Illustration: The Magazine of Yoga
How Do The Things You Tell Yourself Taste?
You may not understand the source of your own problems. That’s what mantra is for.
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
Mantra is a Sanskrit word with many shades of meaning: “tool of the mind,” “divine speech,” and “language of the human spiritual physiology” are just a few of these.
It can help you deal with difficult or unpleasant circumstances, by helping you to see a course of action, or it can give you the patience and perspective to just “wait it out.” It can help you bring your wishes to fruition and create reality from your dreams.
Mantra is a dynamic, individual, nonviolent way to approach conditions you wish to change.
~Namadeva Thomas Ashley-Farrand, Healing Mantras
I was lucky enough to study with Namadeva Thomas Ashley-Farrand years ago during his first engagement at Kripalu.
At the time, I had the Sanskrit names of postures, and a few verses of the Yoga Sutra. I was very interested to try more. I’d been told Sanskrit is synesthetic – that apart from its sound, it also had a taste – and I was fascinated to find this was quite real.
I don’t mean that mantras tasted like food, exactly, but my tongue responded as though they did.
That my tongue responded, I guess is the point. For the first time I understood why languages are referred to as “tongues.” Germanic in origin, tunge is related to the Latin lingua, and I would guess that doesn’t just refer to the movement of the tongue when speaking. If it did, the word “taste” wouldn’t have so many interesting connotations.
For five days, we chanted for several hours each morning and resumed again after lunch. Before we “tried” each mantra, Namadeva told us a story about it: the stories about goddesses and gods that gave meaning to the syllables composing each mantra; he discussed each mantra’s applications and efficacy as well.
Looking for love? Want safe travels? Praying for health? Each of these had several appropriate mantras. We tried out mantras to soothe anxiety and mantras to lift depression, mantras for prevailing in difficult times, mantras for wealth and mantras for personal transformations of all kinds.
Though Namadeva helped us to pause and notice the tastes and shapes of the mantras in our mouths, he also instructed us not worry about choosing one. Instead, he said, it would feel as though a mantra was choosing us.
“For our time together, just chant them all. When you go to sleep the mantras will be chanting themselves inside you. Pay attention when you wake up – see if one of them has chosen you.”
What’s needed will choose you
As the hours and days went by, Namadeva taught us not to be anxious about the rightness or wrongness of what chose us.
He said even if we could not understand why a mantra would be the right one, it would be. “There are many meanings in mantras, and many subtle meanings,” he said. “And, besides, you might be wrong about what you need. You may not understand the source of your own problems.”
The reason one mantra tastes better than another is like drinking water when you’re thirsty, he explained. It wouldn’t taste good unless it was what was necessary.
Sure enough, all through the nights of the retreat, when I’d gone to bed after chanting all day, I felt the mantras “chanting themselves” in me, the same way I can feel the ocean when I fall asleep if I’ve been swimming in it all afternoon.
I woke up on the third morning with one of the twenty or so mantras we had been practicing singing in me. It was rolling along as I did my morning asana, as I ate my breakfast, as I brushed my teeth, as I walked to class. I was delighted.
The power of your native tongue
Let’s say you’re not on the verge of learning Sanskrit this week. Is there anything about mantra practice that might be helpful to you in the language you already know? We can follow Namadeva’s teaching, even in English, with the words we use everyday.
Notice the words you repeat to yourself most often. Are they supportive or critical?
There are the things we repeat to ourselves about how we look, about our chances of success, and about the intentions of other people. The language of these thoughts and others like them comes from interactions in our past powerful enough to reach into our day-to-day life and transform the breath we are taking in this very moment into an action or a belief that shapes our reality.
Isn’t that amazing? Stop and think about that for a moment: language can build an engine of those long-ago experiences so strong that no matter what is happening to us, no matter how varied the world is, we always see the same thing.
That is, unless we learn to use the power of language to undo its own spell, “to approach the conditions you wish to change.” You can start right now to use the language you already know in a way that empowers you and your intentions.
Preparing for four words practice
If you want to experiment with a practice, begin by noticing for a whole day: what are the beliefs and words that come most frequently to mind unbidden by you? What are the words that require no energy or thought on your part, what are the words that are just chanting themselves inside you?
Find a place to be alone – a place where you are comfortable that no one can hear you. Say the words of this belief aloud a few times in a row. How does this thought taste?
For me, the taste of my ingrained self-criticism is literally as bitter as the stories that set the binding in motion many years ago. The taste is so bitter I can hardly bear to say the words with my own tongue or hold the words in my mouth.
Awhile ago when I began to practice four words, I practiced some new, different beliefs aloud to see how they would taste.
There were some positive sounding mantras that I tried that actually didn’t taste too much better than the bitter words did! They were so sweet they made my teeth ache. Some of the things I tried were like a mouth full of rocks, and the texture of others was mushy. None of these were the right words for me. They didn’t match up to what I was thirsty for.
The thank you mantra
Then I stumbled on something that just came out in a very normal, unaffected and not suck-uppy tone of voice. I said it aloud to myself just the way I would have to my son or a friend “Thanks. I think you’re really giving this your best, and I’m really just so impressed by that.”
It’s a sort of odd combination of words but here’s the truth: it’s totally magic for me when I say them to myself in any situation.
The beliefs are actually fun to say, and when I’ve practiced sincerely and consistently, they come all by themselves and sing themselves inside me.
You might find my personal combination too sweet or too sour. In fact, that’s entirely likely. Your native tongue isn’t just your birth language, it’s your life language. You are the one who speaks it correctly.
All I’m suggesting is, if you try enough combinations, you will find the words that are just right. Or rather, they will choose you. The taste of it will be unmistakeable, first of all; also, they will sing in you.
And the effect of it will be magic if you persist.
Begin right now
One of the things that interests me is how simple it is for us to take the opportunity for practice seriously, without ever going off to some extraordinary place, without spending a dime, without doing anything particularly exotic.
I was deeply grateful for the privilege of studying with Namadeva; Sanskrit has often been powerful for me. If you want to try it, you can buy one of Thomas Ashley Farrand’s books of mantras and spend time trying them out.
Take a day away from your usual routine, go off somewhere and chant each of them 108 times once or twice, resting before you move on to the next. See which comes to you in your dreams.
Or allow yourself the pleasure of your native tongue, expressing the words you understand, the ones that have their own powerful stories in your history: the words you are thirsty for. Say them until they sing themselves in you, sweeping away the bitter taste of the words that dim your energy, wear you out, make you ill.
Speak to yourself with love.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.