A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Ashram: A creative essay on mantra, meditation and head injuries

Parameshwari, Australia

I have been doing japa on my diksha mantra for years and I still cannot see my symbol. My meditation practice is frequently disturbed by turbulent emotions and unenlightened thoughts. I would grade my practice as one that is still using training wheels, and I do an interesting variation on Yoga Nidra which I call Yoga Nod. But all the texts and teachers say persevere, and I have and I do and I will. However, in the past I have not had much faith and belief in the practice of japa mantra. I do it because it's sadhana and they say it 'works' eventually (in how many lifetimes? I ask).

Well, I did have an experience on my way to the ashram that has given me hope for my japa practice and also raised many questions in my mind as to the nature of mantra, its power to alter the state of consciousness and the effect this may have on the body's self-healing mechanism.

The experience I had was not humourous. I was in a bus accident whilst on my way to Lumbini in Nepal. I lost consciousness, received a sizeable gash to my forehead, lumps to my skull, and extreme bruising down the right side of my body. I was quickly taken to the local doctor and it was whilst I was laid out on a wooden seat, ten concerned Nepali's looking on as the doctor stitched my head wound, that I experienced a state of consciousness that I believe aided an extremely speedy recovery.

Instinctively, I had started to chant the Mahamrityunjaya mantra, the image of my guru in my mind's eye, and the voices that chant this mantra on Saturday nights at BSY in my mind's ear. My fear subsided; I was relaxed, calmed and centred, yet aware of my surroundings, and felt little pain at the time. Further, I suffered no concussion or shock afterwards. My body healed within days. How is this so?

Sanskrit is not just any old alphabet. Tantric writers refer to the letters as matrikas – 'little mothers of the universe'. Each letter is attributed to be a vocalisation of the very Self, immutable and undestroyable, akshara. Paramahamsa Satyananda says that the sounds of the letters were realised by sages and rishis during the stages of deepest meditation, and that mantra is the mystical combination of those sounds.

The aspect of sound we are interested in is its frequency or vibration. The image of an opera singer adjusting the pitch or frequency of his voice to shatter a champagne glass comes to mind. Similarly, our minds are affected by sound vibrations, our minds can vibrate with the sound of a mantra which affects our mental energies.

The science of mantra and its effects is called Mantra Shastra. There are the one syllable bija or seed mantras that stimulate a particular chakra, as well as hymns of mantra such as Saundarya Lahari. There are mantras given by guru for spiritual evolution and mantras to cure snake bite. From the mundane to the esoteric, mantra covers all bases.

The Mahamrityunjaya mantra which I had started to chant is a healing mantra said to ward off accidents and death, to act as a weapon against disease and to have a curative effect. It is a moksha mantra and Lord Shiva's own mantra, best chanted with sincerity, faith and devotion. My fears generated an intensity of feeling I had never experienced before during chanting, in fact rarely in my life. Even though the Upanishads say: Mananaat traayate iti mantraha, “mantra protects he who meditates on it or repeats it...”, my western rationality and skepticism get the better of me: there's got to be more to it than sound vibrations!

Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, (1.27,28,29) state that "Through the repetition of the mantra Om and meditation on its meaning, knowledge of the atman and the destruction of obstacles to that knowledge is obtained." This is the practice of ajapa japa. Paramahamsa Satyananda elaborates, saying that “mantra itself acts as a pathway between normal states of consciousness and superconsciousness”. It seems that mantra and meditation are two sides of the same coin. Meditation is the depot and mantra is the fast lane or the highway there.

Patanjali goes on to say in the next sutra (1.30) that the obstacles to knowledge of the atman are failure to concentrate and unsteadiness in concentration. This is the key. Mantra can induce concentration; it can make the mind one-pointed and thus another state of consciousness can be experienced.

By channelling all my mental and emotional energies into the repetition of mantra and focusing on the image of the guru, I believe I was able to achieve a state of 'healing relaxation'. It is sound and form, mantra and yantra, which are the wings upon which the consciousness can fly. Of course the experience I had was not within my conscious control. I did not premeditate to achieve another state of consciousness.

What was the other state? I feel it was a deep state of Yoga Nidra. I felt like the calm eye of a tornado, aware of my surroundings but very relaxed. I felt no pain. Paramahamsa Satyananda says that, “During Yoga Nidra, liberation of the healing energies inherent in the entire psychophysiological framework seems to occur.” This concurs with my experience as I healed remarkably fast.

Today medical science is realising the importance of relaxation and techniques to induce this state, as stress-related diseases are becoming more prevalent. But what research is being done on the effects of deep relaxation on patients admitted to the Emergency Ward of a hospital? That is, Yoga Nidra as First Aid. I am convinced that my intense concentration on sound and form induced a state of deep relaxation that allowed my body's own healing mechanisms to do their job optimally. The casualty ward of a hospital would be a very different place if relaxation was seen to be a vital factor in first-aid care!

My experience at Lumbini has given me much to think about. A question uttered by the Buddha as he left his birthplace comes to my mind: “For what confidence do we have in life when death is ever at hand?” I try to meditate on this. In fact, since the accident I've been doing japa with my mantra with renewed enthusiasm, hope, faith and belief.