of existence.

A few years later, when I committed myself through ordination, I decided to take up visualising Avalokitesvara The quintessence of Compassion, he is one of the best known Bodhisattvas and is worshipped all over the Buddhist world. He is contemplated in many forms, the most popular variations having either four or 1,000 arms. And each of the hands has an eye to ensure that the altruism informed with clarity.

He appears in various Mahayana Sutras, for example in the Karanda-Vyuha Sutra where he is the typical Bodhisattva who will ‘enter Nirvana’ until all beings are saved. His task is to ‘help all sufferers, to save them from every distress, and to exercise infinite pity that does not even shrink from sin nor does it stop at the gates of hell’. In the Surangama Sutra Avalokitesvara gains Enlightenment through deep meditation on sound. Interestingly enough the Bodhisattva of Compassion is the principal figure in the Heart Sutra, one of the Perfection of Wisdom texts — a reminder that Compassion is not separate from Wisdom.

Just before pledging myself to his practice, however, I had doubts — he seemed a bit white and wimpy, and the mantra (as we chanted it) sometimes sounded like a funeral dirge. But these doubts evaporated when I heard a talk on ‘The Glorious Array of Bodhisattvas’. I was waiting with anticipation to hear about Manjushri; but as the speaker began to talk about Avalokitesvara, I felt transported to another world. And I wept.

I recalled an experience from an earlier solitary retreat. During a Metta Bhavana (loving-kindness) meditation, as I became concentrated and peaceful, I was filled with bliss. Then a sound arose, from both outside and inside me. It was like the sound of keening, of a thousand lament,.; for the dead from ages immemorial down to the present, and into the future. It was the sound of battle cries and children wailing with hunger. It was the sound of women being raped and men being slaughtered, of small whimpers and loud clamors It was the sound of all suffering — and my heart felt fit to break.

I could not listen to this sound nor could I stop listening. It filled me and it filled the universe. I wanted to escape but there was nowhere to go because this sound was universal — of all times and all places. The pain in my chest became so unbearable I thought I might die.

Then I remembered some verses about Avalokitesvara from the White Lotus Sutra:

In quarrels disputes and in strife,
In the battles of men and in any great danger,
To recollect the name of Avalokitesvara
Will appease the troops of evil foes.

His voice is like that of a cloud or a drum
Like a rain cloud lie thunders, sweet in voice like Brahma.
His voice is the most perfect that can be.
So one should recall Avalokitesvara.

Think of him, think of him, without hesitation,
Of Avalokitesvara, that pure being.
In death, disaster and calamity
He is the savior, refuge and recourse.

As these verses came to mind, the sound changed and my breathing calmed. I saw the four-armed figure of Avalokitesvara and felt a white light stream from him towards me. It was like being bathed in warm rain, which cleansed and soothed me. It probably lasted only seconds but it was powerful. I chanted the mantra aloud and slowly hope returned.

So, recalling that experience during the talk, I decided: OK, I am yours. At my private ordination ceremony I told my teacher Sangharakshita about these experiences, and he laughed. He thought Avalokitesvara was appropriate for me as a visualisation practice primarily because Compassion is the core of the Bodhisattva Ideal and Sangharakshita recognised that this ideal was my North Star and guiding light.

As an ideal it is precious and beautiful, while as a practice it is demanding and, in a way impossible to fulfill. How can we ever relieve the suffering of all beings? How can we overcome our embedded ego-identity and reach out lovingly to all — beyond all likes and dislikes? How can I embrace the abuser and rapist with the same tenderness as the abused and raped; Avalokitesvara is the answer.

He is the end and the means. It doesn’t matter that the ideal seems impossible to realise. What matters is the willingness not to put a limit on what we will give. And believing that by trying to alleviate suffering, we can render the world a better place. As ecologists remind us, we can ‘think global and act local’. Moved by Avalokitesvara’s beauty, by his mantra or by what he symbolises, we can be inspired to approach each small act in our daily lives with loving-kindness.

