When my daughter was about three years old we would walk daily in the forest and I would retell the same story. It was the story of how Shri (pronounced "Shree"), also known as Fortune or Splendor, leaves our world and how Shri returns.
The past months I have frequently reflected on this story.
This story is the "Churning of the Ocean of Milk" or the "Samudra Manthan". In brief: it starts with a powerful sage named Durvasas who presents a beautiful flower garland to Indra the King of the Gods. Indra accepts the garland but tosses it onto the head of his attendant elephant. Durvasas, known for his angry temper, flies into a rage and curses the entire land. Indra was blind to the fact that these flowers were the abode of Shri: Fortune, Abundance, Splendor.
Shri vanishes and the world is overcome by dark forces.
To make this really brief, the Gods and anti-Gods together churn the Universal Ocean of Milk where Shri, embodied as the deity Lakshmi, has concealed herself. As they churn they release much of the ocean's hidden contents. First there is a poison, hallal, which threatens to engulf the world, rendering people unable to breath. (Don't worry! Shiva saves the day, swallowing the poison and holding it in his throat.) Next misfortune surfaces, embodied as Lakshmi's sister Alakshmi. The Gods and Anti-gods continue their churning and then: a wishfulfilling tree, gems, various supernatural beings, and finally Shri/Lakshmi along with Dhanvantri, the deity of healing, holding a vessel filled with Amrita, the Nectar of Immortality. Health and fortune are re-established in the universe and benevolent forces reign again.
As I would tell this story, my then-3-year-old daughter would pick up a big stick, lean over the gentle brook, and grin at me as she began to churn the water. The waters would muddy and whatever was deposited on the sandy bottom would rise and swirl upwards into spirals.
And so it is with us.
When we intentionally "churn" our consciousness through physical Yoga, mantra, or whatever our chosen practice is, the contents hidden within our unconscious begin to rise. There may initially be a difficult purging (suppressed emotions, traumas, etc.) and then we begin to reap the treasures of the process. This is what happens on an individual level when we consciously go about our own self-development and individuation but this "churning" can also happen on the level of the collective...
The world is currently in a state of "disruption". A global pandemic leading to quarantines, unemployment, deaths. The horrors and injustices of systemic racism exploding into collective awareness. Uprisings in Asia. Ongoing drought and starvation in Africa. 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the Siberian Arctic this summer. Wild fires. Scientists suggest that this pandemic is but the tip of the iceberg (and let's not forget the melting icebergs) as we march towards the future. More epidemics. Increasingly chaotic weather. Accelerated species extinction. We are indeed a planet reeling out of control.
Have we banished Shri from the land?
I love myths and archetypal stories such as the Samudra Manthan for they work on many levels. On one level, archetypal stories typically point us towards a true, universal source of empowerment. Often something is physically lost or someone loses their way, there is suffering, the natural powers of inspiration and wisdom arise under duress, and there is a winding return back to coherence. Shri has been lost. Where is Shri? She is hidden in the vibratory ocean of our own consciousness. She is there for She is everywhere.
Shri means "difusing light or radiance" and over time this concept came to be embodied in the deity Lakshmi. The word Lakshmi means "embodiment". Lakshmi is the Creatrix, and as Mahalakshmi (Great Lakshmi), she is the Great Mother or Shakti, the feminine force. She is a force of material manifestation and, as one of my teachers says, "She is the Mother that cannot stop giving".
"She" gives of herself, from her own body for "She" is the very juice of life, the Rasa of existence. Shri/Lakshmi, manifests in our physical world in a multitude of ways. Shri is primarily a combination of the life giving waters in combination with earth. She is the fertile mud which nurtures primordial life; the seed bursting upwards towards the sun; a plant exploding with fruit and medicinal properties; and she is the damp soil which composts it all, to begin the cycle anew. But She's more!
She is all that gives life joy and beauty.
She is luxury, money, and wealth. She is also generosity, especially of Spirit. In this sense, Shri is sweetness, kindness, and surrender. She is laughter, delight, and of course, love.
When I'm in the "Shri zone", I gush. True story. I hug people I hardly know. My heart flies open. Gratitude flows. I perceive my surroundings singing with vibrancy. Shri is an exuberant, effervescent force manifesting through my then 4-year-old-daughter who shrieked delightedly one day, "Today I'm a thermos of joy!!!"
I think many of us have become acutely aware in these last months of where our joy lies. Isolated from friends and family, from celebration and ritual, from travel, possibly from nature, it becomes ever more (painfully) evident our richness lies in our inter-connectedness. Here in my own community, people found a multitude of ways of sharing, giving, and supporting during the most difficult, constrained days of quarantine. My own neighbourhood was a wonderful example, of Canadian "care-mongering" a direct response to the "fear mongering" we are so familiar with in the media. But this can not substitute for the intense inter-penetration of our emotional and psychic beings that happens when we gather physically together as friends, as a family, as a community. It cannot substitute for celebrating together, singing together, dancing together. A virtual wedding or funeral does not give enough celebration nor solace. And my 12 year old says virtual birthday parties really suck.
But our sense of inter-penetration also extends to the other animals and life forms that we share this Earth with and with the planet itself. We depend on nature as the source of our food system, our economic system, and our spiritual abundance. We have evolved from tiny life forms through more developed species and we carry all this heritage within ourselves. We have the legacy of a multitude of species interwoven into our being. Yet like Indra who tosses the gift of the garland aside, we perform countless acts of micro-violence, often on a daily basis, against nature. We have lost our sense of inter-penetration with the physical world and we have become alienated from the levels of Splendor within our own consciousness.
So when Shri vanishes, how do we get her back? We churn. We turn within to gaze at our own consciousness. We surface the muck to reveal the splendor. The myth also tells us that Shri, while both apparent and yet hidden in all things, must be recognized, nourished, and celebrated in order to thrive.
One simple way we can do this is to invoke her through sound. The mantra "Shri" is an aspect of Her sound body, This bija or "seed" syllable holds within it an entire resonant field of physical potential and spiritual meaning. This one-syllable mantra can provide us with a tangible way to interact with powerful forces within ourselves and external to ourselves. Mantras pattern powerful energetic states that impact us within and without. It is a powerful way to connect with the force of vitality, joy, and love.
Hidden within our layers of consciousness are resonant fields of joy and creativity. Shri is one doorway into this. Open it. It's a good thing to do when times are tough, when your energy is low, and your vision is muted to life's inherent lustre. It's a good thing to do for maybe we are entering a period of collective churning. We need to ask ourselves: Wherein lies our wealth? What do we value? How will we nourish it? How will we celebrate it?
And what will we each do to re-enchant ourselves and a planet out of balance?
From joy springs all creation. By joy it is sustained, by joy it proceeds, and to joy it returns.
“Voici mon secret. Il est très simple: on ne voit bien qu'avec le coeur. L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” /
“Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly;
what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Le Petit Prince.
Here we just celebrated Valentine's Day. Romantic love was in the air--for some--and hearts abounded. I've been thinking less of Cupids and romance but the core of our very being: our spiritual Heart.
Let's go back a few months to another celebration: Christmas. Like for many children, Christmas is a focal point of the year for my 11-year old daughter. The momentum builds once school starts. Visions of gift giving, time with family, playing games, two weeks off school. It's not always idyllic but it's pretty darn good.
This year, after the presents, the food, and the games my daughter and I enjoyed a quiet evening. As we chatted and snuggled prior to her bedtime she hesitated before saying haltingly:
"I feel above it all, mom."
"What do you mean?" I responded.
"Like... in this very moment, I'm just above it all."
This time it was I who hesitated before saying, "I don't understand."
She elaborated, "It's like I'm in my heart, mom, but my heart, is above my head." Her voice choked a little, "But my heart is filled with cracks. It's broken. Everywhere."
My own heart sank sadly.
"Yet", she added, "It's as if there is something holding it all together... It's Love, mom." Silence. "Am I normal, mom?" she quietly asked.
I assured her that she is completely normal. Broken. Fragmented. Don't we all feel like this at some point in our lives?
We all live heartbreak. Maybe it's on the personal level of the deep disappointment with an unfulfilled romance or the breakup of the family. Maybe it's the permament loss of someone dear. Maybe it's coping with lonliness, failing health, facing injustice. Or even worse, living through personal violence, cultural genocide, war. Maybe it's on the collective level of feeling helpless and/or hopeless in the face of the steady stream of information related to our global environmental crisis. The extinction of species, of ecosystems. How could one's heart not break?
And yet, sometimes there are those moments of visceral awareness when we know that something bigger is holding it all together.
Our hearts are mysterious, aren't they? And I think therein lies the key: our physical heart points towards a great mystery. The Yogic traditions and paths are many but most see various levels to the human heart which are interrelated. We can call these:
1. The physical heart
2. The emotional heart
3. The energetic heart or anahata chakra
4. The spiritual heart or hridaya.
So let's take a deep dive down, down, down through the layers to our very core: our spiritual Heart.
We know and love our heart as the master pump of our circulatory system. It is approximately fist sized and slightly enlarged on the left side, hence our impression that our heart is on the left side of the chest. Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death worldwide with tangible risk factors including smoking, being overweight, and a sedentary lifestyle. But lonliness too is associated with heart problems so very quickly we bump up against the emotional world embodied within our hearts.
Most people feel intuitively that our heart is our emotional center: how could hundreds of years of love poetry be wrong!? Maybe you wear your "heart on your sleeve". Maybe you're a "bleeding heart". And "heart break" has recently gotten the stamp of scientific approval with "Broken Heart Syndrome". In fact, a few years ago, I met a man at a retreat who had received this diagnosis. He had ended up in emergency shortly after his wife dropped the bomb that she had been having an affair. In such situations, the flood of stress hormones either reduces the heart’s pumping action or causes it to contract too wildly. The left ventricle of his heart was significantly swollen due to the emotional shock.
Awareness placed on the heart, visualizations that move stuck energy through the heart, Yoga postures, and Qigong have all helped me. Support, laughter, and rest help. Mantras are powerful but more on this later!
It is difficult to draw a line between the emotional and energetic aspects of the heart. But let us not get too hung up on labels and categories which are arbitrary at best! The energetic dimension of our heart is known as the Anahata Chakra. It is a critical juncture within our subtle anatomy and a seat of mystical sound. The heart chakra is the meeting point of all the energetic meridians of the body. It also connects the the force of matter moving from the lower chakras upward towards the crown and the force of spirit moving downwards into manifestation.
