Category Archives: chanting

A wacky way into wordless wonder

Thoughts are formed by words that prompt images of places and times that pull our attention away from here and now, the only moment that actually exists. (All others are memories or imagined futures. Only in this moment are we alive and empowered to set intention, make choices, speak and take action.)

In Vipassana meditation practice, we stay in the present moment by focusing our attention on physical senses, most likely the breath, to release our tight hold on the mental formations that take us far away from this moment.

In many other traditions, Buddhist or not, the mind attains clarity by the repetition of sacred phrases, thus replacing the ongoing thinking-thinking words with ones formulated to create a sense of tranquility, awe, transcendence and even ecstasy. 

These repeated phrases may feel even more powerful when they are in a foreign language. Consider how when the Catholic Church decided to conduct services in everyday language rather than Latin, many worshipers felt a great loss. What was that loss if not for the sense of wonder and mystery from stepping out of the ordinary language used to negotiate everyday life?

Of course, everyday words can form imagery and ideas that expand our understanding and sense of awakening. Think of a wise teaching or a poem that has spoken to you, how it caused an internal shift — an insight that shook up the status quo and sparked empathy, a sense of connection and perhaps a glimpse into oneness that resonates inside you. But breaking out of the patterns of word-thoughts altogether can free our brains to open to this expanded state in a more direct and spontaneous way. You might think of it as the difference between being inspired by a photo of a sunset and experiencing the sunset itself, with all the senses engaged.

Sacred chants from any tradition are powerful for those so inclined. But what if you feel uncomfortable chanting or even silently repeating spiritual words? Perhaps saying them feels false to your sense of self, or feels like appropriation of another culture, or maybe you feel it could be some magical incantation and you don’t know what you’re accidentally conjuring up. Whatever the reason, if it’s not your thing, it’s not your thing. But what if you want to meditate but you find focusing on physical sensation doesn’t calm your busy thinking mind?

If you have tried various concentration practices that help you focus on the breath but you still feel like your drowning in your thoughts, you might try this and see if it works for you:

Replace those thought-laden daily pattern of words endlessly churning in your brain
with nonsense phrases that don’t activate any concerns.

Settle in to meditate, take a breath or two, releasing any tension, and
then repeat these words in your mind: Mumbo jumbo and gobbledegook.

Mumbo jumbo and gobbledegook? Good grief! What nonsense is this?

Exactly. It’s so silly it works! It’s an effective replacement for all the words that stream through the mind, weaving images, memories, worries and plans. Mumbo jumbo and gobbledegook — or any nonsense words you choose — are not entangling. No guarantee of ecstasy, but at least you may find a temporary release from the daily grind of regretting, wishing, calculating, puzzling, etc. that cause more anxiety, stress and tension in the body. And that’s no small benefit! The health effects of meditating have been long proven, and you can feel it for yourself.

This silly phrase is also a non-judgmental way to bring your attention back to the breath when you’re mind has wandered and you discover you’re entangled. Mumbo jumbo and gobbledegook may feel like an accurate description of all that thinking, and it’s a lighthearted labeling that can then transport you back to your focus on the breath without self-recrimination.

If you struggle to meditate or you have never meditated because you ‘think too much’, then maybe this is just wacky enough to work for you. Worth a try!

Rituals for the Winter Solstice

Yesterday was the solstice and because we have a western view, it is always the sunset that captures the sense of change, how the sun is as far south as it is ever going to set, and from here on until mid-June it will set further and further north.

Our next door neighbor has creatively captured these changes by drilling holes for small stakes to sit that mark the solstices and the equinoxes. For the past couple of years, we have come together to celebrate, but also to drill (which isn’t all that festive, but needed to be done.) But yesterday, no drill was needed. The holes were there, and there was something amazingly comforting in seeing that indeed, the shadow of the peg in the hole drilled last winter solstice still aligns perfectly with the anchor peg’s shadow.

winter-solstice-sunset500 winter-solstice-pegs-500

I brought various bells over, gifts of teachers and students over the years, and we each had a bell to ring out the sun as it set behind the mountain.

Then we toasted the solstice with wine homemade by my neighbor’s mother. And then, without the sun to warm us, we went back inside. A lovely joyous ritual.

This morning, I led my meditation class in a series of rituals to celebrate the solstice.