For two decades I have visualised myself as the four-armed Avalokitesvara, seated in meditation and made of luminous white light surrounded by rainbows. He holds a jewel within one pair of folded hands before his heart while the other hands hold a rosary and a lotus flower. The jewel is the mani of his mantra and is the highest part of us, a jewel to be found within the lotus of our lives. The lotus flower grows out of the muddy bottom of a lake yet blossoms to .1 beauty that far transcends its soiled origins. So, too, can we blossom and shine, regardless of our beginnings. Our own jewel is found in the down-to-earth experiences of worldly life. Avalokitesvara suggests a way of being within the world but unsullied by it. This is the significance of his mantra: om mani padme hum, the jewel of our aspirations covered in the mud of the mundane.

The sounds of suffering are all around. True compassion means opening tip to those cries and being neither overwhelmed nor indifferent. Avalokitesvara’s name means ‘he who hears the cries of the world’. This is the attitude of the Bodhisattva: one who hears and acts upon that hearing.

Avalokitesvara’s jewel also signifies the Bodhicitta: the will to attain Enlightenment for the sake of all beings. The arising of the Bodhicitta is the ‘experience’ that makes one a Bodhisattva and as such it is of crucial importance in the life of every practitioner who has taken the Bodhisattva Ideal as their guiding star. It is not merely the wish for Enlightenment but a reorientation of one’s whole life and being in that direction. It is a burning love for all humanity and a commitment to acting in accordance with it, purifying all those unskilful acts that prevent us embodying the vision.

I have now come full circle. I am no longer the frightened child of the 1950s seeking divine help, but I still want to open my heart to a love that can alleviate the ills of our world. In Buddhism I have found a philosophy that acknowledges suffering and gives it a framework. When necessary I can articulate that philosophy — but that is not enough. I am inspired by the love of Avalokitesvara to help create a world without suffering.

I want to be transformed. I want the tongues, of fire to descend and to serve the dove of peace. When I imagine myself as the rainbow figure of Avalokitesvara, I offer my flesh-and-blood being as a vehicle for his transcendent qualities. In the end, with all my imperfections, I try to serve him, not as a god but as Compassion manifest in the universe.

According to the legend Avalokitesvara saw he could not save all beings through will-power alone — so great was his despair that his body shattered and he cried out for help. The Buddha Amitabha appeared and healed his broken form, giving Avalokitesvara 11 heads to see in all directions and 1,000 arms to act more comprehensively. This is a beautiful symbol for spiritual community. We are each an outstretched hand offering our unique talents. We’re also joined together in something much greater than ourselves — a true spiritual community which fosters both diversity and unity.

This is the body of Avalokitesvara, in whose heart is the jewel of the Bodhicitta. We need the Bodhisattva of Compassion because the battle cries are loud and the world is aching. May his mantra sound ever more clearly throughout our suffering world.

This article was previously published in Dharma Life magazine.

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First-time meditators: how to achieve that perfect state of “ohm”

The other day, I was conversing with a friend, telling her about how I’ve been having a difficult time sleeping as of late. I’ll maybe sleep four hours a night — and this is coming from someone who typically requires a solid eight. The stressors of life have been, unfortunately, taking their toll.

“Have you tried meditating?” she asked.

In response, I shook my head “no.” I mean, really. How could my coffee-chugging, gum-snapping, neurotic-driven self quite possibly clear my thoughts for 30 seconds, let alone the length of a meditation session?

Instructor and Program Manager Jennifer Stevenson of the Art of Living Foundation explains that there are two types of stress: physical, when your body is overworked, and mental, which stems from the array of negative emotions experienced on a daily basis.

“We get angry about the past and anxious about the future,” she said. “Meditation gives you a tool to bring your mind to the present moment and break…

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the cycle of negative emotions.”Further, she details, meditation is stress-reducing because it focuses on the concept of “living in the moment.”

“Many times, we come across a problematic situation, and we easily get caught up in anger, regret or blame. These are negative emotions linked with the past. Or we get caught up in fear, anxiety and worry. These are emotions linked with the future,” said Stevenson. “And when the mind is caught up in the future or past, it doesn’t help us handle the challenges of the present.”

Michael Fischman, co-founder and U.S. President of the Foundation, encourages that those interested in meditation seek out the expertise of a teacher.

“Just trying to figure it out on your own makes it complicated,” he said. “There’s a law to mind and that is — what you resist will persist. The more you resist thoughts, the more they will persist. Meditation is a practical way to recharge and clear the mind.”

