A woman friend opened my eyes years ago to the way we men become very invested in our props when on dates. She told me about being out with a young man who, after dropping and breaking his carefully selected bottle of wine, became more upset than she could possibly account for at the time. Why was the wine so important to him, she wondered? Only later did she realize that men set the scene for wooing and seduction through the strategic deployment of such props. Things like flowers, candles and soft music are, for most men, more like magic talismans for producing the desired result than expressions of anything like love.
I often think about this story while preparing for prayer, smiling as I dim the lights, change the shrine flowers or light a stick of incense. “I know,” I say to God, “that you are perfectly aware of my use of these props, and that you know I intend them as an offering of devotion and an aid to my own recollection, their resemblance to preparing my dorm room for a hot date notwithstanding.”
Maybe it’s my background in Protestant Christianity that makes me elevate devotion over technique the way I do. Maybe the correct pronunciation of Sanskrit mantras really is essential to their efficacy; maybe the position of the tongue in the chakra bijas really does stimulate the pineal gland, or whatever. Many people of many millennia have believed so. But to my mind, emphasizing technique in this way is the spiritual equivalent carefully laying the scene in one’s bachelor crib. And yes, of course it absolutely is love and desire that impels us to cultivate technique–but if the love isn’t paramount, the technique is empty, however efficacious it may seem in the short run.
I recently read a book about mantra meditation by John Dupuche, a Catholic priest with a doctorate in Sanskrit, who specializes in Kashmir Shaivism. I found his account of mantra highly resonant with my own:
The mantra is a word, not just a sound repeated over and over. It is not a word said to oneself, a sort of soliloquy. Nor is it just a distraction for the mind so as to let the spirit soar. The mantra is an expression. It comes from a tradition and expresses the tradition…It comes from the reciter and expresses the reciter.
The mantra is the essence of the Word that surpasses all sound…the mantra is not so much the vocable, which is uttered with the lips or mind, but an attitude, an emotion, which constitutes the essential self. By reciting the mantra the practitioner undertakes to be true to his or her self.
Thus the mantra, like all words and expressions, is a bridge between the speaker and the one addressed. The mantra is necessarily said to someone. I can become the mantra only if I say it to someone who receives the mantra, who listens and accepts the mantra.
For Dupuche, the mantra expresses the one who recites it, for the sake of the One who hears it–irrespective of linguistics and technical minutiae.
Like mantras, mudras are often thought to have empirical effects on the practitioner independent of intention. According to Kundalini Yoga theory, a mudra is:
A gesture or position, usually of the hands, that locks and guides energy flow and reflexes to the brain. By curling, crossing, stretching and touching the fingers and hands, we can talk to the body and mind as each area of the hand reflexes to a certain part of the mind or body.
While I have never seen any convincing science that supports the notion of hand reflexology, it may very well be that holding the hands in various postures objectively stimulates the nervous system. But for the time being, anyway, you can’t prove it by me.
For Buddhists, mudras have a primarily iconographic and symbolic function, similar to stereotyped hand gestures in Christian icons. Different positions of the hands have different meanings that help the viewer to “read” the image.
My own position, as usual, falls somewhere in between. For me, a mudra–like everything else in spiritual practice–is about intention. When I use a mudra while chanting or in silent meditation, I am implicitly aware of–though not explicitly thinking about–the meaning of the gesture as it relates to my intention for that period of practice. While meditating on the sahasrara, or “crown” chakra, I may use the dhyana mudra,which is associated with deep concentration and devotion; I may use the vismaya mudra, associated with clear spiritual perception, while focusing on the ajna, or “brow (“third eye”) chakra. But I do so, not because I believe that holding the hands a certain way will objectively facilitate the desired result, but as an aid to honing my intention–a mission statement for the practice, a string around my spiritual finger to remind me of what I am doing and why. A string on my finger–not a ring through God’s nose.
In spiritual practice, it seems to me, all is offering–all is devotion. We offer mantra and mudra as gifts of love, not as techniques for producing a desired result–just as a man gives a woman a ring, not to facilitate an acceptance of his offer of marriage, but as a way of declaring his own intentions and desires.