In his classic work the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali describes yoga as “the progressive quieting of the fluctuations of the mind.” He then explains that through dedicated practice and the cultivation of detachment, we will stop identifying with the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that can cause us so much emotional pain—and we will open to an experience of our true self.
As Patanjali and so many other wisdom teachers have taught, who we really are goes beyond the labels and titles we often use to define ourselves. When asked “Who are you?” most people identify themselves in terms of their positions, roles, and relationships.
You might answer, “I am a math teacher,” or “I am a mother.” You may identify with where you live, saying “I’m a New Yorker.” You may also define yourself in terms of your political affiliations, your hobbies, or your culture.
Although we all have a tendency to identify ourselves with the external aspects of our lives, yoga encourages us to go deeper into our being and find the inner place that is beyond temporary anchors. This is the source of all energy and creativity in life.
Breaking free from the prison of memory
All thoughts can be classified as either memories or desires. When your mind is active, you're either thinking about something that happened in the past or you're anticipating something in the future. The Sanskrit word for memory or past impression is samskara, while the word for desire is vasana.
Impressions give rise to desires. If you see an advertisement for a flashy car, tropical vacation spot, or designer suit, an impression is born in your mind that may give rise to a specific desire.
As a result of this desire, you are compelled to take action, such as going to the car showroom, calling your travel agent, or visiting your local boutique. The action that emerges from the desire is called karma. This endless cycle of impressions giving rise to desires, giving rise to actions, resulting in new impressions, is the circuitry that keeps your mind perpetually active.
We can think of this circuit of samskara, vasana, and karma as the software of your soul. As long as you are thinking, your mind is churning through the cycle of action ... impression ... desire ... action ... impression ... desire. People frequently get caught in habitual ruts of thinking, believing that they're stuck in a situation because they can't imagine any other possibilities.
Meditation is a technology that enables you to temporarily escape this cycle. By gently focusing your attention (known in yoga as dharana) while innocently witnessing the thought-forms that come and go in your mind (dhyana), you enter into the gap between thoughts, glimpsing the domain of unbounded awareness (samadhi). Taking your mind from constricted to expanded awareness, meditation offers the most direct path to awakening to your own infinite potential.
Going beyond the mind
In the yogic tradition, meditation classically involves the use of a mantra, or primordial sound. The word mantra means instrument or vehicle of the mind. Mantras are used to take your awareness from engagement in the changing realm of life to immersion in the expanded state of being that is beyond beginnings and endings.
These vibrations, used for thousands of years to quiet mental activity, are pleasing, resonant sounds. Introducing a mantra temporarily interrupts the incessant association process that keeps the mind active, allowing you to glimpse the silent space between your thoughts. This starts the transformation of your identity from mind to spirit.
The best-known mantra is the sound Aum or Om, traditionally said to be the sound the universe makes when it manifests from potential to perceptual. Using the sound that represents the junction between local and the nonlocal can take your awareness back to the field of awareness that gives rise to the mind.
At the Chopra Center, we teach a mantra meditation technique called Primordial Sound Meditation, which assigns a person one of 108 mantras based upon the date and place of a person’s birth. This primordial sound can be used as a meditation vehicle to take you back through the doorway from individuality to universality, which is the ultimate goal of meditation.
A different type of meditation involves toning mantras aloud to create a healing resonance in the mind and body. There are specific mantras and vibrations associated with each of the seven energy centers in the body, known as chakras, the major junction points between consciousness and the body. Envisioned by the ancient seers as wheels or vortices of life force, they have sometimes been associated with major neural networks or hormonal systems.
Chakra Sanskrit Mantra
1st Root Muladhara Lam
2nd Sexual Svadhishtana Vam
3rd Power Manipura Ram
4th Love Anahata Yum
5th Expression Visshuddha Hum
6th Intuition Ajna Sham
7th Wisdom Sahaswara Aum
The Seven Spiritual Laws Mantra Meditation
You can activate each energy center by putting your attention in the location of the chakra and sounding the associated mantra aloud.
Sit in a comfortable, upright position. Close your eyes and visualize the site of the energy center. Take a deep breath and on the exhalation, chant the mantra in one long syllable. Feel the sensations in your body and notice the sense of alertness and calm in your mind after each mantra.
Envision energy flowing effortlessly from the base of your spine through the different energy centers and rising up through the top of your head. Notice how you feel in the meditation and how it affects you when you go about your daily activities.
Each center identifies a core human need. When the center is open, the energy that flows through the chakra allows you to meet those needs with less effort. If there is a blockage in that area of the mind-body system, energy becomes stagnant and your intentions are more difficult to actualize. You can activate each center by putting your attention in the location of the chakra and sounding the associated mantra aloud.
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