During the process, Stevenson advises first-timers like me to concentrate on regulated breathing patterns, which is linked to one’s mindset and emotions. You know how your spouse tells you to “take deep breaths” when upset? The technique works for a reason — you’re able to bring your mind to the present, placing yourself in mental control of a situation and thereby helping to wrangle those bursts of negativity.

If you find that you need to recite a particular mantra, Stevenson suggests the following: “I want nothing. I do nothing. I am nothing.”

With this advice in mind, I took a shot in meditating for my first time last night. I lied down on my bed, even stuck ear plugs in to muffle any outside noises, and focused on the sound of the rise and falls of my breathing.

How did it go?

Admittedly, I’m going to need a lot of practice. I say this, primarily, because I… fell asleep.

Despite my failed attempt, one should ideally meditate every day. Consider picking a set time, like in the morning before work to set the tone of relaxation for the day.

(Perhaps tomorrow I’ll try again, but in the morning when I wake up.)

“What I have found as the biggest deterrent to people not being able to meditate is that they don’t have enough time. However, when they start to meditate, they find they have more time, because they are able to focus and get more done,” said Fischman.

Additionally, meditation can occur anywhere — in the office, during the bus ride home or even during a hot shower after a long workday.

“You don’t need to be tucked away in the Himalayas on a yoga mat to meditate. You can meditate in almost all places. I’ve meditated on planes, park benches and in office conference rooms, to name a few. The best place is a quiet space where you can sit comfortably without any distractions,” said Stevenson.

Ultimately, being at peace with oneself translates to other areas of life, promoting generally happier relationships. For that reason, I plan to keep practicing the art, no matter the frenetic activity of the day.

“We are not taught effective tools, neither at home nor at school, on how to deal with stress. Meditation is a tool that we have innate within us to reduce stress. It brings a sense of peace within,” stated Stevenson. “And when you feel peaceful, you naturally want to share that.”

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Gainesville Meditation Guide: at the Hare Krishna House

Every day, the Hare Krishnas chant a melodic meditation and serve food to students in UF’s Plaza of the Americas. A decent number of students usually line up — especially on Spaghetti Wednesdays — but no one seems to know much about the people who serve the vegetarian-friendly fare.

An hour and a half before the sun rises, the Hare Krishnas gather for meditation, called japa, in the temple of the Krishna House, just off campus on Northwest 14th Street.

They recite their mantra with the help of Japa Mala beads, a strand of beads — not unlike the rosary — that helps devotees keep track of their chanting. Each strand has 108 beads, one for each time they chant to Krishna, and they do it 16 times. That means every morning, they recite the mantra 1,728 times.

They believe the god Krishna and his…

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name are one and the same.

“When you chant Hare Krishna, you’re actually associating with God through his name,” said Caitanya, a devotee who’s been chanting for 19 years.

They also serve Krishna through cooking and cleaning.

They devote themselves so stringently because they believe the material energies of the world cover the spiritual soul, effectively blocking them from being one with Krishna. They have their sights set on a higher plane.

“If you want to really feel free in the material world, you refrain from activities that bind you to the material world,” Caitanya said.

They use the material energy in his service to prevent becoming entangled in the material life. The van they use, for example, is used to serve Krishna food to other people instead of being used as, say, a way to get to a party. And because the food is served with love and devotion, it’s karma-free, as the side of the van reads.

Even if you don’t wish to wake at 4 a.m. to chant, Caitanya said non-devotees can still reap the benefits of the Krishna beliefs.

“We just encourage people to chant the holy name and take Krishna lunch,” she said. “By doing that, the purification of the heart happens, and then, automatically, everything else that doesn’t help them in their spiritual life melts away.”

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“The Brightened Mind,” by Ajahn Sumano Bhikkhu

The Brightened Mind, Ajahn Sumano

Ajahn Sumano is a Chicagoan who worked in the corporate world before becoming a Buddhist monk and living in a cave in Thailand for 15 years, intensively practicing meditation. You’d therefore expect him to have a deep understanding of meditation, and The Brightened Mind suggests he has.

Unfortunately, just as Sumano had to go through his corporate phase before he hit his meditative years, so do we. Almost the whole first half of the book has a “marketing” feel to, it where you’re constantly told about the benefits meditation will bring, without any meditation actually being taught.

Title: The Brightened Mind
Author: Ajahn Sumano Bhikkhu
Publisher: Quest Books
ISBN: 978-0-8356-0899-2
Available from: Quest Books, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

The meditation instruction, when it comes, isn’t extensive, but it’s full of precious nuggets of spiritual gold. I’d almost suggest skipping over the first half of the book just to get to this material.