A bevy of hatha yoga practices aim to balance the chakras through the purification and release of obstructions (traumas, blocked emotions, past karmas, etc). Yogic practices aim to (ideally) gently release painful emotional contents from our body/mind to restore the natural energetic flow. When our heart chakra is shut down, we tend to be withdrawn, feel vulnerable, and blocked in our capacity to give and receive love. (Sound familiar?) We can work at opening up the heart chakra through heart opening yoga poses, meditation, mantra, and mindfulness to how we react in real time.
When the heart chakra is too open, we may be overly giving to others and out of touch with our own needs. This can leave us disappointed and depleted. We may also be overly demanding of others, expecting the same amount of self-sacrifice. This points towards imbalances in the other chakras; an overreliance on the heart perhaps due to a foundational lack of stability or perhaps lack of boundaries typically seen as belonging to the second chakra. This dynamic also requires awareness and attention to deeper underlying emotional issues.
When our heart chakra is balanced we are able to give and receive love, be empathetic, tolerant, and are discriminating. As one of my teachers once said to me, "When your heart is balanced, you no longer need to protect it. Your heart protects you!" To note, the heart chakra is not the seat of romantic love for this is the abode of the passion-fuelled second chakra. The love of the heart chakra is an expansive state of being independent of any other person.
The word "anahata" means “unstruck” or “unbeaten” in Sanskrit and "anahata shabda" are the mystical unstruck sounds emitting from this center. This dimension of the heart functions through the element of air.
I encountered this aspect of the heart shortly after being introduced to yoga. Many years ago now, after an introductory weekened yoga workshop which included simple chanting, I sat myself down on my living room floor and proceeded to chant for hours. I then put earplugs into my ears to block out the sounds of the city and fell into meditation. I listened with steadfast focus to the sound of my beating heart. After about an hour something shifted. I felt as if I was dropping down into the depths of my body. The dropping seemed to last minutes. Then I felt myself expanding along the horizontal plane. Just when I thought the energy had settled, a high frequency sound began emitting from my heart region. It slowly yet steadily increased in volume until I felt I was swimming in sound. The experience was almost overwhelming when my heart exploded outwards into a brilliant light which embodied a powerful presence. The expansion sped up and the experience seemed close to its apex... when my then-partner walked in and hollered, "Hey babe, what'd you make for supper?"
Alas, I did not get up off my cushion enlightened for spaghetti awaited. (If you're interested in such meditative phenomena and issues around awakening Kundalini, read an older blog here.) As a total newbie to yoga I had no context or understanding for what was happening. But it was a glimpse of the spiritual Heart and it forever changed my life.
THE SPIRITUAL HEART OR HRIDAYA
"In the middle of your body, in the immaculate lotus of the heart. is the dwelling place of the Supreme Being in the form of radiant light. Go there if you want to experience everlasting happiness and peace."
The Narayana Upanishad
The hridaya or hrit chakra is a subtle dimension to the heart seen as being distinct from the Anahata chakra. According to Ramana Maharshi, the great Indian sage, “The godly atom of the Self is to be found in the right chamber of the heart, about one finger-width’s distance from the body’s midline. Here lies the Heart, the dynamic Spiritual Heart. It is called hridaya, is located on the right side of the chest, and is clearly visible to the inner eye of an adept on the Spiritual Path. Through meditation you can learn to find the Self in the cave of this Heart.”
Hridaya is the source of revelation for it is the seat of Purusha or the Cosmic Self. In Sanskrit, Hṛt signifies both "heart" and "mind". It also also means "core" or "center". Hridayam, comprised of "hṛt" and "ayam", means "I am the Heart". I take it to also mean, "I am the Center".
Hridaya is referred to as the "cave of the heart" but once inside this cave, the felt experience expands to encompass the entire universe. The Chandogya Upanishad states: “The sun and the moon and the stars, the very space and the clouds and the lightning and the rains—all this miracle of creation is within the heart of man. When it rains outside, it rains inside also, and the stellar regions shine resplendently within the heart of man.” Metaphors abound to express the unexpressable. It is called a cave but also a heart lotus ("hrit padma"), a flame, and our spiritual "sun" which illuminates our entire being.
According to Pandit David Frawley, everything flows from the Hridaya. All the chakras are encompassed by the Spiritual Heart, including the crown. When the crown opens and the crown merges into the spirital Heart, duality collapses.
Bhaktas, who pratice a Yoga of devotion, focus less on awakening Kundalini and its ascent through the chakras but more on simply centering their awareness in their Heart. In doing so, they seek to harmonize all their energies therein. Hanuman is the Vaishnivite symbol of the embodied heart. Hanuman, who tears his heart open to show Ram and Sita, shining from the core of his being. Ram and Sita together symbolize unity within duality. The heart is the place where all polarities (masculine/feminine, solar/lunar energies, etc.) cease to exist.
NOW IS THE TIME TO TAKE HEART
The external curcumtances of life, at some point, will break us. We crack. Hopefully we don't shatter. "C'est la vie," as they say here in Montreal. And so it is. But as Montreal's own poet-patron saint Leonard Cohen croons:
"O troubled dust concealing
An undivided love
The heart beneath is teaching
To the broken heart above.”
Heart break: it's part of the cosmic package and it's part of the process. The trick lies in gently embracing the fragmentation. Recognizing and allowing pain while slowly integrating Otherness and lessons learned. It means being patient as we expand our experience of life and our narrow, constricted egos. Don't rush.
But our individual brokenness is the path back to Wholeness, to the "broken heart above". As above, so below for life itself is an experience of separation. All most of us can do is progress on that so-called spiral path where each new "level" incorporates our brokenness into a more expansive experience towards Wholeness. Acceptance and surrender become critical if we are to progress, individually and collectively, at all.
What we need now is to collectively awaken to a more expansive experience of Beingness; one where we nurture the "feminine" qualities of resonance, intuition, and empathy embodied in our hearts just as we rever the "masculine" qualities of rationality and logic embodied in our heads. We must provide such opportunities for our children so that they can unfold naturally, on all levels of their being. To nurture this we must educate "the minds of our youth" but "not forget to educate their hearts", in the words of the Dalai Lama. As we expand this connection within ourselves we simultaneously expand a felt sense of connection to our external conditions, to the people in our lives, to our environment, and to the unseen realm of energies. In doing so we contribute to the restoration of Wholeness which embraces brokenness and a world where the Center is everywhere.
So, back to Christmas and my daughter. I'm a big fan of the season for all the reasons she is and more. But this year I think I received the best gift ever: the knowledge that my child, no matter what she may go through in this lifetime, has had a glimpse already, albeit brief, that something will hold this all together for her. And this is Love. What else could any mother ever wish for?
"There is nothing so whole as a broken heart."
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk
There are a variety of mantras that help to open the spiritual heart. There are the specific bija sounds of the Sanskrit alphabet which vibrate the petals of the heart chakra, but it is best to learn the entire alphabet to promote overall balance within the nadis and all chakras. If you are interested in learning this through a sequence of lessons, contact me.
The bija mantra of the great Heart within the Tantric tradition is the mantra of Bhuvaneshwari: Hrim. Hrim (pronounced "hreem") is the spaciousness of the Universe and the spaciousness we hold in our own being which is accessed through the heart. If you would like to learn a bit more about this, please access the free resource section of this website from the Home page. (Simply create a username and password.)
Last week it was Easter here in North America. I taught my 10-year old daughter a simple new mantra with this in mind and we chanted for a few minutes before bed. Then we rested for a few minutes in silence.
"Wow, Mom", my daughter said quietly. "While we were chanting I was looking at the sparkles on the ceiling and thought they looked like stars. The second I thought that, I was really out among the stars. I mean, I was really out in the stars, mom, flying like this," and she configured herself into a flying posture, arms extended behind her, her heart protruding, her legs long. "The second I thought, 'I have to tell mom!', it ended!" She paused for a second. "Was that... just my imagination?"
"How many times have I asked myself that same question!", I thought...
... When I was pregnant I would awaken early morning (like, gulp, 3am) and do yoga, chant, and meditate. One night, when I was about 3 1/2 months pregnant, I was sitting in meditation when I felt my head open up (yes, like in one of those silly cartoons) and as if something was falling heavily through the centre of my being. "It" landed in the pit of my belly… boom! The thought arose, “The soul of your child has arrived”. Another part of my being screamed in response, “Whaaaaat? But I don’t believe in souls!” And I didn't. I did yoga, at that time, to strengthen, relax, and train my mind. Basically, because it made me feel good.
"That must have been my imagination", I immediately told myself...
Back to the present... I hesitated. "Did it feel meaningful?", I asked my daughter first. She stuck her tongue out, eyes wide, and rapidly nodded her little head. "How did you feel?" "Soooooo happy", she responded. Then I told her I did not think it was her imagination in that she had not willed it or consciously created this image/experience. I explained to her that I thought the mantra had triggered a powerful heart opening and she had been propelled into the mystical experience the mantra was supposed to actually embody. I told her if she nurtured this practice, through attention and protection, this experience would continue to grow inside her.
Was it her imagination? No, as I had explained to her but also yes. Yes, possibly, in the truest, purest sense of the word.
"Yoga" is typically translated as "yoke" as in the ancient agrarian yoking of the ox to the cart. It is also translated as "Union". Ancient Yogic practices arose within societies that were closely connected to nature and were honed over the millenia to help train the body and the mind to become aware of our own "true" nature. Yoga developed strength, focus, and equanimity but was ultimately focused on nurturing the highest forms of consciousness available to human beings. Pivotal to the more formal traditions of Yoga were mantras which opened up the subtle body and configured profound states of being.
Mantras are thought to embody inter-penetrating, nested levels of awareness which ultimately lead us back to an experience of the deepest Self. Because they embody the cosmic "I", they take us out of our habitual viewing point, providing us with an experience of Otherness and Wholeness. They expand our current level of awareness, allowing us to transcend time, and connect with the Timeless.
Mantras, within the Yogic traditions, are considered "revelation": emanations from the Cosmic Mind or the Cosmic Imagination, if you will. Their numbers are thought to be infinite for they are expressions of the Soul's vibratory possibilities. Our personal capacity for imagination is but a reflection of the universal power of imagination.
We intuitively understand that there are multiple levels of imagination. There are those random images and projections surfacing from our unconscious that flit across the visual or auditory screen including the associations we create in our mind when we hear a bump in the dark, quickly followed by, "Whew, just my imagination!"
Then there are the more conscious flights of "fancy", artistic creativity, which may lead to painting or a new musical composition or, if you're me, which lead to extended reveries of imagining myself on a sandy beach sipping a colourful drink under a palm tree while another winter blizzard actually rages outside my kitchen window. (Thank Goodness for imagination!)
