The Power of Mantra

Today’s episode is all about the mind and mantra! It’s about how the mind gets distracted and how mantra can carry us back to ourselves. How mantra can help us to achieve our goals.

We’ve actually got two stories to explore today, both stories explore the power of mantra in its abilities to overcome our conscious, as well as subconscious desires and habits.

I feel like this is a big one for all of us. We all have our habits, our patterns, our distractions… our desires. And often they pull us away from what would really truly serve us most in life. So what do we do? How do we overcome this tendency to get swayed or distracted away from what really matters?

Well, that’s what we’ll explore in these two stories today!

But before we dive into the stories, I think it’s appropriate to clarify what we mean when we talk about mantra.

Mantra the word originally comes from Sanskrit. While Sanskrit words have a variety of meanings, we can say here that mantra means a sacred utterance; and that could be a sound, a word, or a group of words. Within the traditions of India, these vibrations are said to hold a particular power to them. In some cases mantra can be associated with a particular deity or chakra. In tantric yoga the mantra themselves, the vibrations, are in fact considered to be deities. Meaning that a mantra is not considered to be associated with a deity (As we see in much of Hinduism as an example) but rather IS the deity itself. For example, in the tantric traditions: SHREEM is not a mantra of, or that is associated with Lakshmi, it IS the goddess Lakshmi.

But instead of getting into the intricacies of how mantra has been developed within the Indian subcontinent, I think it’s actually more interesting to realize how mantra, sound, vibration is used all over the world, in many different cultures, in different spiritual and religious organizations, as well as socially to bring people together. Very early on, human kind realized the power of vibration to focus the mind, whether that focus was on an external object or thing or a means of emptying the mind into a moment of clarity, peace and connection.

That’s what really fascinates me. To see that cultures all over the world have used mantra (under different names and words, sound, vibration) as a tool to bring the mind into focus. Having travelled all over the world, it’s also very obvious to notice that 1) for the most part, we have lost this ideation our North American culture (Although it still exists in certain religious context here in the United states) and 2) everywhere else in the world, people are singing. Often, they are singing together, sometime they are singing by themselves, and if not being done publicly to bring people to focus in together, it’s being used privately in a spiritual or sacred context.

But just because we don’t really talk about it or realize its power doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist at all socially in our culture. Most people in the US only sing in the car with the windows up, or in the shower alone. BUT, go to a music concert, and see how people will sing along with the songs. What’s happening there? Everyone is collectively drawing their focus on the same point, the same words. It has amazing power in it to transform people. It’s tangible. Ask someone if they feel something (even if they’ve never heard of the word or concept of mantra), and chances are they will feel something even if they are unable to really describe it. That’s the power of vibration, of mantra.

What that thing IS, some cultures have developed in very sophisticated ways. They realized that different vibrations, different words, different sounds, have different feelings, different effects, different abilities in focusing and/or emptying the mind or different physiological effects on the body. There is a whole science behind mantra in the yogic traditions of India (as well as elsewhere in the world).

What I think we are missing from our modern American culture the most is not the power of mantra, but the STORIES, the myths that reinforce their importance in our lives. But we don’t have to invent our own stories. There are amazing stories out there that help to reinforce this point for us. Let’s dive into two of those stories now….

Once upon a time, Chandra, the Moon was banished to live out among the stars, away from the   Earth. But his love for the world was so strong, that he spent all of his time shining his light upon the earth. It didn’t matter who or what you were, he would shine his light down upon you. It was Chandra’s reputation in the evening times, for shining romantic light down on all people that one day drew the attention of King Daksha. King Daksha had 27 beautiful daughters.  He approached Chandra because he shined his romantic light equally upon all. Surely Chandra could shine that love and light equally upon all of Daksha’s daughters.

So Daksha went to Chandra and said, “If you promise to shine your light equally upon all of my 27 daughters, then you, and only you, have permission to marry my daughters.”

This was no different then anything Chandra was already doing. Of course he could shine his love and light on all of these beautiful princesses equally.

And so they married… And the princesses went off into the sky to live as stars around Chandra, the moon.

But it didn’t take long for Chandra to develop a particular infatuation with one of King Daksha’s daughters, Princess Rohini. She truly was the brightest, most radiant star of the bunch. And slowly, Chandra began to spend more and more time with Rohini. Shining more and more of his light her way. As his light was being more directed to just Rohini, Chandra was shining less of his light to the rest of his new wives.

The wives were obviously bothered by this, and they grew jealous. Eventually, the 26 other daughters went to their father, Daksha, and told him that Chandra had broken his promise and was no longer shining his light equally on them all, but instead, was favoring Rohini. This, naturally, made King Daksha furious! He went to Chandra, who, drunk on love, welcomed his father in law with open arms. But once he noticed the anger in Daksha’s eyes, he realized something was awry.