Actually, the meditation teaching doesn’t start in a very promising way. The first direction is “put your mind at ease.” That’s a good aim, although of course it’s one that is easier said than done, and Sumano doesn’t tell us how to accomplish it. Having (somehow) put the mind at ease, we then focus on some neutral object such as the breath, and “just stay with what’s happening right in the moment.” This is a very important suggestion, of course. Then Sumano suggests “holding one inhalation for as long as you can” and tells us that you will “immediately feel the presence of serenity and peace.” I’m unclear what he means by holding the breath for as long as possible. Surely he doesn’t mean that we should hold the breath until we almost pass out? That would seem to lead anywhere but serenity and peace. So up to this point I was becoming increasingly skeptical that I was going to get anything from The Brightened Mind — but then I turned the page and hit the mother-lode.

The second half of The Brightened Mind is solid gold. Sumano’s strength is in emphasizing the “naturalness” of meditation. The second meditation exercise begins with the suggestion, “Allow your eyelids to close gently and begin to think ‘soft.’ That means relaxing the mind and smiling within.” This is beautifully put, and a valuable reminder that meditation can be something we let happen rather than make happen. We don’t try to “do something,” the Ajahn reminds us, but rather meditation is ultimately “a way of undoing and letting go into the smile.” From this point on the instructions are precise and emphasize a profound letting go: “You can just allow gravity to relax the body from the top of the head all the way down to the soles of the feet … when the body has opened and extended fully, the mind will follow and respond accordingly.”

Ajahn Sumano suggests using the evocative power of words, and he says something that I’ve said many times myself: “Every word has power. Every word, even if we do not speak it but simply think of it, emits a vibration in our mind.” And so we breathe in words such as “calm,” “clear,” and (intriguingly) “beyond,” allowing them to work their spells. Sumano explains that we “breathe in” a word by “mentally inclining toward it with a silent whisper as we inhale.” Beautifully put.

The next section, which I thought was highly effective, involves taking meditation into our daily life. Say we are a student listening to a lecture. Sumano suggests that we pay minute detail to everything the lecturer does: every movement, every gesture, the tone of voice, etc. We do this with a “fascinated scrutiny that measures the present moment accurately and precisely.” The net effect of this is that the mind becomes “sensitive, sharp, and focused.” If I may interject an element of my own teaching here, I emphasize a similar quality of total attention in sitting meditation. I find that by paying attention to many sensations simultaneously, in a wide-open field of awareness, there is simply no room for inner chatter (see Meditation and Mental Bandwidth). The effect of that is to bring us rapidly to a state of calmness and happiness. We also become more intimate with and closer to our experience, because as soon as we start to talk to ourselves about our experience we erect a barrier. As Sumano puts it, “In relaxing into this awareness, you are learning how to link the outside world with the inner world.” We are, in fact developing (although Sumano never mentions this term) a non-dual awareness that can lead (and again Sumano doesn’t use this terminology) to what are often called the “formless absorptions.”

In this chapter Sumano also suggests that the attitude with which we approach our lives should be a “resolve to do well in everything we do.” I often find that Buddhists lack this resolve, and are content to just bumble along in an almost haphazard way, with their email inboxes overflowing with hundreds or even thousands of messages, and their minds full of unhelpful stories whose validity and ethical skillfulness they never question. A commitment to excellence is essential. Once we have that resolve, Sumano tells us, “the mind will gather focus and stability and launch itself into the process without conscious effort from you.” That is profoundly true.

Working in this way (letting meditation happen, paying total attention, committing ourselves to excellence) leads to concentration and, eventually, to insight. “This present-moment focus is the key to penetrating the understanding of anything and everything.” What would that look like? “In this state of deep concentration, the contents of the mind (objects, moods, thoughts, memories, feelings, etc.) take on a light and translucent quality, allowing us to investigate these elements without getting stuck in any of them.” And so we begin to realize that we are not our experience.

“With this discerning detachment, we can see [these experiences] for what they are: ever-changing energy patterns that don’t belong to anyone and are not ours to keep.” We thus come to weaken and eventually lose the sense of having a self.