Then there are more momentous events of imagination, flashes of insight, which seem to erupt from the depths of our being which may give rise to great works of art -- think Mozart who couldn't write his music down fast enough. Or give rise to great scientific discoveries such as the case of Dmitri Mendeleev who singlehandedly created the Periodic Table of Elements. One night he had a dream where he saw the basic elements of the universe flowing as a musical sequence. "Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper, only in one place did a correction later seem necessary", he later related. And then of course there are additional extraordinary individuals such as Hildegard von Bingen, who wrote and composed massive amounts of material while in an ecstatic trance state. Within Yoga, as alluded to, some of the Vedas are considered apuruseya, "not human compositions" and "sruti", revelation as sound. The Rishis, the ancient poet-sages were considered to be Mantra-drashtâs, the seers of thought.
Lila : (sadly) "Are fairies not real mom?"
Me: "Well... I've never seen one."
Lila: "So, they aren't real?"
Me: "Well, not for me. But," I said not wanting to burst her childhood bubble and suddenly perking up, "Different people from different places can live very different experiences of life! I can't assume the entire possibilities of life are the same as mine!"
Lila: "I know how to make something real, mom. You hold a picture here", she said, pointing at forehead, "So, so strongly. Then, when you are ready, you push it out with your mind into the real world and it takes shape. And that's how you make things real, mom."
Lila, age 4
Wow kiddo! And maybe tiny tot was on to something. Yoga, particularly Tantra, considers the mind to be the basic stuff of creation and manifestation -- what the ancient alchemists referred to as the prima materia. This is the essential creative substance of life. Ancient Yogi(ni)s asserted that our own internal system acted as a sort of hologram which was projected out into the material world through the medium of the imagination. So by exercising our imagination, our capacity to create visual images OR sounds (such as words) beyond the sensory realm, through the lens of a honed will and expanded awareness, we could affect energy in a very tangible way.
And I think most of us accept this to a certain degree. Visualization is used by athletes and musicians in order to hone reflexes and create habits. It is also lauded by many as essential to healing. Affirmations, whether voiced or unvoiced, are all the rage and thought by many to shape our circumstances. And psychologists talk about the power of mindset, the words or beliefs we harbour internally, and how a negative mindset about an event can produce negative physio-emotional reactions, while a positive mindset about the same event, creates positive physio-emotional effects.
I like this word "mindset. I prefer it to the word "belief" because I personally have had a number of experiences occur to which I had no prior belief system which accomodated them... well other than insanity that is. (It's all a bit touchy, isn't it? For, as my teacher has reminded me a few times, "Much of what we think are spiritual experiences are but manifestations of our imbalances.") So anyway, I prefer the word mindset because mindset implies our mind is temporarily set into a specific structure. A mantra creates a temporary mindset as do their visual counterparts, yantras. These structures then evoke emotional energies within our nervous system in addition to images, thoughts, and stories.
So in order to experience these states, you don't need to be religious. You don't need to even be "spiritual". You don't need to buy into another culture's iconography and stories. You just practice and eventually something shifts and opens up. (If you're a child or really lucky or really sensitive this might take two minutes! Or it could take months.) It feels meaningful. It feels transcendent and it can make us happier. So is it just in the imagination? It could be simply a projection from your personal subconscious. But it could also be a connection with the cosmic, infinite imagination. This is prathiba, the ultimate imaginative realm yet also a direct experience of reality as it really is beyond the senses.
So I say, stay a bit skeptical. Our mind can play some pretty convincing, crazy tricks on us. Allow images or sounds to pass through you. Don't cling to powerful experiences and allow them to halt further movement. But stay open to the possibility that there are alternative states, extraordinary states, beyond your usual state of mind or mindset, that may, possibly, be the creative gifts of this Cosmos. States that can nurture your Soul.
And if there was ever a time to harness all the powers of imagination, all levels of possibility, it is surely
now. For ourselves and for our children.
I'll be giving two mantra and meditation workshops during the month of May to nurture the Soul and then taking a break during June and July to enrich my own personal practice. I will not be doing any events or taking any students during this time. You are welcome to reach out to me though for projects for August onwards. To see the event page, please click here.
To be in touch with your feminine nature, whether you are female or male, is to be in touch with your deepest, instinctual self. It is to be in tune with your emotions, needs, and intuitions. It is to feel a deep sense of connectedness to others and interconnectedness to the web of life. It is to be tapped into an infinite source of Awareness and strength.
Tantra says that Beingness is comprised of two polarities, masculine and feminine, which strive to stay in balance. This is imagined as a dynamic dance between Shiva and Shakti. The masculine, as embodied in Shiva, is the holder, the container for all this dynamic "feminine" energy. Shiva is boundless, eternal, transcendent Consciousness. Shakti, the feminine dynamic energy, is responsible for the creation and sustenance of all things. Shakti is the thus the creative energy that animates all matter. (The english word "matter" comes from the latin "mater" meaning source, origin, and mother, and the Sanskrit mātṛ.)
These masculine and feminine energies flow through us all and are expressed to varying degrees due to personal make-up, and cultural and familial conditioning. Masculine qualities are stabilizing forces and include strength, rationality, and analysis. The feminine encompasses the oceanic vibratory collective unconsciousness itself and plays out within our being as receptivity, relationship, empathy, and intuition.
EXPANDING THE SENSE OF SELF: TAPPING INTO ARCHETYPES
"This is a job for Gaaaarbage Girlllll!!!!!" When my daughter was about 4 years old she had an alter-ego she called "Garbage Girl". Who knows how she decided upon this but Garbage Girl would charge around the house cleaning things up. I loved Garbage Girl. Garbage Girl was the kid for the job. Garbage Girl got things done with one hand on her hip and her other arm outstretched leaping down the hallway. I miss Garbage Girl...
My daughter is 10 now and she has playfully cultivated another alter-ego. I won't blow her cover but I can see how useful it is for her as she bolsters up certain aspects of her personality. Kids constantly explore all the possibilities through play. As we become adults our personality patterns become more rigid. We become less playful and it is harder to shift our sense of self... but we can.
How do we start creating real shifts in our personality? How do we access our deepest instinctual Self? There are a variety of ways. One way is to work with archetypes.
An archetype is a subtle, energetic pattern. The number of archetypes are infinite. At a deep level of the subconscious mind is our collective unconsciousness upon which is imprinted all the forms of primitive, foundational consciousness which have ever existed. Psychological archetypes constitute the building blocks of human consciousness and contribute to structuring our personality. Certain psychological archetypes seem to be triggered more than others and are easily recognizable to us. For example, think of children playing a clown, thief, mother, warrior, or hero. These are all common archetypes. Take a moment yourself and imagine you are a, ooooh I don't know, a Queen! You're royalty adorned in fine jewels! You are the sovereign ruler of your nation! Just imagine... how would you hold your body and how would you hold your mind? OK, did you just feel a subtle, fleeting shift within yourself, an opening perhaps?
Now, spiritual archetypes expand into the spiritual realm, connecting us to spiritual qualities and more subtle levels of awareness. We can consciously use them to expand our sense of self, beyond our current experience of our personality, and to connect to deeper levels of Consciousness. But here we don't necessarily need to rely on imagination and visualization...
In Yoga, archetypes are embedded within mantras, the archetypal structures are the sounds themselves. (They are also embedded in yantras, mandala-like images, but we won't get into that here.)
When we chant mantras we are aligning ourselves with a particular energetic pattern or energy vortex to structure our experience of being. While some mantras have a literal meaning, their real meaning is embedded in rhythms and patterns which bring us into resonance with pure, foundational aspects of reality. And we get to choose from a diversity of mantras to do so: Lakshmi, Saraswati, Rama, Ganesh, Hanuman etc.
"SO WHAT ABOUT THE INSTINCTUAL FEMININE?", YOU'RE THINKING!!
When I started this blog a few years back and started leading chanting evenings, I had Durga dream. I dreamt that a massive white tank, as tall as a skyscraper was advancing down the center of the city. It stopped beside me and I seemed to have no choice but to enter when it opened its side door. I found inside all the women and all the female children of the entire globe ...
Durga is the great force that unifies and holds all the feminine energy of the world. She is Shakti in her fullness. All things reside within her, and she indwells within them. She is the eternal archetypal Great Goddess or Great Mother embracing all the potential forces of nature.
She is the full spectrum feminine: protectress, warrior, and nurturer. She takes on different forms depending on the need. And when you call on Durga, you bring forth your own deepest reserves of strength. Durga is born from the heat, or tapas, of our desire for goodness, from our deep aspiration for truth.
Durga is suitably lauded in the spectacular religious text The Devi Mahatmyam (The Glory of the Goddess). In this story, Brahma, Vishnu , and Shiva are helpless to the fact that the earth is being overrun by angry, malevolent forces. Their desperate fury spontaneously pours out of them, back into its primal source, and coalesces into the radiant, raging form of Durga. All the Gods then return their powers to her, in the form of weapons or adornments, as her roars echo unto the ends of the earth.
"Making the earth bend with her footstep, scraping the sky with
her diadem, shaking the nether worlds with the twang of
the bow-string, she stood there covering all the quarters with
her thousand arms."
She is holy anger incarnate, exactly what is needed to overcome the destructive type of anger, embodied in the demon Mahishasura. Durga's wrath is divine and intent on the protection of all that is good. She is fearless. She unleashes a flurry of weapons onto the battle scene:
"In the battlefield, the asuras [demigods]who afflicted the gods
were caught in a flood of arrows and were pierced all over.
Resembling porcupines, they breathed their last. "
SO WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR US?
All archetypes are available to us through our unconscious. And the more you connect with them the more you recognize that they are transpersonal forces flowing through you. You stop claiming them as your gifts and just start seeing them as Gifts. You recognize that they are aspects of Beingness itself, resilient, eternal facets of Nature. And you allow them more and more to guide you.
Archetypes embedded within mantras can act on us in two ways: to purify through sound and to configure our energy. The energy of "Durga" purifies our anger, uplifting it, if you will, towards higher purposes. This is symbolized by her lion or tiger, which, among other things is a representation of our animal, primal energies. She is fully in charge of these wild energies and able to harness their power. In this way, anger is transformed into courage.
Imagine if your own anger was your strength and not your weakness? When we don't allow feminine energy, instinctual wild energy, to flow through us in a healthy way, then it becomes like Mahishasura, swollen out of proportion and reeling out of control. I think many of us struggle to act out anger in a positive way. Who hasn't erupted at someone in anger only to later regret our actions. Anger is a tough one. But when our anger has become purified, it is simply energy available to us. There's so much injustice in the world right now we need to harness all our available energies. Who needs 'em locked up in old frustrations, hurts, and fears.