Daksha cursed Chandra! “You have broken your promise to me,” he said. “After swearing an oath to shine your light equally upon all of my daughters, your wives, you have broken that oath by favoring Rohini and neglecting your other wives, and for that, I curse you, Chandra! Your light will fade! It will fade until there is nothing left and you have no more light to give anyone!”

Chandra was shocked, concerned not only for himself, but for his love, Rohini.

One of Daksha’s other daughters, Sati, who was known far and wide as a great devotee of the God Shiva, took pity on Chandra. She knew of a great healing mantra of Shiva, AUM Trayumbhukum. She shared his mantra with Chandra in hopes that it might save him.

And so Chandra chanted:

AUM Tryambakam yajamahe

Sugandhim pusti vardhanam

Urvarukam iva bandanum

Mrtor mukshiya ma amrtat

Again and again his repeated this mantra as his light continued to fade away.

“We bow to the three eyed one (Shiva),

Who is fragrant, Who nourishes and gives life fullness,

May we be released from all bondage and suffering just as the stalk gently releases the cucumber.

May our minds be overtaken by this supreme light, which is the immortal nectar of Shiva.”

AUM Tryambakam yajamahe

Sugandhim pusti vardhanam

Urvarukam iva bandanum

Mrtor mukshiya ma amrtat

All through the night, and all through the day, Chandra repeated this mantra with devotion and sincerity in his heart. And finally, through his commitment and heart felt devotion, Shiva took notice and bestowed his grace upon Chandra.

The took Chandra, and placed him at the top of his head, and nestled him into his hair at the spot where the immortal amrita, the nectar of immortality, flowed down on top of Shiva. Chandra drank of this nectar and was restored to his fullest light. Free again, to shine his light equally upon all.

But Chandra was not satisfied, he longed for Rohini. So once his light was full, he rushed off to be with Rohini, and slowly, again, his light began to fade. The curse of King Daksha remained. Then again the mantra, again the amrita, the nectar of immortality, and Chandra would be restored to his full light. And this pattern would and does repeat itself for eternity.

Chandra drinks of the nectar of immortality, assumes his brightest and fullest self, then distracted by the radiance of Rohini, his light dims and fades. Through mantra he is given access to the immortal amrita of the Gods and is restored. Again and again and again this goes on… Restoring his full light, then fading. Radiant to all, then limited and diminished, back to radiance.

And the phases of the moon become our reminder of Chandra’s struggles.

So how does this relate to all of us? Well, once we understand what a few of the key characters represent, we can start to extract the wonderful message in the story.

Chandra represents the mind. It takes the light of the universe, and reflects it back equally on all things. But what happens once there is preference? Rohini? Call it, or her, desire or distraction. The mind no longer wants to shine on all, it wants just to shine on one worldly person or thing. It wants that one thing, and so our light dims and fades. We stop allowing the light of the universe to move through us, and we try to force that light into one particular direction. No longer receptive to the will of the universe, we start to fade.

We have likes and dislikes, preferences, we want this, but not that. We want this MORE than we want that. The ego creates desire! The mind pulls us this way or that way. And so we suffer as we stop receiving the fullness of the possibilities of life.

But there is hope! We still have the opportunity to receive the full light of the universe, of life, of Shiva. How do we help heal the self-inflicted wounds of the mind? Mantra!

Mantra overpowers the ego and its desire, and opens us up to receive the full light of the universe, as represented by Shiva.

When we are not consumed by our desires, we open ourselves up to receive the grace of the universe. We are restored.

But like Chandra, we get full, and our desire or our habits, our preferences, come back.

This happens to a lot of us with our basic health. When we are healthy, we tend not to take care of ourselves as well as we do when we are sick. We take our health for granted.  But if we get sick, well, then we start taking our vitamins, or herbs or medicine. And it’s so easy and tempting, once we are feeling good, to forget the things we did to get there. To succumb to distraction and fall back into old habits.

If you’ve ever struggled through an injury. I see it time and time again as a yoga teacher. Someone gets injured. They do all the work to get out of pain, but once they are no longer in pain. They figure, hey, they’re cured, they don’t need to do the work anymore. And sure enough, the pain of the injury comes back. Again and again, if they don’t stay vigilant with their therapy.

Or dieting! You’re going along, doing well with your diet. Chandra, drinking the amrita from Shiva, feeling good. But then something distracting comes along. A nice juicy piece of chocolate cake, and boom, you’re tempted away from the healing powers of the nectar of immortality (away from healthy living, or let’s say in this case, a healthy diet), and you go back to the thing of your desire (the chocolate cake) that is ultimately going to take your life force away.

How do we get back on track? How do we get back into the things that are going to restore our life instead of take away from it?

This is where mantra comes in. While in the context of the yogic traditions there are specific mantras that can very much help with different things, we can also see more globally the ability of mantra to bring us back to a place of wholeness, of healing, of peace…

I have mantra that I recite regularly, and they sit in the background of my mind constantly. When my mind gets dragged away, filled with anxiety, stress or anger, it’s the steady presence of the mantra in the background that brings me back to a calm and centered, peaceful place.

