Book Excerpt: The Power of Mantra & Mystery of Initiation
Chapter 4: pp 63-76
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The yearning of the student and the compassion of the teacher are like two poles of a magnet—each is attracted to and drawn by the other. The teacher, however, is impelled by a stronger force than is the student, for the desire to find a student manifests the compassion of the Primordial Master, whose perennial task is to search for students and transport them from darkness into the realm of Light. This Primordial Master is none other than God, the Supreme Being from whom the stream of knowledge flows eternally. According to the Yoga Sutra, the Primordial Master is free from karmas and the fruits of karmas, and is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. The Primordial Master is the teacher of all previous teachers and the soul of all living beings.
The knowledge and compassion of the Primordial Master manifesting in a human being makes that person a teacher. Driven by pure compassion, a true teacher interacts with his students on behalf of the Primordial Master. Thus, the Primordial Master, using the teacher as an instrument, collects lamp, wick, oil, and matches, and lights the lamp for those who are stranded in darkness. Under the guidance of the Primordial Master, seekers and teachers move toward each other. Fully awakened teachers are aware that the Primordial Master is constantly guiding them, but most teachers are only half-awake and do not experience this guidance consciously, even though they too are working on Its behalf.
The Primordial Master, either in the form of the inner teacher (inner inspiration and self-motivation) or in the form of external teachers, journeys through the dark night of the soul in search of those who have fallen asleep, and gently awakens them. This is the first step in initiation.
We don’t usually notice this first step, because our ego comes forward and says to us, “Aha, it’s me who is inspired.” No matter. The purpose of this subtle but most significant of initiations is to stir us to shake off our lifelong slumber. After this invisible initiation has taken effect, our attention begins to turn from worldly affairs to spirituality. The grace of God follows. It comes in many forms: we get fed up with the world; or the world gets fed up with us; or we go to Hawaii to celebrate a big promotion, and end up reading this book on mantra and initiation instead; or we notice that we’re aging, and begin to wonder if we have made the best use of our lives. In ways myriad and mysterious, the omniscient, compassionate Master guides us until we finally realize that we are seekers. Lamp, wick, oil, and matches are coming together, but we notice only when the lamp is lit.
This level of initiation takes place when we have already learned the basic principles of spirituality, the most fundamental of which is that we have put ourselves in bondage, and that no one else can give us freedom. The inner chamber of our heart has become dark through our own actions; it cannot be illumined by another’s efforts. Other travelers can point the way according to their knowledge and experience, but ultimately we must walk the path if we are to attain the goal. This understanding dawns only after the Primordial Master has mysteriously initiated us.
Once we have gained this level of understanding, we eventually find an instructor and learn the technique of the inward journey: how to keep the lamp burning steadily by trimming the wick and replenishing the oil. We learn how to maintain a steady practice, how to keep from becoming disheartened when we pass through rough periods, and how to revitalize our practice before we become discouraged and drop it. That we continue our practice with ever-increasing interest is one of the sure signs that we have met the right teacher and have been introduced to the right technique of spiritual practice.
When teacher and student live in one another’s company, it becomes the teacher’s duty to protect the student from doubt, carelessness, laziness, and procrastination. This is protecting the flame. Because we are working with a teacher, our growing interest in our practice and the gradual attenuation of our bad habits unfold spontaneously. But practically speaking, some effort on our part is required to overcome our lifelong and intense involvement in the external world. We need to deliberately cut back on our worldly concerns to make time for spiritual concerns, for if we are not careful, the world consumes us. Working, sleeping, eating, shopping, bathing, dressing, socializing, and attending to family affairs leave us little time and energy for directing our attention toward our true source.
The art of living in the world can, however, be mastered without ignoring the supreme goal of life. When we achieve this mastery while retaining our spiritual focus, we achieve a state of balance and harmony, disregarding neither worldly obligations nor spiritual needs. To meet this challenge, we must adopt a very practical approach to spiritual practice, utilizing the body, breath, and mind, which are its tools. If one of these tools is missing or defective, or if there is no coordination among them, we cannot expect to practice successfully, no matter how good the mantra or how great the teacher.