So maybe tapping into your inner Durga allows you to stand up for yourself at work when you know you're feminine qualities aren't being appreciated or worse yet, you're being outrightly misused. Maybe you can tap into your strength and tell your family, "Enough, it just can't be done". Maybe you can fight for your child when previously you took the quiet route. Maybe you'll expand outwards to fight for a greater social cause because you recognize that there is really no distinction between what is happening in the outer world and what is happening within our inner worlds. Maybe you'll start to live your truth because you recognize it is Truth.
Durga is an aspect of your deep instincts.
Durga is about tapping into your own protective powers.
Durga is about having the courage to stand up for what's right.
I have a friend who has the loveliest, eloquent yet strong way of calling people on it when they dish out crap. She gracefully seems to respond to anyone on sexist, condescending, disrespectful, or limiting behaviours. I admire her so much! May we all stand up for what we believe in including our own desires and our own needs. And may we, whether we are women or men, fight to protect and express our own feminine nature: that which is mysterious, numinous, and wild.
"Anywhere you see compassion, anywhere you see a person bending
to help someone... anywhere you see people savouring life, anywhere
you see people who are merciful ... that make us laugh, you are seeing
Clarissa Pinkes Estes
So! Join myself and yoga teacher Brandee Safran on March 8, International Women's Day for a women's only evening of invoking Durga! Activate the qualities of fearlessness and courage within your own being. This will be an all levels energizing yoga practice with chanting, japa, and meditation. More info here.
Mades del la Plaza del Mayo
Shiva and Shakti:
lioness and cub:
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lion_cub_with_mother.jpg, author David Dennis
GoddessDurga: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_low_angle_shot_of_Goddess_Durga_in_A_Mandap_in_North_Kolkata,_2017.jpg Subhrajyoti07
I remember being born. I remember coming down the dark, narrow birth canal: rhythmic resoundings, red mottled walls, a feeling of powerful momentum. Blinding light. The absence of sound. Green walls, green floor, green pants attached to scurrying green shoes. Shiny silver medical equipment. I'm being held upside down by my feet and suddenly a cacophony of sharp noises explodes through my skin.
Kālī is the dark womb.
Everything is born from darkness.
"Watch my puppet show, mommy!", my then-four-year-old chirped. I put down my book about the history of the Black Madonna and smiled expectantly at her.
She picked up two puppets and placed them behind the homemade cardboard box puppet theater. She wiggled a puppet. "I am the puppet master", she began gravely, "And you are all my puppets."
My pulse quickened. "Uh, what's your name, Puppet Master?" I inquired.
"My name is m..m...m... my name is Maa."
I think my pulse momentarily stopped.
"I am the Queen of the Night", she added. She continued on, "But the night is not black, mommy, it's a dark, dark beautiful blue", and my then-four-year-old put down her puppets, stood up, and began to slowly spiral across the floor, arms out, like a Sufi.
I sat, mouth agape, watching her as she made her way down the hallway. She skipped back a few moments later.
Kālī. Her name means blue-black. She has many terrifying forms but she is also Ma, Mother. And to Shaktas she is the all-pervading Mahākālī or Great Kālī, the source of the Universe and the forces that flow through it.
Towards the end of this summer I decided to commit to a Kālī sadhana, which means 40 days of chanting simple Kālī mantras. In this blog I share some of this exploration with you and share some stories of how these archetypal energies might arise within your own life. To invoke the forces within mantra is to fuel a powerful resonant field and have it impact your life. Because that's what it's about: it's about your experience. It's about your life.
And so we begin...
"Mom, wouldn't it be cool if we could wash things with something other than water! Like, do you think you could clean something just as well with fire?!", my now-10-year-old yelled excitedly from the kitchen.
The name Kālī is briefly introduced in the Vedas as one of the 7 flames of Agni, the fire god. If Agni is considered the very mouth of the gods and goddesses who eats the oblations given during the fire ritual, the flame called Kālī is his dark, devouring tongue.
And then the dreams and meditative images begin. Dreams of ghoulish, macabre faces arising out of the darkness. One after the other they rapidly appear and disappear. I feel like I'm reliving every 1980s horror film my highschool friends pressured me into watching. The next night my dreams are of wizened women. Impressions of dying and death surface almost quicker than I can witness.
My daughter calls to me from her room during the night, "Mommy! Why am I so scared all of a sudden? I feel scared of everything right now!" I feel a tinge of guilt yet it opens up a flow of conversation between the two of us about fear and how to manage it... or even go beyond it.
To evoke the experience of Kālī is to begin by diving deep into the darkness of the unconscious and raising your fears. It's called "cleaning house". "Kālī" initially targets our lower chakras, subtle centers where our survival instinct is housed.
When we chant mantra we are setting powerful movements of energy into motion. In fact, the Sanskrit sounds of the alphabet are considered the primal movements of the Universe. The consonant “K(a)” is the first consonant in the Sanskrit alphabet. It is the sonic symbol for the curvilinear motion of the creative energy of the universe. This curvilinear movement leads to the concept "kal"/“to count” or “to measure" and then "kāla" which is "time". The ī denotes the feminine and thus suggests that Kālī is the action or movement of time. (The english words "calculate" and "calendar" are related.) Kālī, as this force of time, is integral to our destiny and our death. But "K(a)" is also the root of "kama" which means "love"...
I dream of a young, beautiful, blue-skinned, nude woman. Long flowing loose hair. A crown of leaves on her head. One of Kālī's other Sanskrit names, and she has many, is "Kamakhya" which means "She whose very name is desire". What is this desire? It is not just sexual desire but Eros, 'life's longing for itself' to quote a line out of context from a poem by Kahlil Gibran. Kālī is also described in texts as 'garbed in space' or 'sky clad' for like the vast sky, "she" is free and unbound.
Then... dreams of swirling, dense, frenetic storm clouds. A bolt of lightning. A house bursts into flame. The fire crackles and the flames leap higher. The house burns completely to the ground. In the morning I wake up feeling lighter. I dance into my daughter's room to wake her up.
"This is for you, mommy", my daughter said as she handed me this drawing. She has no idea what I am currently writing about yet she remains a few steps ahead of me. The word Kālī, I later learn, can also mean 'a row of mountainous black clouds'.
And behind the ones with the brilliance of gold,
Kālī the skull-decorated shone,
like a bank of dark blue clouds with cranes,
throwing flashes of lightning far in front.
Kārasambhava of Kālīdāsa
The images continue... black Kālī, rapidly and rhythmically swinging a sword while spinning frenetically in an unceasing dance. The next night I fall asleep with my daughter and I dream of two tornados, one large and one small, spinning a furious path along the horizon. Kālī as primal Shakti. Shakti begins as subtle vibrations which intermingle and become swirling vortices. This kinetic energy gives eventual rise to manifestation of forms. Kālī is often portrayed as dancing on Shiva's inert body: he symbolizing pure Consciousness, she symbolizing the active energy of the universe.
Then, I dream of a black crow with a golden strip on each wing. Within the Tantric system, there are ten goddesses called the Mahavidyas (Great Wisdoms). Kālī is the primary deity and all others are enfolded within her being. One manifestation rides a crow, is known as "The Smoky One", and embodies the experience of suffering. Yet behind her veil of smoke shines the potential for integrating and reaping the boons of life's difficult times: loss, loneliness, despair. Kālī is the force within your consciousness and Consciousness itself that integrates the darkness which leads to your renewal.
Veils. The archetypal energetic form of "Kālī" cascades down into our human consciousness and manifests across time and different contexts in myths, songs, art, etc. Within India she is envisioned the popular four-armed Dakshina Kālī who wears a necklace of skulls, wildly dances in the nude with her tongue sticking out, has a skirt of severed human hands around her waist, and brandishes in two of her hands a sword plus a bloody severed head. With her other two hands she composes the mudras of "fear not" and granting boons. But there is also Bhadra (auspicious) Kālī who is elegantly majestic and carries among other things a lyre, a lotus, a pestle, and a conch. The experience of Kālī overlaps with the fierce Vajrayogini of Tibet, Sekhmet the Egyptian lioness goddess, and Tiamat the ancient Babylonian goddess who is the embodiment of primordial, chaotic motion. Within the Celtic world we see Kālī energy manifesting as a goddess of storms, "The Cailleach" or Crone...
"Mom, do you know the story of Baba Yaga?" my daughter hollers from the back seat of the car. I don't. She proceeds to tell me a story from Russia of a crone who lives in the dark depths of the forest. She rides in a mortar and pestle! She guards The Waters of Life and Death. She eats people and collects their bones. Her singing causes them to be reborn.
Within the Yogic traditions, the mantra is the sound form of the deity/cosmic power. (The visual form is the yantra and not the anthropomorphic images we know and love!)
Your substance is made up of the fifty letters of the alphabet
In which the qualities of What Is vibrate
Kālī is the power of mantra. She is Shabda Brahman, Ultimate Reality as sound. Each sound of the Sanskrit 50- letter alphabet is an akshara, an indestructible vibratory syllable, which constitutes the building blocks of the universe and all its forms. Visually this is portrayed as Kālī's necklace of 50 skulls, her mundamala. We can harness the eternal archetypal energies embodied in mantras to break down our existing egoic structures, like a spiritual ultrasound, and transmute the stagnant energy locked within. They also attune us to the greater forces and patterns which give rise to forms, our thoughts... our lives.
If mantras are light embodied in the form of sound, Kālī is a "fierce goddess" because her lightning energy erupts from the darkness as a swift strike. These mantras can rapidly purify the subtle body and thus the emotions, creating a ripple effect into our external life. Just trust me on this one! (This is when working with the guidance of a teacher can be very helpful.) As you continue to release energetic blockages the experiences triggered by the mantras become more pure and more ecstatic. Simple mantras for Kālī include "Om Kālī Mā" and "Om kreem Kālīkaye namaha". "Kreem" is the Tantric bija, or seed sound, of Kālī . "K" is the primordial energy of action; "R" is the sound of fire; "I" is the sound of Shakti; and "M" draws one into the state of dissolution. As with all mantric energy work, a clear sense of why you are engaging in it and a purity of intention becomes very important. Then you can "dance with Shakti"!
So! Here we have a wondrous dark Goddess, an archetype of Wholeness, who is the prima materia from which everything emerges and dissolves. She embodies the first movements of primordial Consciousness which creates the dimension of time and time itself collapses within her, as it does into a black hole. Within our psyches, she is the darkness of the unconscious where our latent fears and urges lurk but she is also the capacity within consciousness for the transformation of our psyches so that we can rebuild ourselves anew. She is the collective unconscious which surfaces as our instinct and our intuition. Kālī is Maiden, Mother, and Crone (or Wise Woman as I prefer it!)... and everything in between. She is the liminal state for she is the force of transformation itself. Her energy is seen in the devouring flames of fire which dissolve into smoke and in the awesome electrical forces of lightning. She is the dark face of eternity that embraces all and in whose blackness the Self continues to shine.
And Kālī is a relatively popular image in the West. While most Westerners are not attuned to the deeper meanings and power within the symbol, if nothing else the images of unbridled feminine energy strike a chord, particularly with feminist women. We live in a world where the qualities, labelled feminine, of resonance, intuition, empathy, and connectedness are devalued; where women's voices are stifled; and across the globe many women live under threat just because they are women. As a woman I am angry at the sexist messages I cannot avoid flooding into my daughter's awareness. As a mother I am angry when my daughter asks me if she will die young because the planet is suffering. Kālī is a powerful symbol for us at this time emphasizing our need to face our individual and collective darkness.
In one of India's sacred texts, the Devi Mahatmya, Kālī leaps forth from Durga's brow, to save the world from a powerful demon. Every drop of blood that the demon Raktabija sheds transforms into another demon as it hits the soil. His self-perpetuating blood is symbolic of the illusory desires of life. Kālī laps up the blood with her tongue integrating the fragmented life-force within herself and restoring balance to the world. Kālī, as the supreme feminine power, rages but it is a holy battle to maintain equilibrium and the overall web of life.
I think any parent can relate to this fierce desire to create a more harmonious world for our children. While I've been enchanted with Yoga for many years now, having a child certainly fanned the flames for me. Never has my being been so entwined with someone else's and when I experienced how viscerally my state affected hers and vice versa, I knew I had to clean up my act. So her well-being is a big part of my Yoga. Her name is Lila which was chosen because it means "the play of the universe" in Sanskrit ... but last week I just learnt that her name also means "night" in Hebrew. And that in Arabic it means "companion of the night" or "blue-black twilight". Well, doesn't that just make me smile. We come full circle.
And she is at it again. She zips by as I am typing and proclaims, "When I am feeling all lovey-dovey, like when I am filled with love for you Mom, I just want to do this!", and she smiles as she sticks her tongue right out and begins to quickly jiggle her head and body. I smile. Kālī's dance is the incessant dance of existence, recreating itself through births, deaths, and everything in-between. And fuelling this dance is Love.
I will be giving two chanting evenings in the upcoming months: one on Thursday, Nov. 22 with Transitions NDG. And a evening to dive deep on Dec. 7th co-presented with yoga teacher, Brandee Safran. For more info, click here.
For a very simple Kali mantra, you can check out the free resource page. If you haven't done so already, simply create a username and a password here on the home page at the top.
Dreaming again of:
Calving chunks of glacial ice,
Vast floods of moving water,
Mighty cascading waterfalls
Turbulent swift white rivers,
She Who Flows.
She is the generative waters which cradled an ancient, advanced civilization;
She is the flow of consciousness through the subtle yogic energetic system of nadis;
She is the river of inspiration sourced from the larger ocean of consciousness;
She is the liquid-light moonbeams of the illumined mind.
"Sarasvati by the perception awakens in consciousness the great flood (the vast movement of the ritam)
and illumines entirely all the thoughts." RV 4.58.1
The hymns to Saraswati are some of the oldest of the Rg Veda in which she is lauded as a Goddess and as a river. Rg Vedic hymns describe Saraswati as a powerful river flowing from the heavens downwards to earth. Some scholars suggest that geological records corroborate, for around 10 000 BCE, with temperatures increasing, the frozen glaciers of the Himalayas began to break up, flooding the plains below. This glacial melting created seven river channels, one of them being the Saraswati river which flowed all the way to the Arabian sea. It is described as “swift-moving with a rapid rush”, “bursting the ridges of the hills with its strong waves" and advancing with "a tempestuous roar". (RV 6.61)
The highly evolved Vedic civilization grew up along the banks of the Saraswati River and it is along these banks that parts of the Rg Veda and Upanishads were composed. "She" is likened to a nurturing mother for she is the source of water for drinking, crops, and cleansing.
The waters of the physical Saraswati river eventually diminished, possibly going underground, but the mighty powers that were embodied in her flow were also experienced as surging within the depths of one's own being ...
The Sanskrit word for river is "nadi" and within Yoga the flow of energies through our system is facilitated by a system of subtle channels also known as nadis.
When chanting Saraswati mantras, I have the sense that I am being purified, subtle obstructions within the energetic channels melting away. Some representations of Saraswati capture this open, heightened energetic flow with a swaying flexibility of the body. In other representations, Saraswati is playing her veena, an ancient stringed-instrument, which esoterically represents the power of sound to control the resonance of our body and the flow of energy through the subtle channels.
I first understood this years ago when I attended an introductory Naada yoga workshop by a visiting Indian pundit. At one point he asked us to close our eyes and listen as he played for us. I didn't just sway to the music, I began rhythmically undulating in wavelike movements as I became aware that he was opening our bodies through his music ascending, then descending, then ascending higher. I felt as if my body was an extension of his instrument, his fretted sitar mirroring the structure of my spine.
While most yogis are familiar with the main nadis, the Ida, the Pingala, and the central channel, the Sushumna, there are many more important nadis. One of these is the Saraswati nadi which starts at the root chakra and ends at the .... tongue! It facilitates the flow of consciousness manifesting as inspired speech.
Our body is the instrument; mantra, speech, and song are the music; She is the musician. It is all her play ...
As time went on, the concept of Saraswati the deity was merged with Vak, the Rg Vedic goddess of speech.
But within the Yogic system, speech is considered to exist on multiple levels. There is:
Sarasvati is all of this for as Para Vak she is the entire universe. Her body is comprised of all sounds, both audible and subtle.
And here I'll share a little story of my daughter when she was about 2 years old for I believe children are living in a deeper, undifferentiated state of knowingness. I had wallpaper books that she could cut things out of for cutting and pasting crafts. One day she ran up to me with something she had cut out, thrust it at me and said enthusiastically, "It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen! What is it, mommy?!"
It was a picture of the full moon. It was grey, flat, dull. It didn't even look as nice as the photo I have placed here. She had never seen a full moon yet. (Hey, early bedtimes made for a happier mommy...) But she saw something in that wallpaper cutout that spoke to her on such a deep level, the essence of which communicated beauty and translated into joy.
It is through the power of Saraswati/Vagdevi that we can speak, think, and comprehend on all levels. While most of us are pulled out of that holistic, intuitive knowing of childhood, it is through the power of Saraswati, and specifically with mantra as a tool, that we can ride back a current of energy to the deeper depths of consciousness where we are aware that all of nature speaks in a resonant voice.
“May the Goddess Saraswati, with all power, full of power, further us, as the guide of our minds.”
RV I. 61.
Saraswati is the personification of the Shakti, the feminine force, which allows us to think, understand, and create.
Saraswati is lauded with a variety of terms and names including:
Jnanasakti: she who is the power of knowledge;
Smrtisakti: she who is the power of memory;
Kalpanasakti: she who is the power of forming ideas;
Saddavasini: one who dwells in sound ; and
Kavijihvagravasini: one who dwells on the tongue of poets.
As such she is the patron deity of scholars, scientists, and artists of all sorts. She is evoked by such individuals to bless their endeavours and celebrated popularly across India at the onset of spring. Saraswati mantras are taught to children to enhance learning and skill at school. As the vital energy which gives rise to the Word and all its creative aspects, her vehicle is the swan a symbol of the breath. She is the transcendent aspects of being human as expressed through the powers of the mind and the cultural arts.
I remember years ago devoting some time to work with the energy of Saraswati. One day, while watching my child play in the yard, I kept spontaneously bursting into musical mellisandos, sustained high notes, and flowing coloratura. "Odd!", I thought. My then pre-schooler responded with outstretched arms, hoppy skips, and sideways somersaults. No great work of artistic expression but mommy and kiddo had stepped into the flow! In my daily life this aspect of being surfaces most often as the quiet voice of insight into my own behaviour or a loved one. It is the clarity which allows me to choose the right word to say in a particular situation instead of going off the rails. While one aspect of Saraswati is the unleashing of flowing forces within the body, she surfaces within my mind as a clear, moonbeam of awareness. She is the flow of insight and ideas which lead to creative output.
And the name Saraswati itself? What does it mean? There are many associations but the more generally accepted meanings are "saras" meaning "a body of water such as a pool, pond, or lake", and an associated meaning of "speech". "Vati" indicates "she who posesses" and possibly "the essence of".
She is the essence of speech upon which our mind is dependent and therefore she is an essential aspect of ourselves for one defining aspect of our being is speech. Consciousness is often likened to water within the Yogic system for both are wavelike in their motion and water points to a certain fluidity of consciousness that we inherently possess. To pull a quote from something other than the Rg Veda, here's Bruce Lee!:
“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the
cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot,
it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.”
In certain images, Saraswati holds a little vessel called a kalasha. When she, as a channel of feminine Shakti, pours into our being, we become the container for "her" wisdom. This flow of energy is mediated by the physical body and the subtle channels. Saraswati purifies our obstructions, (traumas, cultural and familial conditioning) as we open to a greater energetic flow, an expanded sense of self, a wider experience of being.
To evoke Saraswati is to align ourselves with specific forces so that we think and speak more wisely. It is to surrender to a river of energy that ultimately leads us back to the oceanic creative source of the universe which is the vibratory Word. It is to tap into the "matrix", the original source of all thoughts, ideas, and inspirations. And it is to align ourselves more consciously with the boundless source of Shakti which ever flows in unbridled, joyous freedom.
To know the masculine and be true to the feminine
is to be the waterway of the world.
To be the waterway of the world is to flow with the Great Integrity,
always swirling back to the innocence of childhood.
To know yang and to be true to yin is
to echo the universe.
Tao Te Ching, Chapter 28
Learn the devotional mantra for Saraswati in the free resource section of this website. You just need a username and password... don't worry, there's no catch! (You can create your username and password by clicking on LOG IN/REGISTER up above.)
The next workshop will be Tuesday, September 25th from 7-8:45 pm with yoga teacher Brandee Safran to explore the healing applications of Sanskrit mantra. There will be accessible yet powerful mantras from the Vedic and Tantric traditions, guided relaxation, and song. This is an evening to dive deep and clarify your commitment to connecting to your highest self. More info here.
Well let's just cut to the chase, shall we? I can honestly say for myself I have never had with mantra the level of wide-open-hearted, overflowing-with-blissful-ecstasy feeling like I've had in Kirtan AND with singing Kirtan I've never had revelatory insights into the structure of my own being and Beingness itself like I've experienced with chanting Sanskrit mantras.