We’ve got one more story to share today. And it’s a story from my most beloved character, Hanuman. It takes place in the great Indian epic, the Ramayana.

As always, our story takes place once upon a time… when the monkey God, Hanuman, has been tasked with helping Prince Rama (an avatar of the god Vishnu) find the princess Sita, who has been abducted by the ferocious demon Ravana.

At this point in the story, Hanuman has found where Ravana was holding Sita: on the island of Lanka. He’s gone back to Rama to tell him where she is, and Rama has brought a massive army of animals, of bears and apes and other creatures, to go fight Ravana and his demon army.

The obstacle facing them? Well, they are on the tip of South India, and an ocean separates their army and the island of Lanka. An ocean separates Prince Rama and his beloved Sita.

First, they try to build a bridge. The bears and monkeys, the magical creatures that comprised most of Rama’s army, grab nearbye boulders and start throwing them into the ocean… only to see them sink to the bottom of the deep sea. It would take mountains of earth to build a high enough earth bridge to get the army across and even then it seemed impossible.

As some of the army stood in frustration looking out to sea, Hanuman went about his usual devotion to Rama by writing Rama’s name in the sand and writing it on rocks. Writing the mantra: Rama. One of the bears happened to grab one of these rocks and throw it into the sea, only to watch as, this time, instead of the rock sinking, it floats to the surface.

It takes a moment for everyone to realize what just happened. They ask Hanuman to write Rama’s name again onto a stone, which he does. And they throw it out to sea…. Again it floats.

So they do this again. And everyone starts to write Rama on whatever earth or rock or boulder they sea, and they hurl it into the ocean. And each and every stone, every boulder, floats to the top. And THIS is how they build a bridge for the army to travel across to defeat Ravana and his army and rescue the princess Sita.

Now, once we have a basic understanding of what the overall story is telling us, this moment in the story gives us great insight into our own lives and spiritual journey.

Rama and Sita represent the divine self and the individual self. Rama, the large self, the self with a capitol S, the Godhead, the divine, and Sita the individual soul, the self with the small S.

How are these two things separated? They are separated by Ravana, who represents the ego. Ravana himself has 10 heads. We have to navigate 1 head and one ego… imagine having 10 to deal with! That’s one big ego!

So it’s the ego that makes the soul feel separate from the divine.

In part of our journey to reconcile this feeling of separation, we are likely to encounter resistance and barriers from the subconscious. In cultures across the world, large bodies of water, a lake or the sea, represent the subconscious mind. And so here too, the sea, the subconscious becomes a barrier they must cross. It presents an obstacle on their journey.

Why is the subconscious an obstacle? Because it holds old programs, old tapes, old habits and desires inside it. And most dangerously, because it is part of our subconscious, we usually have little to no idea of the roots or sometimes even the presence of these habits, patterns and desires.

How do we continue on our path when we become blocked to the flow of life from these subconscious patterns?

Mantra!! Mantra, in this case the name of Rama, carries us over those patterns, beyond those habits and desires. It helps to lead to the reconciliation of the divine self and individual soul. Or even more simply, it helps to carry us past those tendencies so we can accomplish our goal.

The army of Rama, our allies, our tools, our good habits, are at risk of being overtaken and drowned by the subconscious. But mantra, mantra can keep us afloat. It can carry us across the ocean of the subconscious mind, and allow all of these tools, these allies to be utilized properly.

So both of these stories, the story of Chandra, the moon, and the story of the Ramayana with the army of Rama travelling to Lanka, they give us reminders of the importance of mantra on our spiritual journey. Mantra becomes a life boat, something that keeps us afloat, keeps us from drowning in our subconscious habits and desires.

What mantra, then, to recite? Well, every tradition, within the tradition, tends to put a lot of determination into saying that the specific words, and even their pronunciation, carry the power. And in a sense, that can be very much felt to be true. A very short time into exploring different mantra, you will notice that you feel differently chanting some sounds or words then others. This is as clear as can be. Within a tradition you can follow the particular intricacies of that within that tradition. But other traditions will have other intricacies, other words, other vibrations, and some of those vibrations might be contrary to what you find in other traditions.

And, in another sense, a mantra can really be anything. You can use any word as a mantra: lemon, lemon, popsicle, popsicle, AUM.  Play with them yourself. If you are in a particular tradition, then it’s probably a good idea to explore the means of that tradition. But if you are not a part of any particular spiritual tradition. Play around, experiment, try things for yourself. What do sounds and vibrations feel like in your own body?

You might start to really connect with a particular word or sound. Perhaps it sinks into you and becomes your life boat. I hope it does. And I hope you all get to experience to power and joy that comes from mantra.

Listen to me tell the stories here: