Sun, 10 Oct 1999

Mantra, an effective tool for mind calming concentration

By Rahayu Ratnaningsih

JAKARTA (JP): Erick, a soft spoken and aloof 23 year old with severe depression, came to one of our meditation retreats. He has attempted at least five suicides by taking insecticide, which he did twice, once mixed with a soft drink, jumping in the river and overdosing on drugs. He comes from a dysfunctional, well-to-do family where his older brother was in a graver condition and also recently attempted suicide by jumping from a second-floor window in the family house.

Sitting still was agonizing for him since he was experiencing severe hallucinations aggravated by drug abuse. He claimed to constantly hear voices from inside his body; from his knees, chest, head and hands, which scared and angered him at the same time and hampered his efforts at concentration. It was like simultaneously tuning into a hundred different radio channels at full blast. The voices were typically of a bunch of people gossiping about him, talking to him in a derogatory manner, dictating to him or repeating the order "trust me". One suicide attempt was lured by these persuasive voices. He takes a few seconds before answering any question or responding in a conversation since he needs to fight off all this distraction.

His older sister stated that it started when their mother died two years ago from a short terminal illness that he and the family were unprepared for. Erick, the youngest in the family, was close to his mother, who apparently spoiled him and the other seven children. As she was illiterate and uneducated, she perhaps didn't see much importance in education so she let Erick drop out of school during the fifth grade of elementary school. His older brothers did the same. Their father, who associated parental responsibility, dignity, social status and success solely with money and hard work, blamed this and the fact that all his four sons were "irresponsible brats and junkies" on his late wife. He was recently married to a woman younger than his oldest children after a three-month previous "marriage" with another woman. Suppressing apparent anger toward his father, who Erick thought had little concern for his wife and children, self-destruction was an easy, if painful, way out and represented some form of vengeance for him.

Erick was basically obedient and sweet. Though he would rather be somewhere else than sitting in a small room doing nothing among strangers, he didn't try to escape the program his sister enrolled him in. He made an effort and claimed that he regretted what he did in the past and wanted to change. But because he was so restless, we had to separate him from the others and give him a special class on relaxation that allowed him to open up and talk about all his troubling thoughts. Under a mild hypnotic trance, he began to tell uncanny stories that referred to Kwan Yin, the goddess of mercy, in Mahayana Buddhist tradition. He apparently saw a mother figure in her, which was confirmed by his sister who said that all the sons were ritually "given away" to Kwan Yin when they were children. He still prays to her, calling her "ma", asking for help, comfort and protection.

Understanding his devotion to the goddess, the other instructor, who also happened to be Buddhist, excused himself to the other non-Buddhist participants and gave him a mantra, which referred to Kwan Yin as one of the bodhisattvas, recorded on cassette. A bodhisattva is a being that compassionately refrains from entering nirvana, a state of cessation of the cycle of birth and death, and thus all sufferings, in order to keep going back to the world to help other suffering creatures achieve salvation. The mantra said "Om mani padme hum." It was the mantra of great compassion. Literally, Om (the jewel in the lotus) and hum (a Tibetan who is typically an adherer to the Mahayana tradition) means that all is well in the universe, and the force of good and love is everywhere, competent in helping all beings out of any difficulty.

And the mantra worked. It was soothing and powerful at the same time. It was like a flood of water appeasing a raging fire. It effectively eliminated the distraction Erick was experiencing. He could now sit still and concentrate or quietly repeat the mantra for 45 minutes -- or perhaps forever if we didn't stop him. He chanted nonstop at times, an "idleness" he previously could barely manage for more than 15 seconds. He became calmer. What astonished me was after I, a skeptic then, recited the mantra for awhile, I suddenly felt a surge of deep and overwhelming emotion burst out of my chest and I couldn't stop the tears from streaming down my cheeks. For some inexplicable reason, I could vividly feel the pain and suffering Erick, and perhaps many others like him, were experiencing. I could feel the universal love and compassion of bodhisattvas who overcome their self-interest for the sake of others. And this vision of unconditional selflessness touched me to the very core. At one point I sensed Erick was quietly sobbing as well while chanting the mantra.

Some Tibetans combine the mantra with a visualization in which they see the six jeweled syllables on a turning wheel in the center of the heart, radiating rainbow-colored rays of the five wisdoms to bless all beings throughout the universe. The stream of the mantra connects with the constant vision of radiating colors and flows back and forth in the form of loving energy.

Other mantras can also be used in the same way. If the mantra is Jewish, Christian or Islamic, you can use it to create the same kind of positive stream in your mind. Surely you can combine it with a visualization of Moses, Jesus or the word Allah. Secularistic agnostics can even chant the word one, or perhaps even something as mundane as thank God it's Friday repeatedly. The difference perhaps will be in the lack of faith and meaning, and thus the positive energy associated with the act of chanting. The mantra can be in some cases, like Erick's, a powerful driving force in certain people of faith. Tibetans, whose lamas were known to be able to maintain a meditative state right to the end, believe such a practice will be especially valuable in the process of impending death. By learning to let it flow automatically, it will carry the spirit harmoniously through rough spots in the passage of death and between transitions.

The writer is the director of the Satori Foundation, a center for study and development of human excellence through mind programming and meditation techniques.