While completely anecdotal let's try to unravel why this might be so... how are mantra and kirtan different?
Both harness the inherent energy within sound to affect our being on different levels. Both can uplift the emotions, liberate and expand energies, and ultimately lead one to Enlightenment. But they do it though through different sonic means and thus create somewhat different results.
Simply put: to be a mantra it must have been revealed by a Seer or Rishi(ki) for mantras are considered to be revelation in the form of sound or shruti.
Vedic mantras were revealed to Poet-Seers and after years, possibly thousands of years!, of oral transmission were written down for preservation around 1500BC in what have become known as the Vedas. "Veda" means "knowledge". The Vedas are comprised of four written volumes encompassing multi-verse hymns, prayers, rituals, and incantations. They are traditionally learned through teacher recitation and student repetition ranging through various levels of formulaic complexity in order to accurately preserve the tradition and the power of the original revelation. Brahmin priests devote their entire lives to preserving this phenomenal tradition and enacting Vedic rituals: they are the keepers and protectors of these sacred sounds.
Vedic mantras are meant to be chanted aloud for they seek to strengthen the connection between our individual nature and Cosmic nature, to align ourselves with Dharma. Many are chanted using only three tones: a fundamental, tone below and semi-tone above.There are strict rules to follow in regards to pronunciation, meter, and intonation.
Here is an example of Brahmin priests chanting the popular "Gayatri" mantra from the Vedas:
As you can hear, the chanting is strong, precise, rhythmic, and percussive. To chant it otherwise is thought to dilute its power. The "Gayatri" mantra is a prayer to the sun but the word "Gayatri" actually refers to a Vedic metre of 24 syllables and is also considered a Goddess. This should give you a sense of how critical it is to maintain the original metre! And while the Gayatri is traditionally chanted 108 times within the context of a longer daily ritual, many Vedic mantras are just uttered once.
Other popular mantric verses from the Vedas, which are only a few lines long, include the Mahamrityunjaya mantra, Asato ma, and Purnamidam. Learning and refining Sanskrit pronunciation takes some discipline but as far as I'm concerned is well worth the effort due to the rich spiritual rewards. It can be easy to disconnect emotionally while chanting Vedic mantras but such mantras bring light in the form of sound into our practice... illumination! While some may pull us back towards the original state of Unity that they arose from, triggering deep meditative states, others may have a more general illuminating effect on our being. When we chant Vedic mantras we are tapping into the energy of a living tradition that is thousands of years old... or as some would suggest, a living tradition that is timeless and eternal!
And, hey, if my 10-year old can learn to chant simple Vedic mantras, so can you. While she does not adhere to tradition but instead dances rhythmically while sometimes pretending to play air guitar, she loves to chant!
In my effort to oversimplify for the sake of this blog, I'm contrasting Vedic mantras which are typically verses, with shorter mantric phrases used for repetitive chanting. This repetitive chanting is called japa and is derived from the root jap-, meaning "to utter in a low voice, repeat internally, mutter". I do japa daily to cultivate mental/emotional/spiritual states and to dive into meditation.
Such an example of this would be the chanting of "Om namah Shivaya" repetitively in order to attain a meditative state and ultimately Samadhi. Many people use mala beads to mark their repetitions. Most of these mantras are Puranic mantras, arising from the post-Vedic period, inspired and drawn from the revelations of the Vedas. They primarily focus on the qualities of particular deities and awakening these qualities in ourselves. They are devotional in nature: "I surrender to Shiva".
Such mantras can be chanted aloud, spoken, or recited internally. (In fact they are considered at their most powerful when chanted mentally, when the vibration is held inside!) Japa can be a powerful anchor for the mind to lead one into meditation. Confession: I have a new Fitbit and I'm in a "bit" of a Fitbit honeymoon. While chanting japa and meditating, my Fitbit registers me as being in a state of deep sleep. Again, most of these mantras are chanted on three tones which leads rapidly to a deep brain entrainment.
The vibrations of the mantra purify the energies of the chanter and expand latent spiritual qualities within their being. In fact, the mantra is the deity in its sonic form! For example, while a Shiva mantra leads one ultimately to the state of formlessness, beyond thoughts and feelings, Durga provides the experience of fearless, and Lakshmi connects one to a sense of fullness and gratitude.
Here is an example of japa, although as I mentioned previously such mantras could also be spoken, whispered, or recited internally:
The Tantric tradition also uses japa repetition of mantras (in addition to complex rituals) but many of these mantras require initiation from a teacher. Tantra additionally harnesses the inherent energy within more elemental, pre-linguistic sounds such as the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet and seed sounds known as bijas.
As far japa goes, it's pretty easy to fall into rote, mindless recitation. Japa requires a delicate balance of focus and surrender. Like most good things in life! If we can do so, then with repetition the mantra unfolds, and the energy intensifies within your being. For example, I knew Ganesh was a wisdom "deity". I knew he represented OM. But I never could have anticipated the ecstatic, rhythmic musical complexity of this energy dancing through my body! Simple mantras such as these just blow my mind, frankly. How such profound, phenomenal experiences can unfold from a few sounds is, well, I'll say it, magical! To chant mantras is to expand and move Divinity through your being.
AND NOW KIRTAN!
Stated simply, kirtan is devotional singing often with musical accompaniment. Kirtans have melodies and are free in their form. Some involve call-and-response chanting with a group, while others do not. Kirtans are not necessarily mantras set to music, although some are, and Kirtan does not need to be in Sanskrit.
What Kirtan often is, is ecstatic.
Kirtan emerges from the greater tradition of Bhakti. The devotional bhakti movement took formal shape in the 6th century with singer- and poet-yogis drawing on the insights of the Vedas but doing away with rituals and strict rules. They burst forth with contemporary songs and poetry in the common languages of the day. They danced and celebrated unconditional love for God, emphasizing the importance of cultivating the heart.
"Kirt" means "to name, to celebrate, to praise". Kirtan usually focuses on chanting the name(s) of God, such as Krishna and Ram, or celebrating their stories through song. These names and stories are often drawn from the Puranic tradition. It is the main practice of Vaishnavas.
Here is an example of a traditional Indian kirtan:
Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the Hare Krishna movement, could be credited for bringing kirtan to the West. In the 1960s he led the first group of Westerners in chanting Hare Krishna in a park in New York City. Currently, the Western Kirtan movement is predominantly lead by the likes of Krishna Das, Jai Uttal, and other devotees of Indian guru Neem Karoli Baba.
Kirtan in the West usually involves call-and-response singing. Kirtans often begin slowly and meditatively, and energy is raised through rhythm, melodic variations, and increasing speed. Intensity often builds over time while the musical accompaniment expands. One kirtan song could last half an hour!
Those who lead Kirtans are called kirtaniyas or kirtan-wallahs. Most use a harmonium: think small piano keyboard meets accordion and accompaniment could be percussion, bass, guitar, you name it!
The power of kirtan comes through the vibratory power of the Sanskrit names for God, the emotional impact of the music, and the elevated spiritual state of the kirtan wallah. By chanting the various names of the Divine (Shiva, Rama, Sita, etc), chanters reign in those usually unwieldy emotions, purifying and awakening emotion in its purest form. Of course we all intuitively appreciate the power of musical melody and won't delve into this now! Participants are also raised up by the emotional and spiritual state of the kirtan leader... and of course, this becomes amplified with the power of the entire group!
Here is an example of kirtan with Ragani, a popular American devotional kirtan singer:
Kirtan harnesses the power of our emotions. It is Yoga (the state of Union) through devotion. It is a direct highway to the Heart.
CODA (THAT'S MY WAY OF SAYING THIS IS COMING TO AN END!)
Kirtan can be a heart-expanding, joyous experience. It's powerful to tap into the inherent power of our own voice and to connect spiritually in community. But always chasing the ecstatic high can be a spiritual trap for some and we don't want to be dependent on a group to uplift our state. Chanting mantra within one's personal practice can be truly empowering for it provides us with a plethora of spiritual tools to step into spiritual independence. They are powerful tools for meditation and they allow us to cultivate and expand the different spiritual qualities "encoded" within the mantras within our own being.
But I'm not trying to claim one is superior over the other... at all. Both are powerful. The power of a joyous group and the power of peaceful solitude. Both are beautiful. The beauty of uplifting music in community and the beauty of basking in the rays of revelation.
Take your pick. Or integrate both into your life. Because, hey, as the saying goes, all roads lead to OM.
The mantric tradition is vast and deep, and thrives within the teacher-student relationship. If you're interested in learning some Sanskrit for mantras or for chanting kirtan, I love teaching students who wish to go deeper. Maybe you would like to add Vedic mantras to your yoga classes, maybe you are a healer who is interested in energetic practices to balance the body, maybe you would like to learn mantras for meditation or to fuel your Hatha yoga practice. For more info on private lessons, please see here.
There'll be a Summer Celebration: Yoga and Chanting this Tuesday. There's only a few spots left! To rsvp and for more info, go here. This will be a great intro to those who are new to mantra. There'll be some call-and-response singing, mantra for meditation, and suggestions for home practice. Experience mantra as a mystical gateway to the heart! Yoga teacher Brandee Safran will begin the evening with some gentle, relaxing yoga.
"What was that, mom?" my daughter recently asked after we had chanted before bedtime one evening. She continued, "It was if my belly was the earth and my heart was a huge sun. Out of the soil appeared a seed sprouting and it...", and her voice trailed off as her index finger wiggled upwards from her navel towards her heart. "What was that?" she repeated.
I responded that when you chant Sanskrit mantras you are "planting" seeds into your body-mind which will grow and blossom as long as you nurture them with attention and repetition. They can even expand into a vast field of spiritual energy.
Kiddo responded with a big-eyed, slack-jawed, “Whoooooaaaaaa”.
"Yup, it’s pretty cool", I said. And so it is.
THE SEEDS OF CONSCIOUSNESS
The Sanskrit language is founded on bija sounds which literally translates to "seed". Like a biological seed can grow an oak tree, a bija sound is energy in condensed form and the source of something. Each vowel and consonant of the Sanskrit alphabet is considered a bija, or a seed mantra, whose sound corresponds to a primordial vibration within Nature.
For example, the Sanskrit vowel "a" (as in article) is the sound of pure being, existence. It signifies the absolute, unchanging Presence. The vowel "u" (as in put) is the sound of the force-field or vibratory structure which holds creation.