The remainder of the book consists of a summary of the benefits of practice, some reflections on the ultimate goal of practice (enlightenment), and a number of short reflections on lovingkindness, an awareness of impermanence (the better to have a sense of urgency about our practice), and on the value of spiritual friendship (giving it as well as receiving it!). This is all valuable material, although Sumano is pretty much dropping spiritual wisdom into your mind at this point, and leaving you to engage with it. This is fair enough. He’s already given us the tools by which we can radically transform our approach to such material. The extraordinary thing is the very compact way in which he’s done this, by simplifying his presentation of the spiritual path down to those three key activities of letting meditation happen, paying total attention, and committing ourselves to excellence.

Although I think the first half of the book should have been dramatically cut (and I wonder if some editor insisted that the core text on meditation needed to be fleshed out with some “spiritual marketing” to extol the virtues of the goodies to come) the pith instructions themselves are excellent, and I’d highly recommend Sumano’s spiritual manual.

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Sally Kempton: Living from the center

A month after I started meditating, I went home to visit my mother. This was back in the day—only a few years after the Beatles visited Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India, and caused a storm of mostly satirical press commentary. Meditation was still considered an activity for eccentrics and hippies, and my secular humanist mother found my insistence on sitting every morning hilarious at best. In the mornings, while I was sitting in meditation, she would walk past my closed door every few minutes and call out, “Aren’t you done yet?”

I rolled with it on Saturday. But on Sunday, when she knocked on the door for the third time in twenty minutes, I lost it. Bursting with anger, I got up from my seat, opened the door, looked at my mother and said, “Can’t you leave me alone?” And my mother smiled a ‘Gotcha!” kind of smile and said, “I knew you hadn’t become a saint.”

That was the moment when I realized that effective meditation practice is not just what you do when you’re sitting on the mat. It’s also about how you react when your loved ones (and not so loved ones) do all those things that have historically annoyed or frustrated you. It’s not that meditation will turn you into a saint overnight. (The fact that you haven’t turned into a saint is one of the best reasons to keep on meditating!) Yet, one of the gifts that meditation can give you is the ability to use certain inner skills—skills like self-inquiry, substituting a loving thought for an angry one, gentleness, and especially the insight to notice a reactive emotion before you act on it—in difficult moments.

Meditation is for living. The inner practice is meant to radiate outward until your whole life becomes an ongoing training in living from your own center. As the intrinsic alchemy of meditation works…

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its subtle changes in your consciousness and character, it simultaneously challenges you to take action on what you are becoming—to bring your meditative skills, insights, and experiences into the rest of your life.

The strength of your practice is tested in every single moment and interaction. Are you able to bring the love you experienced in meditation into your actions? Are you able to stay in touch with Awareness when you are working, when you are moving into a new house, or when someone you care for disappoints you? Are you speaking and moving from that deeper level of being, or are you on automatic pilot, perhaps even doing the right thing but with no sense of contact with your deeper being, no access to its inspiration and love?

Certainly there will be times when the inner world with its inspiration and broader vision seems to be at your fingertips, moments when love sweeps over you all on its own. You may suddenly find yourself in the state called “flow,” acting unerringly without any apparent effort and with a quiet mind. The witness may rise up in the midst of an argument or crisis, holding you steady and poised in a situation where you would ordinarily go off the emotional deep end.

You might have mornings when the world shimmers with sacredness, when you find meaning in the blown leaves on the sidewalk, when the newspapers in the gutter seem to pulsate with the overflow of your own happiness. You will experience the ongoing magic of synchronicity, when a conversation overheard on the bus or a message seen on a billboard seems to give subtle spiritual teachings. At such times, work is transmuted into worship, and a walk in the woods turns into a processional up the nave of a cathedral.

Yet there will be other moments, many of them, when the gifts of meditation are there only if you work for them. The mere fact that you meditate will not suddenly make you immune to psychological pain. It won’t eliminate mood swings, feelings of inadequacy, or problems with other people. In fact, people who meditate can be just as subject to ups and downs as anyone else. The major differences lie in their attitude toward their mood and tendencies and in the resources they have to deal with them. When sadness, anger, and frustration arise, they have learned how to separate their intrinsic sense of self from their moods and feelings. They know that a core part of them is untouched by the emotional weather. Not only that, they have learned some skills in meditation that can help them through a difficult encounter or a mental traffic jam. They have more choices about how they deal with their feelings, how they work with the desires, fears, and crises, which might otherwise derail them.

