A mantra (a word or a phrase which is repeated over and over, silently or aloud) is a useful device with which to tame our restless minds and bring us back to the centre. Traditionally, a disciple would be given a mantra by their spiritual teacher. As the practice of meditation has spread to the West, however, many are finding their own mantra, one that usually wells up from their inner depths and declares itself.
I have described how my own mantra appeared in Finding Silence, in the meditation entitled ‘A Perfected Life’. Standing one day outside the cottage of my friend Ann Powell, whom I had just been visiting, the words suddenly appeared: God is present. God is here. God is now.
Recently, I shared this with a friend from Paris. She wrote back to say she had finally found a way to translate this into French: Dieu est. Ici. Maintenant. Then she went on to say, ‘Like a rope dangling in front of my face I grasp it to keep me upright.’ At a time of much difficulty and ill health in her life, these words in her native language help her to persevere.
Whatever our mantra, it is there to be repeated throughout the day and especially whenever we cannot sleep. The words keep us connected to the innermost depths of our being. Just as Ariadne gave Theseus a thread with which to find his way out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth so, too, our mantra enables us to find a way through the complexities of life. A devout Muslim will repeat the hundred names of God over and over: it is the same process. While we go about our daily tasks and work, the gentle repetition of our mantra is like an underground river.
The great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter studied at the Russian Conservatoire under the brilliant pianist Heinrich Neuhaus. Of his teacher, Richter said, ‘ He taught me the meaning of silence. In my first term he gave me Liszt’s Piano Sonata to practise – and the essential point about this piece, which Neuhaus taught, was the sound of silence.’
Today, with the prevalence of music in restaurants, bars, hotels, with households that have the television on all day, with people scurrying along the street talking into mobile phones or listening to iPods, it is not easy to find silence, outwardly at least. We have first to find it inwardly. Those of us who suffer from tinnitus, a continuous noise in the ears, know that if we keep being conscious of it, it can drive us mad. The secret is to detach oneself from it, so that one is less aware of it. And this is where, on a simple, natural level, the practice of meditation can help one find an inner silence. There are, within each of us, vast halls of silence where we can walk and be at peace.
In hot weather a group of us who meet once a month to meditate will often choose to sit in a circle in the garden for our meditation. And into this inner silence are blended other sounds – the cooing of woodpigeons, a blackbird singing, children playing in the park, an aeroplane overhead, someone’s radio, an ambulance going by. Instead of being distractions, these are woven into the silence. There is a deep realisation that we are all part of the same pattern.
All over the world people are doing it. Students in school assemblies are doing it; mothers in ante-natal classes are doing it; financiers on Wall Street are doing it; even Ruby Wax is doing it. Suddenly it seems as though the whole world is practising meditation. The press is full of articles about the practical benefits of ‘mindfulness’. One organisation, Abacus Wealth Partners, even offers clients an exercise called ‘the money breath’ to enable them to remain calm when they see their investments drop!
At a basic level meditation exercises are known to slow down the heartbeat and deliver a wide range of health benefits. But there needs to be a health warning too. Meditation is not a panacea for all ills. There are many who have meditated for years but who are still deeply enmeshed in their neuroses, still capable of flying off the handle and behaving irrationally or in a way which is ill-considered and damaging. While the practice of meditation has great benefits, we have to work constantly at integrating our own contradictions, clearing out the weeds, and opening shutters into dark places to let in the light. Jung called this the path of individuation: becoming a whole person. It is a process that makes considerable demands and it is life-long. As Emily Dickinson expresses it in a poem, it is like building a house, brick by brick, piece by piece, until one day the scaffolding is removed and the house stands tall:
Just such a retrospect
Hath the perfected life,
A past of plank and nail,
And slowness – then the scaffolds drop
Affirming it a soul.