What to Do When 'Just Sitting' Isn't Enough?

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Last week we talked about suffering and the end of suffering, and about looking for that space in between the times when you dwell on the roots of suffering — desire for pleasure, desire to avoid pain, the desire to make everything perfect. Ultimately, I think the best practice for this is shikentaza, “just sitting”, but that’s hard to do as a beginner.

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In fact, sometimes that’s hard to do when you’ve been practicing for years. Sometimes you sit down and your mind is capering like a drunken organ-grinder’s monkey, shaking his tambourine and stealing people’s hats, and generally just making an obnoxious spectacle of itself. What then?

Something I’ve found helpful is mantra meditation. Now, this is practically heretical in Zen, the tradition I started in and largely follow today, but — here’s a Buddhist saying for you — it is what it is. Sometimes you need to interrupt the little sonuvabitch and get him settled down, and sometimes shikentaza doesn’t do it.

So here’s how you do meditation with a mantra.


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First of all, what is a mantra? The word “mantra” itself has lots of interpretations and etymologies, and from the standpoint of trying to just settle on a meaning the whole question gets confused by a tradition of poetic “etymology” that spins whole arguments from similar Sanskrit words. (You can read all about them at Jayarava’s site Visible Mantra.) To me, the most plausible definition says that man- is the root for “mind” or “thought”, and the suffix “-tra” means “an instrument” or “a tool”. So a mantra is is “tool of thought.”

Mantra meditation is pretty simple. You select a mantra — we’ll talk about doing that in a second — and then you simply repeat it, either silently in your mind or out loud. Now, when my mind is unsettled, I’m worrying or something, I find saying it out loud is more helpful, but sometimes you don’t want to be sitting there repeating a Sanskrit phrase over and over like some kind of idiot. What you’re really doing is giving the drunken monkey something to do so it will shut up and stop making duhkha all over the place. So you repeat your mantra.

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As with shikentaza, what you find is that other thoughts arise — that damned monkey again, shaking his tambourine and trying to get you to pay him in attention and agitation and anxiety and fear. You find your mind dwelling on other thoughts, so when you notice them, observe them, label them — and let them go like freeing a bird. Go back to repeating the mantra.

Something you might find useful, and this is actually something I’ve just discovered as I’ve been writing about suffering and the roots of suffering, is to notice the thoughts, label them particularly as duhkha, and even give a moment to identifying the particular root of duhkha they represent. That is, when you find yourself thinking of a chocolate bar or a good dinner you had or something like that, notice that that particular thought is clinging to something pleasant and pleasurable, kamatrishna. If you find yourself worrying about something — usually I do mantra meditation when I’m worried about something, scared of something — then notice that it’s duhkha and that it’s duhkha arising from fear, from the desire to avoid something unpleasant, vibhavatrishna. Or you find yourself thinking about what you can do to solve whatever problem is bothering you, and that’s bhavatrishna, clinging to the desire to make things behave.

Don’t give a lot of thought to that, though, because clinging to thinking about which root of suffering that particular thought is, is still clinging and so one of the roots of suffering. A moment’s attention is all; then go back to repeating the mantra.

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So now, how do you pick a mantra?

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Basically, don’t give it too much thought. The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Beatles’ teacher, was big on giving each student a personally selected mantra, a Sanskrit word “awarded” after a little ritual that you’re supposed to keep secret forever and ever, like a password to a special Lodge of Meditation. This whole process, though, has caused a lot of suffering in itself, because some people decided it meant you were worshipping Hindu gods, which led to all sorts of drama and excitement.

This process may help some people, I don’t know. Personally, I don’t think there’s special magic in your particular mantra other than what you put into it yourself.

What I have noticed is that each mantra has a beat, a rhythm, that makes it feel better. So pick a mantra like someone rating a new song on American Bandstand — “hey, I give it a 90, it’s got a good beat and I like the melody.” And don’t, for crying out loud, fuss over it. Pick one, use it, if you don’t like it take another one, they’re free.

Here are some Buddhist ones I like:

Om mani padme hum. This is the most favored one in Tibetan Buddhism. It means something like “Hail to the Jewel Lotus” or “Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus.” My, isn’t that helpful? If you treat it as a prayer, it’s a prayer to the Bodhisattva of Compassion, but really, it’s just sounds. If you want to be all cool and Tibetan, you pronounce it as “Ohm mah-ni peh-me hung”.

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Namu Amida Butsu. “nah-moo ah-mee-da boots-oo”. Means exactly the same thing as Om Mani Padme Hum but it’s in Japanese.

Nam’ Myoho Renge Kyo, pronounced “nahm mee-yoh-hoe ren-gay keeyo” is the mantra used in Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism. You can hear how it’s chanted in this You Tube video. This one has a fun beat, you can dance to it, especially if you go a little faster than that video.

You don’t have to do Buddhist, though, because it turns out mantra meditation is practiced in most religions.

Here are some Christian ones:

Kyrie Eleison. “Kir-ee-ay Ee-lay-ee-sone”, “Lord have mercy.”

Maranatha. “Mah-ra-nah-tha”, “Lord of the Heart.”

And some Jewish ones:

Barukh Atah Adonoi“Bah-rookh At-tah Ah-doh-nigh”, “Blessed art thou King of the universe”.

Ribono Shel Olam  “Ree-boh-no Shel O-lahm”, “Master of the Universe”.

Shalom “Shah-lohm”, “Peace.”

You can even go American Indian with wakan tanka “wah-kahn tahn-kah”, which means “Great Spirit” or “Great Mystery” in Sioux. I don’t actually know that the Sioux or anyone else used it as a mantra, but what the hell, if it works for you go with it.

In any case, whatever phrase you decide you like, the real point is to interrupt yourself when you become aware of clinging to one of the roots of suffering. The more you break the habit of clinging, the less you will suffer.

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It’s really as simple as that.

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