Living from our own center takes effort, but it is also exciting. When we see life as an ongoing spiritual training, we live inside a view that lends significance to even the most ordinary interactions. We don’t think so much in terms of winning or losing, success or failure. Instead there is only the training, the consistent effort to come back to the love and lucidity we carry inside and to bring the values of the inner world into our outer actions.

This, then, is the second level of practice: the waking practice of staying in touch with our center, cultivating our character, contemplating and learning from the situations life presents to us, and discovering the techniques, teachings, disciplines, and forms of open-eyed practice that will allow us to live from the developing awareness of the Self.

Maintaining Inner Attention

In the Shaiva yogic tradition of northern India, an enlightened being is said to live in shambhavi mudra, a state in which, even when her eyes are open, her attention is centered in the inner field of unchanging luminous Awareness. This is a powerful depiction of the enlightened state; it is also a key to open-eyed practice. Open-eyed practice is a kind of “as if” game. You are practicing to be an enlightened being by acting and thinking as you would if you were actually in that state. A key practice for this is to maintain inner awareness—a steady current of attentiveness to your own Awareness, to the sense of being or Presence that you tune into when you turn attention back on itself.

Like most essential practices, this one is extremely simple without being at all easy. Inner attentiveness has a frustrating way of dissolving at crucial moments, when you are worried, excited, or under pressure. Even on ordinary days, you naturally move in and out of it, since that essential Awareness tends to be experienced in flashes, in glimpses that come and go. That is why it is helpful to work with different practices at different moments. At times you will face directly into the light of Awareness. At other times you will approach it sideways, through the breath, a positive thought, or even a physical posture.

To maintain inner attention in a steady way demands a threefold effort:

First of all, you need a set of practices for inner focus or remembering the Self. They should be practices that work for you, and you need to do them regularly.

Second, you need to be doing “character work,” examining your motives and attitudes and learning how to express the qualities of the Self—compassion, gentleness, kindness, steady wisdom, truthfulness, and the rest.

Third, you need to develop the habit of checking in with yourself to monitor your state so that you can recognize when you have slipped off center and then discover how to return.

Many meditation practices—practices like mantra repetition, awareness of Awareness, focus on the inner witness, attention to the breath, seeing thoughts as energy—are also meant to be practiced in day-to-day situations. So are the different attitudes you work with when you meditate. Just as you can begin meditation by offering your practice to God, or for the benefit of others, you can also offer your daily actions as service and see how that simple act shifts you out of self-centeredness and unknots the tendency to grasp at outcomes.

Your sitting practice of becoming aware of Awareness, or being the witness of your thoughts, can become an inner baseline that you return to during the day. It helps you move out of heavy emotions, distractions, or neurotic thinking patterns. Remembering oneness, holding the understanding that the seemingly solid world is essentially energy, will let you act in the world with more openness and fluidity, and with a sense of your kinship with others, with nature, and even with inanimate objects like your computer or your car.

Walking-Around Practice

It can be helpful to create set times in your schedule for your practice of mantra repetition, awareness of Awareness, or remembering oneness. You could make offering your actions, thoughts, and feelings a daily ritual at the beginning and end of the workday. You could make a habit of remembering to place your attention in your heart once every hour, or you could set your wrist alarm to ring five minutes before the hour, and then use that five minutes to bring to mind a teaching you are contemplating, or to ask yourself a question like “What would love do now?” or “What would kindness do now?”

You might work with a different practice every day until you find the practice or practices that feel like yours, and then spend some time exploring them deeply. As you practice this open-eyed meditation, you will see its effects. First of all, you should feel more integrated. There will be less of a gap between sitting meditation and the rest of your day. It will be easier to go into meditation when you sit; and you should need to spend less time “deprogramming” yourself from the stresses of the day. Then, during your waking, working hours, there should be a certain sweetness to life, a sense of openness and space in your world. You’ll find yourself feeling closer to others, less afraid, calmer, and more inspired.

During anxious moments, busy days, and periods when life seems to be caving in on you, these practices can become a real refuge. They help you stabilize your state.

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Sacred Sound, coming soon on CD

sacred sound cd coverSacred Sound: Mantra Meditations for Centeredness and Inspiration, the popular audio course on mantra chanting led by Bodhipaksa and Sunada, is coming out as a double CD in January.