These bijas are considered indestructible, eternal archetypal sounds which combine to create the phenomenal world. These sounds created and sustain the Cosmos. They also create and sustain us. And this is why chanting the alphabet is itself considered a sacred practice within Yoga, aligning one's being with universal forces and restoring integrity to the subtle body.
BIJAS WITHIN TANTRIC PHILOSOPHY
But typically when we talk about bijas within Yoga, we are referring to mystical single-syllable words from the Tantric tradition which have no literal meaning. Examples of these include simple syllables such as:
and Kshraum ... which starts to get a little more complex!
So the primordial vibrations, which correspond to the Sanskrit alphabet, combine to create more complex bija mantras which carry the forces of Nature, such as earth, water, fire, and electricity. To chant such bijas is to align yourself with these elemental forces. How might this be experienced? Well, for example, I recall at one time chanting the bija mantra "Hum" such as you may have heard in "Om hum Shivaya namaha" or "Om mani padme hum" and it repeatedly leading to a subtle yet tangible feeling of fiery, explosive, upward-thrusting energy. Like a rocket on lift-off! And not surprising when one later learns the bija is composed of "H", the seed of space or ether and also associated with the Sun, "U" which carries a powerful pranic force, and "M" which is the state of dissolution or a return back to the Source. (Now it is not necessary to know this when chanting and, in fact, it is important to experience these sounds energetically, going beyond the thinking mind and connecting back to the primal powers behind language... going beyond knowledge and connecting to experience.) So while bijas encapsulate the forces of Nature they also expand these energies within our own being.
BIJAS AND AYURVEDA
Because bijas correspond to elemental forces, they are heavily relied upon within the traditional Indian system of health, Ayurveda. For example "Shreem", as you would find in a Lakshmi mantra such as "Om shreem Lakshmiyei namaha", has primarily earthy, watery components to it and thus provides mostly a grounding, nourishing effect on the body. From an Ayurvedic perspective, it cools and calms the nervous system. (Just think how we instinctively harness some of these sounds when we wish to soothe a baby with a soft "Shhhhhhhhhhh"!)
Health, within Yoga, also depends on an optimal flow of energy which is modulated by the chakras, subtle energy hubs. Each chakra is envisioned as having a center which resonates to a bija sound, such as the root chakra which is thought to resonate to the sound LAM. Each chakra has a differing number of petals... each of which resonates to a different letter of the alphabet! These "petals" extend from the central chakras throughout the body as a network of subtle energy channels known as "nadis". Our body is considered to be a garland of sounds! So chanting mantras creates a "sound body, sound mind".
BIJAS AND DEITY ARCHETYPES
As I've alluded to, certain bijas also correspond to "deities", basic archetypal components of our psychological being and Beingness itself. Bijas create a certain pattern of energy through the nervous system which is considered to be one and the same as the deity and its qualities. The bija is the sonic form of the deity. (That's cool, did you get that?) For example "Aim" is the seed sound of Saraswati, the "Goddess" of speech and the creative arts. It is the flow of higher wisdom. "Aim" aids concentration. It opens one up to the flow of creativity, enhances communication, and speeds learning. One could simply chant "aim, aim, aim" or if one is more devotional, "Om aim Saraswatyai namaha" loosely translating to, "I surrender to the energy of higher wisdom".
THE SEEDS BLOSSOM!
Part of what drew me to the practice of mantra was a lifelong fascination with words themselves. Where do words come from? To what do they owe their power? Why do words have the impact they do? Read on, because in Yoga all of this starts coming together... and I'm lovin' it!
The original or great bija is OM which is also Brahman, the cosmic principle/God/Whatever You Want to Call It. In fact, the words Brahman and bija are both derived from "bhr" meaning "to grow"... and also meaning "to praise"! Out of OM expands the first subtle vibrations, a living energy known as Shakti, which projects itself out to create all vibrations, sounds, and ultimately all forms of the Universe. All letters and words are also forms of Shakti as "sound powers". These essential sounds, rooted in resonant universal patterns, expand out into our mind/body and are experienced as thoughts, feelings, and sensations. They also become transformed into complex language... sounds imbued with meaning.
If you are interested in the spiritual power of Sound, I suggest you read the wonderful book Nada Brahman: The World Is Sound : Music and the Landscape of Consciousness by now deceased German jazz producer Joachim-Ernst Berendt. There is a chapter I love where he describes the development of the word "word" itself. What is a word? How is it truly creative? He begins: two of the ancient Norn Norse goddesses, who wove the fates of individuals, Urth and Verthandi, have names derived from the Sanskrit root vrt. Urth means "fate" and Verthandi means "future". The root word vrt, means "to unroll, to become, to come into being". Vrt is also the root of Arabic vard and Aramaic varda signifying "the rose" and the Hebrew word wered which means both bud (that which comes into being) and rose (that which has become). These are also related to the Greek rhodos, rose. The etymological development, via Gaelic and German, is as such:
vrt - vard - wered - wairth - wort - word - rod(hos) - rose.
The word bud or seed (or bija), which encapsulates fate and future, unfurls to create the vibratory mental rose as a thought, an idea which is itself a reflection of the original w-o-r-d. The original word is OM or Brahman.
Whew! This is heady stuff here! Where does it end? Well, I am going to end this pretty soon actually... but not before providing you with...
A CAUTIONARY TALE (WELL, ACTUALLY TWO)
When we work deeply within a particular tradition a number of spiritual "seeds" become planted within our being. It is through practice, primarily meditation that these seeds come to fruition. Here comes Cautionary Tale Number One: once I leapt impulsively from one spiritual tradition to another. I was consciously propelled by a number of reasons and unconsciously propelled by a number of desires and fears. Shortly thereafter I dreamt of treading water in a black pond in the dark of night. I was struggling to keep afloat and flailing in a pool of white, dead seeds. When we abandon a path or, I believe, dabble shallowly in too many traditions simultaneously, these seeds may never grow into the light.
Cautionary Tale Number 2: These "seeds", as I've mentioned, need to be nurtured within the fertile soil of our consciousness through attention and repetition. This also implies a certain protection. And herein lies some of the need for occasional secrecy within certain spiritual traditions. It is not so much that such beginner practices need to be hidden from others, but that in order for seeds of spiritual practice and intention to come to fruition, they must go through an "alchemical" process which involves holding them within our consciousness until they are mature.
And in this sense a bija, according to the Buddhists, can be a thought, an emotion, really anything that leaves any sort of energetic imprint. The take-away here: to explore another metaphor from the alchemists, if we talk about our intentions, projects, and aspirations before they are "cooked", we may release the "steam" and destroy the process. Gone. You learn the hard way.
BACK TO THE SPROUTS!
I chant with my child because, among other reasons, I am introducing her to a "spiritual vocabulary", if you will. At school she is learning a grammar and vocabulary of the head. At home I wish to introduce her to a vocabulary of the heart. By chanting in Sanskrit we start to tap into the integrated, complex, living web of Consciousness. We are opening ourselves to the flow of Shakti, the living breathing body of thoughts, ideas, and inspiration. Whatever is sprouting within her will strengthen her and may contribute to her path, her choices later in life. For the next years, while she is young, I hope to continue to help her plant seeds to cultivate her interior landscape. May she grow many flowers!
There will be a Creating Harmony/Vivre en Harmonie family chanting and mantra workshop Wednesday, May 23 from 4:15-5:15 co-hosted by Transition NDG. There are still places left so just RVSP to firstname.lastname@example.org or just come on by! More info here.
Or join our monthly mantra and meditation session co-hosted by Transition NDG on Monday, May 28 from 7-8:30. More info here. This month we'll be exploring mantras of the Sacred Feminine.
Interested in private sessions for yourself or for using chanting/mantra as a parenting tool? Contact me here.
It's the Easter season and my nine-year old has had eggs on her mind. So have I. But while she has been thinking of chocolate eggs, I have been contemplating golden ones. Golden eggs and golden strings actually.
Ancient Vedic verses basically say the same thing with slight variations:
In the beginning was the primal essence (Brahman).
Then the primal egg manifested.
It floated within the cosmic void until it went into contractions and birthed the universe.
Brahman is considered to be the eternal, infinite, source of all existence. It is the state of pure undifferentiated awareness. Out of Brahman's Cosmic Mind emerges Hiranyagharba, the Golden Egg. Hiranya means golden and Gharba translates to womb or egg. (Some of you may be familiar with this term which is used in the Surya Namaskar/Sun Salutation mantras.) Hiranyagharba constitutes the entire material universe. It births everything that is, was, and shall be: all forms, all beings.
Hiranyagarbha is also symbolically equated with the life-giving Sun. I recently had the joy and privilege of going to the Sivananda Ashram Bahamas for a short trip. My partner and I took a brief tour of the ashram site. Our guide regaled us with stories and tangentially mentioned that the sun is considered to be a symbol of the universal mind with each ray becoming the string of a spiritual tradition. In this respect Hiranyagharba is ‘Jnana bhaskara’ or The Sun of Knowledge.
Threads of Knowledge
In fact, the very teachings of the philosophies of the Vedas and the Tantras are in the form of sūtras, which means string or thread. A sūtra is a condensed grouping of words which creates a short statement or aphorism. A collection of sūtras constitutes a text which is also called a Sūtra, such as the Brahma Sūtras of the ancient Vedas or Patanjali's Yoga Sūtras popular in Hatha Yoga. Sūtras are not "written" or crafted in the traditional sense of the word but are considered to be the very "breath" of Hiranyagharba. They are primal, archetypal patterns of light projected out as sound.
The Soul Thread
There are some inner experiences that change your life. You don't really understand what they are but you know they are significant. Years ago I had one such experience which I often draw on when my internal resources are low.
I was sitting in meditation. Breathing. Looking into the blackness. Shadows of memories rising and flitting across the muted mental screen. Fidgeting. Despairing. Quite deeply actually. It was a difficult time in my life and I felt challenged on many levels. And I started to succumb. I felt flooded with emotional pain and lack. And then the single-most radiant, spectacular inner vision I have ever witnessed unfolded. It was a thick shimmering silvery-golden string which slowly began descending into my inner field. Somehow it was multi-faceted, articulating itself, and flashing with light. To say it was brilliant or resplendent would be an understatement. It is undoubtedly the most beautiful thing I have ever seen...
I give you the end of a golden string;
Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate,
Built in Jerusalem’s wall.…
William Blake, Jerusalem
The concept that our life hangs on a thread, as it were, surfaces in many cultures. This includes:
Within the Indian tradition, there is a string called the Brahma-Sutra or the String of Brahman. Another term for it is the Sutratma: atma meaning soul. Just as a thread unites the flowers of a garland, this principle unifies all beings by linking the individual to the Cosmic Mind.
