September 25, 2011

A Gate That Opens Both Ways: Mantra and Mindfulness

Yogash chitta vritti nirodhah. –Patanjali, Yoga Sutra 1.1.

Life rarely presents us with laboratory conditions for meditation. Unless we want to spend a lot of our practice time gritting our teeth and willing distractions away, we need to adapt to circumstances. Which is not my strong suit.

I have always been drawn to dhyana meditation, or “one-pointed concentration.” Sri Ramakrishna, the 19th century Bengali saint, likened the mind in dhyana to a continuous stream of oil being poured from one vessel to another. The field of awareness is narrowed to one object–whether the breath, a mantra, or “the lotus feet of the Lord”–and all else is excluded from it as the meditator “gathers the scattered energies of the mind into one place.” i

This way of meditating has always appealed to me more than mindfulness meditation, in which the meditator observes whatever comes up, internally or externally, remaining open to what the moment brings. I don’t like remaining open.

Jodie Foster once said that she didn’t like live theater because the audience can look wherever they want; as a filmmaker,  Foster prefers to control the view.  I, likewise, prefer, when possible, to choose the object of my awareness in meditation.

But sometimes–or often, depending on one’s circumstances­–that just isn’t possible. For instance, my children attend a Friends (Quaker) school, and most Thursday mornings I accompany my older daughter to Meeting for Worship in the austerely beautiful 18th century meeting house.  In traditional Quaker worship, anyone may speak if they feel moved to do so, but the speech proceeds out of, and falls back into, silence; often, the entire period goes by in silence.

But “silence” is relative. When you’ve got a big room full of kids ranging from kindergarten to sixth grade, fidgeting on the creaky benches, coming in late on the creaky floorboards, asking to go to the bathroom or for someone to pass them the tissues–even if they aren’t speaking aloud, it would be a stretch to call it “silence.”

So I used to struggle valiantly to exclude all the hubbub from my awareness and practice Centering Prayer–a Christian form that resembles both mantra japa and vipassana in that a single word or short phrase (the “prayer word”) is repeated internally, often synchronized with the breath, as a way of keeping the mind from wandering. But the effect, under those conditions, was more like covering my ears and shouting, “La, la, la, I’m not listening!” The prayer word, rather than keeping me from being hijacked by my thoughts, became a thought itself–something to think rather than being available to the moment.

When I finally grew tired of doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result, I decided the time had come to give mindfulness a try. Jon Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and
nonjudgmentally.” In theory, that sounds like it should include concentrative dhyana meditation­­–one does, after all, pay attention to the object one is contemplating–but in practice people generally make a distinction between focusing the mind on an object and observing the mind itself, or the experiences of the moment.

I have written before about how internally repeating the Prayer of the Heart, or “Jesus Prayer,” while doing everyday chores quiets my mind and makes my experience of what I’m doing more vivid and immediate. As I become more available to the moment, my awareness–both of myself, and of the ever-present Spirit–becomes sharper. What I am doing, then, is using a prayer word, not in a concentrative way, but as a tool for mindfulness. The prayer is a gate that allows my experience in while excluding my otherwise incessant mind-chatter.

So a prayer word or mantra can, it seems, function both as a tool for dhyana, helping maintain the attention on the chosen object while excluding outside experiences, and a tool for mindfulness, helping us attend to our experiences while suppressing the inner monologue. It is a gate that opens both ways. Which is where the above-referenced two-thousand-year-old Sanskrit scripture comes in. Here it is again:

Yogash chitta vritti nirodhah. 

As is often the case with ancient texts, there are divergent opinions about the precise meaning of this sentence. One of the more widespread translations is:

Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. In other words, when the mind is as unruffled as a pouring stream of oil, entirely concentrated upon one object without distraction, that is yoga. 

But there are other translations; for example:

Yoga is the mastery of the activities of the mind-field. That is, when distractions occur, and we acknowledge and accept them without judgment or commentary, that is yoga.

So which is the better translation? Is it about quieting the mind, or about making it do what we want? Is yoga both dhyana and mindfulness?

I’m prepared to say that it is. One of the differences between scripture and “content,” it seems to me, is that while the latter may mean one thing or less, scripture can almost always mean one thing or more. For instance, consider Jesus’ words about the Kingdom of God:

ουδε ερουσιν ιδου ωδε η ιδου εκει ιδου γαρ η βασιλεια του θεου εντος υμων εστιν.  (Luke 17:21)

You won’t be able to say of the Kingdom, “Here it is,” or “There it is”–all the many translations agree on that much. But about the next part, translators are about evenly divided. Did Jesus say,

for the Kingdom of God is within you,


for the Kingdom of God is among you?

The controversy hinges on the meaning of the word endos (εντος), which in many contexts means “within.” (Eg., “endoscopy” = “looking within.”) But the word can also mean “among,” or “in the midst of.”

While scholars cite linguistic evidence and/or theological arguments–none of which are, in my opinion, either conclusive or interesting­–in support of their favored interpretations, the meaning seems perfectly clear if we view the text in the light of experience rather than doctrine. If we invite God to reign in our hearts, then the Kingdom is within us. And if we are as connected to each other as the branches of a single vine (Jn. 15:5), and if we are to care for each other as for Christ Himself (Mt. 25:31-46), and if Jesus is present whenever two or more are gathered together in His name (Mt. 18:20), then the Kingdom is manifestly among us as well. Anyone who has ever felt the movement of the Spirit in his or her own soul as well as among the gathered community knows this to be true. It means both. 

So when a scripture seems to have two equally defensible meanings, we can assume that both are valid. In interpreting Yoga Sutra 1.1, if circumstances dictate that I must meditate in different ways at different times–if I see myself as both a yogi, struggling to achieve liberation through spiritual practice, and a bhakti, dependent on divine grace and longing for true devotion­–and if experience tells me that the same meditative tool can be used in ways that point to both translations–why argue any further about meaning? Why posit a dilemma where none need exist?

One final thought: purist practitioners of mindfulness meditation may object to the use of a mantra or prayer word. And from a purist standpoint, they may have a point. But being as much a bhakti as a yogi–a devotee as well as a practitioner–I need to bring a note of devotion with me into my meditation. Pure mindfulness, for me, is too lacking in content; I need to smuggle in a little devotional meaning, even if only in the background. Which is why I continue to use a prayer word in both dhyana and mindfulness practice: for me, it works both ways.

This post originally appeared at Open to the Divine.

i. Swami Tyagananda, Boston Vedanta Center

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