A stiff, tired body, an erratic habit of breathing, and a scattered mind are not fit for mantra meditation, but correcting these conditions requires systematic effort. We can make the body strong, healthy, and flexible by practicing gentle yoga exercises called asanas. By learning to sit in a comfortable, relaxed, and steady posture, with our head, neck, and trunk aligned, we allow prana (energy) to flow freely throughout the body. We can increase our energy, and bring harmony to the functioning of the pranic forces, by cultivating the habit of breathing smoothly and diaphragmatically, without jerks or noise, and without pauses between the inhalation and exhalation. Finally, we can learn how to eliminate distractions by practicing pratyahara (the technique of sense withdrawal), beginning with the practice of systematic relaxation techniques. Appendix A, “Preparation for Mantra Initiation,” includes basic instructions in these techniques, which lay the foundation for the higher practices of mantra meditation. This is a balanced program, and by following it we can energize our tired body, calm our erratic breath, develop an inner focus, and learn how to bring harmony to our scattered mind.
THE RHYTHM OF LIFE
After we have begun to gain some proficiency with these techniques, we must next give the mind an object to hold on to so that it may become free of distractions. At this early stage the best object is the natural sound of the breath—the sound so’ham (pronounced “so hum”). This is a mantra in its own right. It comes from the Upanishads, and it is practiced by students of both the Yoga and Vedanta traditions. Yogis emphasize meditation, and so they practice this mantra differently from the followers of Vedanta, who emphasize self-analysis and contemplative techniques. Before discussing these differences, however, let us explore the nature of the sound itself.
So’ham is the mantric manifestation of the vital energy of all living beings because it is the natural sound of the breath. Breathing connects us all with the cosmic life-force—through inhalation we receive a constant supply of vital energy, and through exhalation we release that which is not needed in our system. As long as this process goes on, we stay alive. When it stops, we die.
According to the yogis, breathing is totally dependent on the sound so’ham. They hold that this sound precedes even the first breath; it is in response to this sound that the psyche instinctively commands the brain and the nervous system to start breathing the moment we emerge from the womb.
Day and night the sound so’ham reverberates as we inhale and exhale. Erratic breathing and a noisy mind render this sound inaudible to us, however, because it is subtler than the breathing process. To experience it, sit in a quiet place and focus on your breath. If your breath is tranquil, and if you have eliminated any noise and jerkiness in your breathing, you will hear the sound sooo in the inhalation and hammmmm in the exhalation. After a time you will feel as though someone inside you is constantly saying sooohammm in each breath. This is the rhythm of life.
Personality, speech, emotions, and the sense of attraction or repulsion are a few of the ways in which the life-force radiates from us. We also radiate different degrees and shades of light, sound, electricity, magnetism, and gravitational energy. Every cell of the body has its own vibratory pattern, and, based on this pattern, sound waves emerge from each cell. But all the cells in an organism must function in a coordinated manner; they must all vibrate within a specific spectrum, which is defined by the subtle energy of the sound so’ham—the collective sound of all the cells of the body. Furthermore, by imbuing the cells with this sound, heard at a particular pace and in a particular rhythm, Mother Nature coordinates the vibratory pattern of all the cells of a particular species. The pace and rhythm determines how rapidly or slowly a particular creature should breathe; in turn, the breathing pattern regulates the metabolic activity of the body. From this standpoint, Mother Nature is the first guru of all living beings. She initiates us into the sacred sound of so’ham, and thus we begin the journey of life. By planting this mantra in the depths of our being, she establishes law and order so that we may live and grow harmoniously. Through the power of this mantra we are connected to and in harmony with the cosmos. In the scriptures, the presiding force of this mantra is called sutratma (the thread atma); it is also known as pranatma, the thread of life.
Each time we encounter an unwholesome and distressing experience we disturb the pace and rhythm of the breath that has been established by nature. Such disturbances occur throughout our life, breaking the harmony between our breath and the natural sound of so’ham. This in turn disrupts the current of the life-force. Reestablishing a natural and proper breathing pattern, by allowing the breath to follow the sound so’ham, restores this harmony.
Attending to the sound so’ham, then, is attending to the rhythm of life. But because this sound is subtler than the breath, we must begin by paying attention to the breath. For only when the breath has become quiet, smooth, and tranquil, and the mind steady, can we attend to so’ham. By introducing the mind to this sound, we are introducing it to the perennial life-force that first set the body-mind organism in motion, allowing it to touch the source of prana shakti (vital energy). Then, by allowing mind, breath, and so’ham to flow together as one integral stream, we create harmony at various levels of our personality. Peace dawns. The mind no longer looks for excuses to run into the external world (at least not for a while). This is the intrinsic characteristic of so’ham; this is why it is the universal mantra, and why there is no need for a human teacher to formally initiate us into its use. If we pay attention to the breath, we will find that the mantra is already there.
THE MEANING OF SO’HAM
So’ham is first mentioned in the Upanishads, ancient texts written in Sanskrit, and in that language so’ham means “I am That.” However, as we have seen, all mantras belong to the universal language, and Sanskrit is not this language. Sanskrit is unique only in the sense that, for the most part, it has come to us through revelation. Its phonemes, words, and groups of words were revealed to the seers in their deep samadhi, and eventually they were compiled in the form of the Vedas. So’ham means “I am That,” however, not because Sanskrit dictionaries say so, but because this meaning was revealed to the seers simultaneously with the sound. Let’s explore how this came about.
Deep in samadhi a sage in ancient times was immersed in the unitary state of consciousness, totally one with the Absolute. When he descended from that state he experienced his self-existence in relation to the experience of the Absolute and, as he did so, the essence of duality emerged. Because he remembered his experience of unity, the sage was still in a state of deep tranquility, but he was separate now, and he wondered how it was possible to be both at one with, and totally separate from, the Universal Being. Then, as he breathed, he felt the link that connected the individual and the universal. He heard the sound so’ham. With the sound so he was inhaling; with the sound ham he was exhaling. As he inhaled, he experienced the Universal Being walking in and realized that it is He who enters this body with the breath, bringing freshness and vitality to the individual trapped there. In the form of the sound so waves of divinity and immortality enter and rejuvenate the individual. This thrilling experience spontaneously unfolded the knowledge that the sound so meant “That”—the Immortal Being.
This realization simultaneously led him to experience the other component of this truth: I exist because of That; I am because of That. This experience was even more vivid when he noticed that the sound so with his inhalation immediately merged into the sound ham as he exhaled—and with this sound ham the sage felt himself merging into the cosmos. So for him, the sound ham meant “I.” As this process continued, his experience was: I am That, That I am, I am That, That I am . . .
The next thing the seer discovered is that if he inhaled without anticipating the oncoming exhalation, the sound of the inhalation was a flat sah with a little aspirate sound at the end. The sound of inhalation is heard as so only if the exhalation follows immediately. The sage also realized that if exhalation is not preceded by inhalation, the sound aham appears in the outgoing breath. Thus, if inhalation and exhalation are disconnected from each other, they contain two distinct sounds—sah and aham—but the moment the breath flows without interruption or pause, each merging into the other, and each emerging from the other, the sounds sah and aham turn into so’ham. From this realization arose one of the grammatical rules of Sanskrit: an aspirate sound preceded by a and followed by a turns into o. Experiments have shown that it is impossible to pronounce sah aham without creating a pause between inhalation and exhalation and without disrupting the normal heart beat. However, no pause is created by listening to the sound so’ham and letting the breath follow it.
Even in ancient times, so’ham was held sacred, for both meditative and contemplative purposes, by philosophers and spiritual seekers following different paths. In the Upanishads, for example, this mantra is one of the maha vakyas (great utterances). In other traditions, philosophers and spiritual seekers have all accepted so’ham as a means of self-analysis and contemplation. The meaning “I am That” is at once so concise and so general that it can be used within the context of any philosophical or religious doctrine. For example, it can be interpreted to mean: Essentially I am that Divine Being who enters me, sustains me, embraces me, and eventually leads me to Its immortal abode. Or it can mean: I am part of that Cosmic Being who sustains my life and guides me through life’s journey. Or: I am a devotee of that Supreme One, and He is my Lord. This flexibility is one of the reasons this mantra is universal.