Our Sonic Universe
And here I sit trying to weave all these personal strings into a meaningful tapestry! Another personal memory: a few years ago my daughter had a birthday which we celebrated with her friends in the local neighbourhood park. That evening as I reflected back on the festivities of the day, the mental picture of the kids running at the playground abruptly transformed to a black backdrop with each child's image morphing into that of a vibrating coloured string. Each was of a different length and emitting a unique frequency. As quickly as this image vividly emerged, it vanished, back to laughing children again.
Yogic cosmology asserts that the universe is vibratory and sonic in nature. String theory in physics, of which I have no capacity to talk about intelligently, theorizes that the universe may be subatomic strands of energy vibrating at different rates and frequencies.
Golden strings. Golden eggs.
"So what?" my highschool English teacher always used to ask us. (How she continues to inspire me still!) Well, mystical traditions provide us with tools to connect us to the subtle vibratory energies which give rise to people, forms, and phenomena. They allow us to touch states of Unity and re-establish our connection to Something Bigger. Mantras are also the language of light. They are living threads, primal sound forms, which trigger latent states of Consciousness and align ourselves with archetypal energies: the building blocks of being and Beingness, if you will. Certain mantras even encode the experience of Hiranyagharba, the seed of creation, while others may lead us back to the pure, undifferentiated state of Brahman. Lofty stuff but lest we forget...
Not only must we follow the golden thread towards spiritual freedom,
but we must also unravel the garden-variety twine
that is wrapped tightly around our hearts and minds.
And therein lies the rub, as they say. When we engage in spiritual practices we will constantly knock up against our limitations, blind spots, and emotional baggage. Sometimes we lack context or complete understanding. Sometimes we lack conviction. Sometimes we momentarily lose our senses or good judgement. Oh how much easier to be a materialist!
But there is a subtle world shining with awareness behind the thin veil of the material world. We need to be able to penetrate this veil, lifting it to reveal what universally shines in each of our hearts and minds. It peeks through in moments of joy and moments of connection. And in moments of surrender it is the part of our Being that leaps forth and throws us the end of a shimmering string to inspire us forward.
Celebrate joy! Join my 9-year old daughter and I this Saturday, April 7, from 1-2:30 for a family friendly yoga and chanting workshop. Have fun as a family and in community but leave with some deeper Yogic tools to create harmony in your family. $25/family. More info here.
Seeking inspiration? Curious to explore how mantra can affect your meditative practice and induce healing states? Join me Monday, April 30 from 7-8:30 for "Mantras for Renewal". Event co-hosted by Transitions NDG. More info here.
The first image is "Hiranyagarbha The Golden Embryo" by Artist Vidya Devi and Dhirendra Jha.
My then-8-year-old-daughter and I were embroiled in an argument. Neither of us were backing down and I was beginning to despair, projecting years ahead to her teenagehood. I managed to stop and began internally chanting a simple yogic mantra to calm myself down. My daughter stopped arguing immediately and said calmly, "Mom, I just want to thank you for always taking such good care of me and always being such a great mommy to me." I quietly gasped and my jaw dropped as I leaned in to hug her; I was frankly startled by how immediately the situation had radically shifted.
I attribute the change in our dynamic that day to my internal chanting. How so? Mantras are thought to be drawn from the depths of our collective consciousness, a state of "Unity Consciousness", if you will. By shifting my own state I had affected hers also. We were both entraining to a deep resonant field of Awareness.... and to each other. Additionally, Sanskrit mantras sonically pattern the feeling of a word or concept. By chanting a peace mantra we were both transported to a state of peacefulness... together.
And this is why I'll be giving two Family Workshops this spring, along with some friends who are Yoga teachers. (One will be Sunday, March 11 and the other Saturday, April 7. You can find more info on those here. There will be some singing and movement for the kids along with some mantra and meditation tools geared for parents and kids alike to help bring family members into alignment.)
Family life can be overwhelming for so many reasons. Overtime, aftercare, work trouble, school trouble, lack of support, overloaded schedules. Maybe some of these are familiar to you... maybe they all are.
And all of this delicately balances on a parent's capacity to remain grounded and present because children, especially young ones, rely so strongly on an adult's internal state to create their own coherent state.
I personally know what its like for a family to go off the rails, to become exhausted, defensive, and irreparably disconnected. After living that experience in tandem with my passion for and fascination with deeper spiritual practices, I feel compelled to explore using these practices with families and in community.
Mantra comes from “manas” meaning the mind and “tra” meaning instrument. A mantra is therefore an instrument of the mind.
Most mystical traditions the world over have developed a mantric path, sacred song or speech. Mantras, within the Yogic tradition, are Sanskrit words or phrases that have a specific vibratory effect on the mind/body. Some have a literal meaning, most don't. Certain mantras are thought to pave the way to "enlightenment" while others open up latent aspects of our being, expanding states of emotion and personality. For example, in India some simple "wisdom" mantras are taught to children to enhance memory, concentration, and speech capacities! Other simple mantras pattern a feeling of confidence and balance.
The most precious inheritance that parents can give their children
is their own happiness.
Thich Nhat Hanh
Lately my daughter and I have been chanting together more regularly, daily in fact, as part of her pre-bedtime routine in preparation for these upcoming workshops. As the two of us go through this process together, it reinforces for me the power within these ancient traditions and why they are still relevant and useful today.
I'll outline a few of the effects they have had and are having on us.
They create harmony and can diffuse conflict. I already described the effect on both of us during an argument.
Sleep comes quicker. My daughter slips into sleep more rapidly after we chant. Good for everyone! I attribute this to the shift in brain wave pattern which I go into in a few paragraphs.
They can calm anxiety and enhance emotional stability. A few weeks ago my daughter said to me, "I don't know why mom but wherever I am now, I'm happy. I'm no longer thinking of being somewhere else or missing people." I feel this is undoubtedly linked to our practicing together. Mantras originally arose within the minds of sages/meditators in deep, restful states of consciousness and with repetition of mantras and concentration we are pulled back through layers of awareness to a place of calmness and wholeness. And because Sanskrit is a vibratory language, the word gives us the experience itself. For example, the Sanskrit word for peace,"Shanti", embodies the experience of peace.
While many people use affirmations to effect their mood and thoughts and through repetition try and work these thoughts into their unconscious, mantras take the fast track because they begin at the level of the unconscious, patterning powerful states of being. Mantras are also thought to create new "samskaras" or grooves, their structure overriding habitual thought patterns with another vibratory pattern. Mantras facilitate a tangible restructuring of the psyche, a shift in mindset.
They can cultivates the Heart. Science (you can read about Heart Math) is backing up the credence that our hearts our intertwined in deep and mysterious ways. Relationship is key to who we are as human beings. Recently after chanting with my daughter, she lovingly said, "All I want to do is hug you now, mom". And so we did. While I more quickly shifted into busy mode afterwards she remained in a loving, peaceful state for quite some time! (More hugs ensued.) Using music and mantra to entrain to each other I feel promotes empathy and trust.
It is an entry for both parent and child to connect to Presence, to "something deeper". Last week after my daughter and I chanted together she said, "Mommy while I was chanting it was if I was watching an invisible hand writing letters of light in the darkness". I asked her to draw the letters. Sure looked like Sanskrit to me. (She has had very, very little exposure to written Sanskrit.) And I wasn't really surprised. Mantras are considered to be light manifesting in the form of sound. This is a realm of pure direct awareness.
I see a lot of material out there on “Conscious Parenting” and “Mindful Parenting” and I do feel these are invaluable tools for parents and children. I always need to be more mindful as a parent, more aware, more conscious of what is unfolding in the present moment. But I don't think we should stop at the level of mindfulness. There's more... and I suspect the mantric tradition can allow us to tap insights and states that are difficult to attain through mindfulness alone. (BUT I am not trained within the Mindfulness tradition so this is just speculation on my part and not an observation drawn from my own experience!)
Consciousness, Brain Waves, and Children
Yogis have known for centuries that sound has a profound effect on our state of consciousness. Let's briefly look at brain wave activity, child development, and the overlap with chanting.
Delta: 0.5 - 4 cycles/second. Delta brain waves are associated with deep, dreamless sleep critical for tissue and memory regeneration. It is the realm of infants, under age 2, who spend much of their time in deep sleep. But it has been measured also in Tibetan monks experienced in mediation who can access this state while fully awake!
Theta: 4 - 7 cycles/second. Theta waves are common in sleep, deep meditation, and in hypnosis. It is considered to be a realm of visualization, intuition, and creativity. Theta waves are also common when you are performing a repetitive task on "auto-pilot". Theta waves have been shown to greatly enhance learning and performance of new tasks. This is the predominant wave frequency of children ages 2-6 who are in the imaginary realm, are highly open to suggestion, and absorb new knowledge quickly.
Alpha: 7 – 13 cycles/second. Alpha waves characterize the light stages of sleep, meditation, and daydreaming: the mind is delicately bridging both the external and internal world. It is the dominant brain wave of children aged approximately 6-8 who while still strongly in a world of internal imagination are awakening more to the external environment.
Beta: > 13 cycles/second. Beta waves are "fast" brain waves which characterize analytical, logical thinking where the mind is focused and alert. This is typically where adults function from and starts to appear anytime from age 8. Depression and anxiety are associated with a higher than average frequency of Beta waves.
When we chant repetitively we are pulled into states of consciousness which are peaceful, restful, and enhance creativity. This happens because the repetitive nature of simple three-toned chants make our brain emit specific frequency waves which slow down the mind and deepen our state of consciousness. It is then we as adults who can consciously re-enter the perennial garden of childhood: states of direct awareness, openness, and joy. These precious relaxed states of being are essential for our children's development and are their birthright. And how simply we can get back there: just by using our own voice and sitting still.
Mysticism and Parenthood?
Prior to having a child I would awaken at 3am and practice postures, breathing exercises, chanting, and meditation for 3-4 hours. That is impossible now and yet things have fallen into their proper place. How wonderful to start coming full circle and being able to inspire and be inspired by my daughter. I can think of little greater benefit to practice than relationships that are more authentic, connected, and harmonious. It's one thing to transform alone... another to be transformed by another and to transform together!
We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone -
we find it with another.
Join my daughter and I Sunday, March 11th along with a Kundalini yoga teacher for an afternoon of kid friendly meditation, songs from sacred traditions, and mantras. The goal is to have fun but also have tools to shift our state and create harmony. There will be another workshop co-presented with a Hatha yoga teacher at Yoga on the Park in NDG on April 7th. Join us, whatever your family configuration may be! More info here.
Here are my "musings" on mantra and sound as a transformative path.