Sacred Sound is a complete guide to mantra meditation. In it you’ll find everything you need to get started with a mantra chanting practice, including:

  • The “magical” background and history of mantras
  • How mantras can help us develop centeredness and inspiration
  • Preparatory exercises to open the body and free the breath
  • Seven mantras chanted for listening and learning
  • The meaning and symbolism of each of the seven mantras
  • A print-friendly companion guide with images, pronunciation key, and musical notations

Sacred Sound is led by Bodhipaksa, who has been practicing mantra meditation since 1982, and who is the author of Wildmind: A Step-by-Step Guide to Meditation, and Living as a River: Finding Fearlessness in the Face of Change; and by Sunada, who is a life-long musician, workshop leader, and founder of Mindful Purpose Life Coaching. The running time of the audio program is over two hours.

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Coming soon: Sacred Sound – an audio course on mantra meditation

Sacred Sound: Mantra Meditations for Centeredness and InspirationBodhipaksa and Sunada combine forces to bring you Wildmind’s first audiobook — a complete guide to mantra meditation. In it you’ll find everything you need to get started with a mantra chanting practice, including:

  • The “magical” background and history of mantras
  • How mantras can help us develop centeredness and inspiration
  • Preparatory exercises to open the body and free the breath
  • Seven mantras chanted for listening and learning
  • The meaning and symbolism of each of the seven mantras
  • A print-friendly companion guide with images, pronunciation key, and musical notations

Sacred Sound is led by Bodhipaksa, who has been practicing mantra meditation since 1982, and who is the author of Wildmind: A Step-by-Step Guide to Meditation, and the forthcoming Living as a River: Finding Fearlessness in the Face of Change, and by Sunada, who is a life-long musician, workshop leader, and founder of Mindful Purpose Life Coaching.

The running time of the audio program is over two hours. The audiobook costs $19.95, but is free to all life members. The Companion Guide to Sacred Sound is available as a free PDF download (2.3Mb).

The official publication date is June 7.

For the moment Sacred Sound is only available as a high quality (320kb/s) MP3 download, although a CD version is planned.

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Enchanting mantra

Practitioners of kirtan, a Hindu call-and-response ritual, find it both soothing and uplifting

On a Friday evening, a few dozen people gather in the multi-purpose room of the Westminster Housing Co-op in Winnipeg’s West End. They’ve brought yoga mats and meditation cushions, but they’re not here to work on their backbends or to sit cross-legged in silence.

They’ve come to dip into the same spiritual stream that spawned both those practices, only this time they’ll be doing it by singing in a language that none of them speaks.

At the front of the room, candles flicker and plumes of incense smoke curl toward the ceiling. There is a simple melody, the gentle strumming of a guitar and hand drums offering rhythm as the guitarist sings out a line — “Om namah shivaya shiva namah om” — and the audience echoes it back.

And on it goes, back and forth, gradually building in tempo and intensity until the room is buzzing with energy. Many people have their eyes closed; some sit with their hands on their lap, others sway and/or clap to the beat of the drums. One woman seated on the floor reaches forward and upward with her hands as if kneading the air.

After 20 minutes or so, the music slows down, the singing gets softer and the room falls into a meditative silence.

This is kirtan, the yoga of sound.

Somewhere between a Sanskrit sing-along and a musical meditation, kirtan (KEER-tun) is a devotional call-and-response practice that combines mantras with live music. It has its roots in 15th-century India, but like many Eastern traditions is becoming increasingly popular in North America as spiritual seekers and yoga enthusiasts discover its uplifting and soothing effects.

“This is why I live, to fill rooms with song,” the woman with the guitar tells the crowd before moving on to the next mantra.

She is Beth Martens, a Winnipeg singer-songwriter whose fair colouring, pixie features and Mennonite roots belie her calling as a “kirtan singing yogi” devoted to spreading the Eastern vibe.

“To me, the ultimate purpose of kirtan is to build community around things that genuinely inspire, uplift and give life energy,” says Martens, 41, who has been writing and performing devotional chants for more than a decade. Her first CD, Vijaya: Living Knowledge (1999) was recorded in India, where she studied yoga, meditation and Sanskrit poetry in the ’90s.