MEDITATION ON SO’HAM
Because everyone is born with it, there is no need for a formal initiation into this mantra. However, because the Vedantic tradition emphasizes contemplation and self-analysis, that student does need formal training in the specific subtradition of Vedanta to which she belongs. Contemplation based on the sound so’ham is a very precise and systematic practice, but it can yield a complete result only under the guidance of a competent master. If we are using this mantra only as an object for concentration, however, all we need to know is the proper technique for focusing on it: sitting with the head, neck, and trunk straight; breathing without noise, jerks, and pauses; and listening to the sound so’ham deep in the breath.
This technique induces a state of tranquility and restfulness, for listening to the sound so’ham as we breathe requires us to quiet ourselves and focus our awareness inward, transcending external noise, and withdrawing our scattered mind from worldly objects. The moment we resolve to listen to the sound in each breath, we automatically gather the forces of mind that have been scattered and diffused by the external world, and summon them to flow inward. Then we are aware of the rhythmic vibration of the mantra. Thus, by gently maneuvering the mind to come in touch with the sound so’ham, we help it to disentangle itself from the trivial concerns of worldly affairs which uselessly drain our energies. This gives the mind a chance to rest, and in this state our senses, nervous system, and all the organs and limbs of the body drink the elixir of life.
The mind has formed the habit of running into the external world, incessantly contacting one object after another. It craves change; it becomes bored when asked to stay in one place for too long. For this reason, while meditating on the sound so’ham is very rewarding for a month or two, two problems soon emerge which compel us to find a more specific and powerful tool to lead the mind through the maze of its distractions.
The first problem results from the fact that in the beginning we had general and recognizable concerns. The stress we create in our daily life and store at the surface level of our personality is washed off by the simple techniques of relaxation, breathing, and meditation on the sound so’ham. This helps us to overcome fatigue and exhaustion, recharging our nervous system and ridding ourselves of the stress freshly stored in the conscious mind. Removing these short-term problems floating at the outer layer of our being has an immediate and noticeable effect. That’s why, for the first few months, meditating on so’ham yields remarkable results.
But once our nervous system is relatively balanced and the conscious mind is calmer, we begin to notice more potent unconscious issues coming forward. Now, instead of tension in the body and irregularities in the breath, powerful anxieties and unconscious memories disturb our peace. Meditation on the so’ham mantra does not work very well to quiet these.
So’ham is a mantra of the fundamental life-force, prana. It pulls together all the pieces of our mind, senses, and body, removing our scatteredness, bringing a sense of wholeness, and most important, quieting our mind. But once this has happened, this quieter and more concentrated mind tells us that there are deeper and more subtle problems beneath the surface. The meditative mind does not create these problems; it simply reveals them: the hidden facets in our personality that must be faced and conquered. For an under-informed and impatient meditator, this poses a problem.
The second problem is boredom. To a mind that has adjusted itself to the rush and roar, pains and pleasures, and ups and downs of worldly life, watching the breath and listening to so’ham every day for months and months eventually becomes dull. So this mind summons its crafty skills and comes up with countless ways of creating the excitement it craves. It is doubly anxious to do this because it does not want unconscious material to surface. So it deliberately creates distractions.
At this stage there is no point in fighting with the mind. The material beneath the surface is quite substantial, and we must find a way to deal with it. We must get in touch with a higher force, from which we can draw the inner strength and power of determination that will enable us to illuminate the unlit corners of the unconscious mind, where the ghosts of our samskaras (the subtle impressions of our previous actions) dwell. Now, even though we experience the thread of the life-force running through the fabric of our being, it is not enough. We need a more powerful tool to make our mind truly one-pointed, a tool that will purify our heart and heighten our self-awareness. So’ham has prepared us for this next level of practice: it is time for formal initiation into a guru mantra