I lived in an ashram for 14 years. We practiced meditation for at least two hours every day. We did 100’s of prostrations before that. And then we also chanted with mala beads.
Our lives revolved around spiritual practice. One time I meditated for 48 hours straight without sleeping.
We did all nighters on a regular basis, meditating through the moonlit hours until the sun came back around and lifted us into the day with minds and souls refreshed.
After those all-night sojourns into spirit, it felt like someone tied bright red balloons to our backs and we all walked a little lighter. Our spirits were buoyed from the noble struggle that transpired over night.
The Difference Between Free and Focused Awareness
When I left, I’d logged well over 10,000 hours of meditation. But it was all of the same sort. We practiced free awareness meditation. That means that there was no anchor or ‘seed’ to focus on.
Instead, we just released our attention from the hypnotic flow of the thought stream and let everything be as it is.
This kind of meditation is incredibly challenging. As thinking beings, we are not conditioned to let things be as they are. On the contrary, we’re taught from a young age to reflect, to examine, to investigate, and to pull apart and then put back together. We ruminate and chew on the tough and grizzled parts of our lives.
Meditation is really the opposite of all that. It’s true, we need to always refine and cultivate our cognitive capacities. But we also need to learn how to actively disengage from the same. Meditation is training in how to do that.
So there is free awareness meditation, like I practiced. And then there is the more common form of focused awareness meditation. In that kind of meditation, you use an anchor to focus on during your practice.
It can be a chant, a mantra, sensations, your breath, anything really. All of these are effective. Focused awareness is easier, generally, than free awareness.
Here’s why. Your mind is much better at focusing on something than nothing. In the context of meditation, these just represent two paths to the same ultimate goal. You can focus on something or nothing.
But given the object-focused nature of our minds, it’s trickier to focus on nothing than something.
The Magic of Chanting or Reciting A Mantra
So lately, I’ve been playing around with focused awareness meditation. I’ve been reciting a mantra. I say it out loud, chanting it rhythmically for about 15 minutes. Then I say it silently, letting it issue from the area of my heart.
I love this. I’ve been practicing meditation regularly now for over almost half of my life. It’s a huge habit. So trying this new style of meditation comes naturally.
Having something to focus on during meditation, in this case a chant, is like having a little vessel to sit in. You can fill that vessel with your whole being. You can let go into it completely. That little vessel can expand infinitely to contain the unrestricted dimension of our beings.
It’s just a little chant, but like a purring cat, my mind settles into it and releases into the flow of the repetition. Over and over again my mind wanders away into to-do lists, lustful fantasies, grand plans, and then I come back to the chant.
Sure my mind wandered, but the chant never stopped. I return to it with fresh conviction.
This is where I belong right now. Everything is in it’s place. There is noise and there is a pervading silence beneath the noise. It never goes anywhere. That silence is the fertile ground whence everything comes.
The chant is like a bridge that crosses the illusory boundary between these two worlds of noise and silence, activity and stillness, thought and space.
Every time I come back to the chant, I remember myself. I rediscovery reality free from the distorting prism of my mind. I fall deeper into silence. I'm at peace with the noise.
This is a reunion that never gets old. It’s eternal. The relative emerging and blending back in with the absolute. The vivid green buds of spring explode into being, grow, and then decay and return to the soil.
Chanting this mantra is a meditation on the rhythm of life.