Kirtan is a folk form that arose from the Bhakti (devotional) movement of medieval India and involves chanting the names of Hindu deities (Krishna, Shiva, etc.) to connect with the divine. As with meditation, the purpose of chanting is to quiet and focus the mind in order to experience one’s true nature, or essence.

“Mantra just seems to clear the slate so you can tune into the frequency of your being that lies beneath all the artifices that get piled up from everyday life,” says Martens, sitting in the living room of her St. Boniface home. “They pack an unusually powerful punch when the meanings are learned.”

That power was put to the test in 1999 when she was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma. At the time, she was only a chanting yogi at night — by day she was the “totally fatigued, burned-out” vice-president of her family’s public relations firm. She practised yoga — power yoga — with the same intensity.

Eleven months of chemotherapy put her in remission — she’d already quit her job, lost her house and moved in with her parents — but 18 months later, the cancer returned and she was given a 50 per cent chance of survival.

“Now it was time to put all this into practice,” Martens recalls thinking. “It’s one thing in theory to sing ‘I am blissful, I am immortal’ (Amaram hum madhuram hum) and quite another to be facing your death and looking at the meaning of those words.”

Eventually she became too weak to pick up her guitar. As her body became immobilized, Martens says, she realized how she’d been using the practices she learned in India to disconnect from it, to the point where she didn’t notice the toll that stress was taking on her health.

It was only after she made the conscious decision to live her life motivated by love rather than fear, Martens says, that things began to improve.

“It was a beautiful thing. Even when my body wasn’t available, the mantras would keep pushing through.”

In 2002, cancer-free, Martens took up music and teaching yoga full time. Her last CD, The Yoga Lullabies (2007), recorded while she was eight months pregnant with her son, is a collection of the mantras that carried her through the darkest days. She’s currently working on her fourth album.

“Now I feel like I can sing into my body, right down to the soles of my feet,” says Martens, who leads community kirtans every couple of months at various venues around town. The next one takes place April 30 at the Yoga Centre Winnipeg (915 Grosvenor Ave.). A fireside kirtan will also be held May 28 at the St. Norbert Arts Centre.

[via Winnipeg Free Press]
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Tiger Woods finds his mantra again: Meditate (and be nice to fans)

Evidently, we’re more like Tiger Woods than we realized. No, not profligate sexual tom cats or historically accomplished athletes or control freaks micromanaging our lives (well, maybe the latter…)

But lots of people, just like Woods, have drifted from the faith of their childhood. In his case, it’s Buddhist meditation. The Ommmm apparently lost its ooomph.

In his pre-Masters tourney press conference today, he reiterated that recent therapy has forced him to see “how far astray from the core morals my mom and dad taught me” he had traveled. Now he has resumed daily meditation, “the roots of Buddhism” as him mom taught him.

But how different is that, really, from what other 34-year-olds might say: They drifted away from their Catholic or Baptist or Methodist or whatever upbringing and now, gee, maybe they’re missing something.

A 2008 study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that among 16% of U.S. adults who now say they have no religious affiliation, most didn’t leave in a huff. Instead, about 70% say they “just gradually drifted away.”

I haven’t found (yet) statistics on people who quit meditation. But from perusing a few sites, it appears fairly common for people to drift in — and out — of spiritual practices.

A site for Tai Chi, a martial art that “encourages a calm mind and composed emotions” and nurtures “tranquility, harmony and balance,” points out that “many people quit. In fact most people quit.” It’s hard. It’s about losing control. And, of course, “A lot of people are just downright lazy…”

Meditation teacher Brenda Stephenson on her web site, acknowledges that a survey of past students found most quitters “simply lost their interest in meditating.”

And commentator John Pappas observed after the last time Woods said the same back-to-meditation line last month that it’s not magic.

It isn’t something that is outside of you that causes your actions and arbitrarily donning a magic bracelet or bemoaning that you didn’t sit facing a wall more will not help you look inward and is not going to solve your problem. It takes striving, faith and doubt. The realization is dawning on Tiger and I hope that he keeps working at it but approaching your practice (or any religion for that matter) as a crutch will never solve the problem.

It isn’t a magic elixir to be swallowed or special words to be chanted or super-mega prayers to be sent to big globular masses in the sky. It is work and it is humility. An extra hour of meditation a day is like a band-aid for a split jugular.

[via USA Today]
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