Beginning with our regular meditation, focused on the breath, I suggested noticing the empty breath, not to extend it or alter it, but to notice and honor it. We recognize it as part of a cycle — how there is: The inhale, the full breath, the exhale and the emptied breath. Noting each part of the cycle as it happens offers us a sense of awareness that we can apply to all that arises in our experience. We can notice details with more clarity when we give each our full attention as it comes into our field of experience. And like the breath, we can see how it is just as it is, unique unto this moment, but also how it is part of a cycle. Like all life!

Before class I had set up a center tray with:

  • A circle of unlit candles, one for each student, around a lit central candle.
  • A bowl
  • A bell
  • Natural things I found outside that are part of the season including a bare branch and some crumpled raggedy leaves (enough so each student can have one).

On hand I had some pens and bits of paper, and books for writing surfaces.

After our regular meditation session, I gave each student a crumpled leaf to contemplate and experience.

These leaves offer plenty of opportunity for the mind to state its preferences for a new supple green leaf, an autumnal festively colored leaf — almost anything but this sad looking specimen. But finding the subtle beauty in this too, as an artist would do, is part of our practice. And because we are a group of women ‘of a certain age’, finding beauty in what is faded, wrinkled and ‘past its prime’ is helpful. The Japanese term wabi sabi captures this ability to see beauty in such things.

Next, I pointed out the bare branch, and asked them to consider its ability to year after year release and renew. Then I passed out the papers, pens and books and asked the students to allow themselves to think of something within their own hearts and minds that is ready to be released, as easily as a leaf from a tree in late autumn. They wrote these down on their bits of paper and silently put them in the bowl. Then I set fire to the small pile of paper, and we watched the beauty of the flames, the paper darkening and curling, red glowing on the edges, and the curl of smoke arising, noting also its the sweet acrid odor suddenly there in the room. (If you had a large group this might be a bit of a bonfire, but our group was intimate enough that it was not a problem and didn’t set the smoke alarm off!)

Then I asked them each to take a moment to contemplate what quality they wanted to cultivate in themselves and in the world now. Then I lit a small candle from the larger one and said ‘I light this candle for….’ the quality that had come up for me. Then I rang a bell. When the bell went silent, each student, when moved to do so, lit her candle, stated her intention, and rang the bell.

Circled around our candles, we chanted to Om Mani Padme Hung chant. Although chanting is not central to the tradition I teach, this particular sangha has expressed the desire to incorporate some chanting into our sessions together, and I am happy to do so.

The Om Mani Padme Hung is said to express all the teachings of the Buddha in one expression.

Because we have just recently finished exploring the Paramitas, I found this teaching from Gen Rinpoche most interesting:

The six syllables perfect the Six Paramitas of the Bodhisattvas.

When you say the first syllable Om it is blessed to help you achieve perfection in the
practice of generosity.

Ma helps perfect the practice of pure ethics,
Ni helps achieve perfection in the practice of tolerance and patience.

Päd, the fourth syllable, helps to achieve perfection of perseverance,

Me helps achieve perfection in the practice of concentration,

and the final sixth syllable Hum helps achieve perfection in the practice of wisdom.

“So in this way recitation of the mantra helps achieve perfection in the six practices from generosity to wisdom.”

After we finished a lovely period of chanting we sat in silence for a few minutes, feeling the resonance of the chant, as if we were bells that had just been rung.

After that, I read my winter solstice poem in its original form (written in 1994, and this season adapted to Youtube video.)

And then, because this was a morning class on a bright sunny day, and it is the day after the actual solstice, I invited the students to go outside and stand facing the sun, closing their eyes and letting all the senses deepen in the experience of the warmth on the skin, the orange glow on the eyelids and any other sensations. After a couple of minutes we stepped into the shade, where we paid attention to the sudden coolness of the air, and then back into the room where the temperature felt warm by comparison.

Attuning ourselves to what is rather than wishing it away is central to Buddhist practice. What better opportunity than in the darkest time of the year when many of us struggle with our relationship to darkness, wishing for the light. But light is not absent. It is revealed. The stars shine brighter. We light a candle or a fire. And when we give ourselves the gift of really quieting down, our inner light shines.

We observe nature that greatest of all dharma teachers, and we see that letting go is a natural part of life. We too can release what is ready to be released.

We set our intention as to cultivate a beneficial quality, both in our own inner experience and in the way we relate to the world, making optimum use of whatever gifts we have to offer.

We give ourselves the gift of full attention as we circle deeper and deeper within through meditation and mindfulness practices. We chant in a way that deepens attention.

And we recognize that life is ever and always in flux. Can we dance in celebration of the ever-changing experience of being alive?

Wishing you every good blessing and joy in however you choose to celebrate the season.