Not long after the last article went public, I received an unrelated text message from a close friend asking me about day-to-day methods for managing anger. Working a public-facing job as I do, I’ve become somewhat expert at that, though that’s not to say I always do it perfectly. But this does return to our previous topic: calming the mind is a gradual process. Certain activities (or substances) may calm us down temporarily, but what we really need to do is build the habit of calm. It takes time and effort, but we can certainly get ourselves to the point at which calm is the norm and anger, fear, panic, anxiety, hatred, and so forth are exceptional. The very same process will eventually parch the seeds of those mental states — though that degree of restraint will take most of us far longer to achieve. If you are having difficulty with one of these afflicting mental fluctuations, please first re-read that last post linked above. For those of you who have already read it but want a brief reminder, it is this: awareness of your own mental and emotional patterns is already a huge step toward resolving those patterns, while knowledge of consistent effort over time as the only way of building healthier patterns is a tonic to despair and frustration.
But if you’re not already a meditator, what are the options for putting this into practice? More to the point of my friend’s question, what can be done during normal daily life to cut these harmful patterns off before they really get moving? In answer to these questions, here is a three point plan for managing these afflictions in our lives. Note that these are not graduated steps, but concurrent aids and constant tools. They all work best when used in tandem and daily.
This one isn’t easy in isolation, but makes a necessary adjunct to the following two. This method simply consists of paying attention to your own mind and behavior. Granting that this isn’t always easy when in the midst of anxiety or anger, you can usually spot the moment your response is triggered. Do not discount how important this is! While a seemingly small realization, finding that split second of transition from self-controlled functioning to semi-conscious adrenaline beast is a big step toward creating the sort of hairline crack into which the wedge of free will may be inserted.
Once you’ve discovered this transition point, start inquiring into it: What does that transition feel like? What are the physiological and psychological signs of it? How do you know when it has gone beyond the point of no return? For example, when my anxiety is triggered, I immediately feel the muscles in my upper back and neck tensing up. This is my moment to stop the cycle. If I allow it to continue, I will feel a flutter move through my body (likely the moment when adrenaline begins to pump into my system in a big way) and I begin to feel angry; I’m more of a “fight” than “flight” sort of person, so I prepare for a conflict which now feels inevitable. I have found over time that I can catch myself here, as well, though the space is much smaller. If I do not, my vision will blur and everything will appear as if I were looking through a red filter. At this point, I just have to ride it out and mitigate as best I can. Your pattern may be similar, but could be quite different; the important thing is to keep your wits looking for your own cues and make note of them. The more familiar with them you become, the better able you’ll be to use them in future instances.
Japa is a practice common to Yogis of all stripes, as well as religious Hindus and Buddhists. Simply, it is the mental repetition of a mantra. Tantric and yogic literature love their folk etymologies, analyzing the roots of words (usually in Sanskrit) in such a way as to draw out their esoteric significance. One such interpretation of “mantra” is “man” + “tra”, with “man” being short for manas or mind, and “tra” meaning “protector”; ergo, mantra means “protector of the mind”.
There are two principle ways of applying japa which for convenience I’ll call sitting japa and walking japa. Sitting japa is a form of simple concentration, or contemplative prayer for those of a devotional bent, in which you sit in a comfortable, straight-backed position, and regulate your breathing by repetition of a mantra. The procedure is as follows:
- Sit cross-legged on the floor, using a small cushion as a wedge beneath your sit-bones.
- Close your eyes or fix them in a relaxed manner upon a single point (a dot on the wall, the image of a holy personage or deity, a candle flame, the burning tip of a stick of incense, whatever).
- Breathe in by pushing your belly out and out by relaxing your belly; do not suck air in or force it out, as this causes further tension and can trigger anxiety. Try to keep your in and out breaths the same length without straining. Take a few such breaths to get a good rhythm and to begin breaking down tension.
- Repeat your mantra inwardly; depending on the length of the mantra, repeat it one or two times at a leisurely pace as you inhale, then the same number of times as you exhale. Keep your breathing pace regular and relaxed; adjust mantra repetitions to your breath, not the other way around.
- Use a rosary or japa-mala to count off your repetitions; a standard mala has 108 beads, which is traditional, though 18, 33, 54, or other symbolic numbers are suitable. Orthodox Christians sometimes use a knotted rope or string to count off prayers; this also works if you do not have a mala. Some yogis also use their right thumb to count off the joints of their little, ring, and middle finger of their right hand, equaling nine; the thumb of the left hand can then be used to count off each group of nine on the joints of all four fingers equally 12 rounds or 108 total repetitions. Choose the method which is most suitable to your situation. Counting is not strictly necessary, but is a good way of ensuring that you spend around ten minutes on the practice; you can also set a timer for 10 or 12 minutes, or start with 5 minutes and work your way up. Don’t sweat such details; use what aids you and discard what gets in the way.
While the goal is to concentrate your mind on the mantra alone, do not strain at it; if you find your mind straying from the mantra, gently return your attention to it and continue. Over time, this will become more natural and you will have less trouble with it. Even with some experience, however, you will have days of distractions and will have to catch yourself from time to time. Don’t worry over it; just keep going.
I recommend sitting japa once or twice a day, morning and/or evening; it can be done as a lead-in to the simple meditation given below.
