“You don't see something until you have the right metaphor to let you perceive it.”
Robert Shaw

Chaos: Making a New Science

Learning a Mantra


A few weeks ago I decided to change the mantra I chant at the opening of my practice from its short-form version to its full version. Each verse in the full version is collapsed to a single line in the short version.

Because I was already established in the short version I had a familiarity with the underlying structure of the mantra and its narrative. When I looked at the full version I instantly noticed that there is a recurring pattern in it. I was tempted to approach it analytically: to intellectually figure out the structure and then efficiently commit the more concise pattern to memory instead of having to “memorize” the whole thing.

However something about this approach was turning me off. I did not want to make the experience of learning a mantra into an intellectual problem solving excercise. I also recognized two problems:

  1. Though I could see the structure clearly, I had difficulty describing the pattern intellectually.
  2. The last verse did not fit the pattern and looking at it with a pattern in mind creating a subtle friction … it, in relation to the pattern, was broken. I would have to remember how it is broken to memorize it as an exception from the pattern.

So I dropped this line of inquiry and decided to learn the mantra by chanting it … through repetition. For two weeks I chanted it with a paper in hand. All the time I could feel an internal dialogue:

  1. One voice pressing to figure it out sooner … so that I could commit it to memory and immerse myself in chanting with my eyes closed and hands on my heart space (instead of holding a paper with open eyes).
  2. Another voice offering softness and understanding to the intellectual voice and inviting me to “just keep chanting the mantra … trusting it will set roots”.

After two weeks I felt it held me and that I could set the paper down and chant from memory. I kept the paper next to me so I could turn to it if necessary … and I did, a couple of times, when I felt doubt and wanted to confirm my progress. After that it had me. I did not try to memorize it but it was there, available to me.

In retrospect, I believe the choice to take an experiential path instead of an intellectual path was valuable. I feel that it activated in me a different kind of learning. Though the intellectual craving has also been fulfilled, it happened indirectly. It left me wondering: Where did the resonance of sound go into my body? Where did learning and pattern recognition take place inside me? What did learning through reverberation do to me as a whole being?

I feel that learning this way allowed me to spend more time in an unknown dimension. I feel that an intellectual pursuit would have circumvented this immersion in the unknown. It was interesting to meet this potential in the context of chanting. A feeling of having traveled through unknown is familiar to me from asana practice. I can clearly observe changes in my physicality and breath, but I rarely (if ever) have an intellectual understanding of what has changed.

I find that these possibilities to practice being in unknown are a valuable opportunities on the mat that serve me well off the mat. It is like a muscle that develops allowing me to recognize and more gracefully inhabit not knowing in life.

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