Saturday, May 8, 2010

Mantra Practice

Recently, I have become fixated--one might even say obsessed--with the idea that my Dharma Gaia mantra has the potential of becoming a kind of panacea for every kind of ill, whether mental, emotional, social, or environmental. Is this delusional? Well, probably.

But let's look a bit more deeply. If the mantra were to become a fad or cultic practice, mindlessly repeated because gullible people believe that it leads to salvation, it will become every bit as empty and meaningless as other mantras, repeated by rote, have been throughout history--whether they are "Om Mani Padme Hum" or "Nam Myoho Renge Kyo" or "Hail Mary, Full of Grace," or "Our Father who art in Heaven..." Even Jesus condemned "vain repetition," little thinking that his own recommended prayer would become yet another example thereof.

Throughout my childhood, I along with my classmates would regularly repeat "the Lord's Prayer" every morning by rote, and, like others, I simply did what I was told, never giving it the slightest thought. I had forgotten all about this until one night in about 1975, in my mid-twenties, I faced a profound spiritual crisis. I had been bested in a sexual competition by my roommate and best friend, who had won--yet again--the heart of, and was out sleeping with, another woman in whom I was originally interested. (I was not even THAT interested in her; it was the idea that tormented me; the idea, that is, that life is brutally unfair, that I was just a "second-string monkey" who would always lose out in any competition with this or any other handsome, insouciant man who competed with me for a woman's favor.) As I struggled with insomnia, my mind gnawing over the impossibility of believing in any kind of deity or providence which might mitigate the cruelty of life, I distinctly remember that at one point, early in the morning, roiling in my own sweat, I simply gave up the struggle, and turned to the only prayer I knew--the Prayer of Jesus--forcing my stubborn knees, like Claudius in Hamlet, to kneel by the bedside.

But for the first time in my life, I did not simply and mindlessly repeat the prayer. Rather, I spoke it with depth and sincerity--from the heart. And when I came to lines like "Thy will be done" and "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us," they resonated in a whole new way. I realized then, as I do now, that these were injunctions to LET GO--let go of wishing things were other than they are, and let go of resentments--that in forgiving I would be forgiven; that in letting go, I would be released from my own torment.

It was a true spiritual awakening. The next few days, I walked around in a state of bliss, in which absolutely everything made perfect sense. There was even a moment when my friend and I--now completely reconciled--were bicycling recklessly across a busy intersection, and I looked too late to see a car bearing down on me. I truly thought I was about to be annihilated, and while my body went into adrenal panic mode, gripping the handlebars and pedaling madly--my mind and spirit seemed to float blissfully above it, knowing with absolute certainty that life-and-death as we understand it is an illusion--that it did not matter in the slightest whether my body was annihilated or whether I survived. Since that time, I have lost all primordial fears of death--I SAW right through and beyond mortality.

Thereafter, I thought at first that I had become a Christian, but when I went out and looked up some books of Christian doctrine, such as C. S. Lewis's "Mere Christianity," I found that I still could not swallow their whole schtick about the Doctrine of the Atonement, or about Jesus being the "one way" to God. When I looked into a book about Zen Buddhism, a chapter called "Awakening of Faith" made just as much sense to me as the Christian explanation of my experience did, but without all the mandatory ideological overlay.

This whole awakening was the start, not the end, of my spiritual journey. It gave me faith--not in any particular concept of definition of God, but rather faith in the sense of a deep, abiding acceptance of life as it is, an end to any delusion that I could, or even had to, figure it all out intellectually. God became a reality for me, not just a concept. And even as such, I could readily accept that "God" was simply a convenient way people have of personifying the Sacred. This realization enabled me to join people of any faith tradition at all in prayer or meditation, without any sense of hypocrisy or contradiction, knowing that all religious traditions are just systems of metaphors for the same transcendent, ineffable awakening; that all are mixtures of Dharma and identity politics.

But back to Mantras. As I discovered through my own experience, the mantra of Jesus, known as the "Lord's Prayer," could be either meaningless rote repetition or a path to a profound awakening of faith...depending on the context and one's own sincerity. And the same is true, no doubt, for any other mantra. So my own, home-brewed mantra is no different. I have found in my own experience that if I repeat it automatically and unthinkingly, it has zero effect on my consciousness or disposition. But conversely, if I look deeply into it, and relate it to all the other wisdom traditions and teachings I have assimilated, it can be healing and transformative.

Breathe. Observe. Let Go.
Be well. Do good work. Keep in touch.
Learn. Teach. Heal. Create.

Ten verb phrases. If you just repeat them, they are empty sounds. But if you use them as windows on your own experience--contemplating, practicing, and vowing--they can keep you--or at least keep ME (since I cannot honestly speak for anyone else) in touch with the Dharma--as a Principle, a Precept, and a Practice. Try them--see if they work. And if you wish, improvise.