Once you are accustomed to your mantra in sitting japa, you can bring it with you into your every day life. The procedure is very simple: when you have no need to be focusing on any other mental task, chant the mantra inwardly. That is, when you are not writing, speaking, or otherwise having to focus on anything else, repeat the mantra in your mind. If sitting at a desk waiting for the next task, or taking a leisurely walk, you may wish to join the mantra with your breath in a relaxed way; if walking at a brisker pace or something of the sort, you may instead repeat the mantra on its own cycle regardless of breath. In any case, make the mantra the centerpiece of your mental environment; return to it as soon as a task is done.
Walking japa can be a massive help in driving the wedge of free will into an apparently intractable mental event; not only does it give you mental breathing room throughout the day, you may also begin japa the moment you notice an internal triggering event. It may not entirely halt the pattern, especially early in your practice, but it will still provide a little distance which can be key in extricating yourself from the situation before it gets out of hand or at least reminding yourself that you have a choice in how you respond. Again, the idea is short-term interruption and long-term weakening of old patterns and the building up of new, healthier patterns.
Choosing a Mantra
A mantra is traditionally given by one’s teacher, but this is not always an option. Here, I present a small selection of mantras suitable for anyone’s use. Though any of them can be further empowered by a Satguru’s blessing, they do not require a Guru.
Om Gam Ganapataye Namah (pronounced something like “om gung guh-nuh-puh-tuh-YAY nuh-muh-huh) is the seed mantra of Ganapati (Ganesha). In addition to aiding in concentration, this mantra is helpful in removing obstacles, opening pathways, and pacifying local spirits.
Om Namah Sivaya (pronounced “om nuh-muh she-VAH-yuh) is the core mantra of Lord Siva, the Absolute Consciousness. He is known by many names and titles, including Bholenath, the Lord Who is easily pleased, and the name Siva itself means “auspicious” or “good”.
Om Amrta Tejahara Hum (pronounced “om um-rit-uh TAY-juh-HA-ruh HOONG”) is one of the mantras of the Buddha Amitabha; it is said that anyone who faithfully chants his mantra will be reborn in his Pure Land wherein it is significantly easier to attain enlightenment. Other versions include the Japanese Namo Amida Butsu, Namomitabhaya Buddhaya, and Om Amitabha Hrih.
Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me is suitable for Christians; it is known as the Jesus Prayer and is commonly used for contemplative prayer among Orthodox Christians.
While the above include Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian options (and many other religious traditions present possibilities, including the Sh’ma Yisrael of Judaism) it is not necessary to be a “believer” to make use of this technique. Choose the mantra above which resonates most with you, or another one from your own tradition and get to work; for the present purposes, it is the capacity of mantra practice to aid in concentration which is most important.
3: Zazen & Shikantaza
Shikantaza, Japanese for “just sitting”, is perhaps the simplest form of meditation there is. But simple isn’t easy! For most people who try to jump right into it, such a practice can be a form of physical and mental torture. The goal of shikantaza, insofar as there is a “goal” at all, is to simply remain aware; over time, obstacles to awareness dissolve on their own simply through the power of relaxed consciousness of them. But we must work our way there.
- Sit as you did before while doing japa. (Note that you may use your japa session as a lead-in to this meditation.)
- Breathe naturally; if your breath gradually changes during the practice, that is okay, but avoid sudden shifts if you can.
- Keep your eyes open and relaxed; with your neck straight, let your gaze drift down so that you are looking at the floor about three feet in front of you or else at a blank patch of wall, an icon of your choice, candle flame, burning tip of incense, or any other place to rest your vision. You may also close your eyes, keeping them either slightly down-turned (if you are stressed or anxious) or slightly up-turned (if you are drowsy or weary). Different sources will tell you that one or other of these is the “right” way to do things; try both and decide for yourself which gets you the better result.
- Once you are settled in, begin to mentally watch your breaths. Mentally follow your breath as it enters your nose, flows into your sinuses, then back and down into your lungs; follow it as you exhale, rising out of your lungs, through your trachea and sinuses and back out in front of your chest.
- With each cycle of in-and-out, count; once you reach seven or nine (choose in advance which you will use), start again at one. Inhale, exhale; one. Inhale, exhale; two. Inhale, exhale; three. And so forth. There is no need to count the total number of cycles or track how many times you reach the full count before starting over.
- As you continue this counting, allow any thoughts, emotions, or sensations to simply arise and set of their own accord. Notice them and continue breathing and counting. If you find yourself having been drawn away from your breath and your counting by any given thought or sensation, simply acknowledge it, return to your breath, and start over at one.
It is a good idea to establish a specific period of time for practice. A traditional method is to watch the tip of a stick of incense and continue practice until it burns itself out. Of course, setting a timer and placing it out of sight so that it does not distract is also a possibility.
Again, I must emphasize that none of these methods work overnight — though I don’t discount the possibility of certain results coming quickly. What is most important is consistency over time. Those two factors in tandem can do great things, but if either is neglected the whole thing falls apart. If all of this is new to you, begin with any of the above three points and add the others in as you feel comfortable doing so; I find that japa is the easiest place to start, but begin wherever feels most natural for you. Most importantly, wherever you start — keep going!