The Mantram: Keeping the Mind Steady
By Eknath Easwaran
By Eknath Easwaran
The popular etymology of the word mantram gives us some clue what it means to have the holy name at
work in our consciousness. It is said that mantram comes from the roots man, “the mind,” and tri, “to cross.” The mantram is that which enables us to cross the
sea of the mind. The sea is a perfect symbol for the mind. It is in constant
motion; there is calm one day and storm the next. We see only the surface, with
hardly any inkling of the strange creatures that lurk below or the tremendous
currents that sweep through the depths. From where we stand on this shore, the
far shore is so completely out of sight that we find it hard even to imagine
that there is another shore.
Most of us are aware of the motion of the mind only on the surface level of consciousness, where our thoughts jump like grasshoppers from one thing to another. Stray observations on our surroundings, old memories, plans for the future, a rush of elation over some good news, regrets over the past, a line from a popular song, worries about our problems, physical sensations, resentments towards those around us, and a craving for something to eat all follow one another in just a matter of minutes. In themselves, most of these thoughts are not actually harmful; a few of them may even be rather elevating. The trouble is that we have very little control over them. If you ask the thoughts, they would say, “This poor fellow thinks he is thinking us, but we are thinking him.”
Below the surface level of consciousness, what storms rage! Here are our deep-seated fears and hostilities, our cravings and conflicts. These are the deep divisions in our consciousness which make it difficult for us to concentrate, difficult to be loyal and steadfast. Often these divisions are at the root of serious physical ailments. They come to us in our sleep as nightmares, and all too often they plunge us into depression. Such storms sap our will and our vitality.
The vast majority of us see no way to change this situation; we have come to accept it as inevitable, as part of human nature. But let me assure you that this is not our real nature; it is only our conditioning. Deep within us we have immense reserves of will, loyalty, patience, compassion, and love; it is only that we do not know how to unlock these resources and bring them into full play in our daily lives. But this is something all of us can learn to do if we can gain control of our minds.
Control of the mind is something that has never occurred to most of us; to some it may even sound cold or rigid. Many people, especially those who are highly educated, feel that control would stifle the untrammeled freedom of their thoughts. But none of us question the need for control, for discipline, in mastering physical skills. Take eating, for example; it never even occurs to us what dexterity it requires simply to get food onto a fork and guide it to our mouths. Only when we see a baby learning to feed itself, getting more cereal on its face than in its mouth, do we realize that our effortless skill in eating comes from long years of practice. We have taught our hand to obey us. How would you feel if your hand suddenly refused to take orders from you, if it poured the coffee over your salad or fed you soup with the spoon upside down? This is exactly how we let our mind treat us, because we have never given it the proper training. When we want to concentrate, the mind generates a host of irrelevant worries and distractions. When we want to be dedicated, it brings in all sorts of conflicts and reservations. When we want to be loving, it drags out its little collection of trivial resentments and old hostilities. But when we learn to control the mind – to slow down its feverish pace, to welcome those thoughts we approve of and dismiss those that are negative – we will find what a sense of mastery this brings.
When most of us think of self-control, we think of something external. We may manage to keep from doing the wrong thing, but our mind is in turmoil; we may manage to keep from saying the wrong thing, but the words we’re thinking are far from parliamentary. Here it is not enough to tell ourselves, “Keep a stiff upper lip, old boy,” and put on a calm front. We can all have such control over the mind that calmness becomes our natural state. We can learn to turn our backs on our private satisfactions when necessary without a ripple of protest in the mind, and we can learn to function in the most trying circumstances without a trace of agitation. This is not control imposed from without; it is real mastery over our life.
The great mystics call this process calming or stilling the mind, and it means bringing every mental process under our complete control – not just on the conscious level, but in the unconscious too. For the vast majority of us, our will is operative only on the surface level. Most of us have little enough control even over our conscious mind, but the fears and hostilities and cravings that we are aware of are just the tip of the iceberg. In dreams and nightmares, we get some inkling of the strange world below the level of waking consciousness. Our fears and cravings are much stronger at this level, and we have virtually no control over them. The deepest levels of the unconscious are completely beyond our awareness, yet it is here that our problems have their taproot. In the deeper unconscious, instead of the many small fears that we are aware of on the surface level – the fear of going bald, for example, or the fear of overdrawing our checking account – there is fear itself. And here too, bound up in our unconscious conflicts, fears, and cravings, is an immense reserve of creativity, wisdom, and love.
Of course, we cannot get at the unconscious directly. We have to strengthen our will gradually and learn to extend our conscious control over deeper and deeper levels of the mind. As our will grows, we transform and harness the negative forces in consciousness, which unlocks all our vast potential. Finally, when we have eliminated all barriers between the conscious and the unconscious, we are able to move about on any level of consciousness fully aware, with our will completely operative. Mahatma Gandhi assures us that we can come to have such effortless mastery over our mind that even in our dreams a selfish thought will not arise. This is what stilling the mind means: laying to rest permanently every negative and selfish force in consciousness.
There is a popular misconception that to still the mind is to become a zombie or robot. It is just the opposite. The calmer and stiller the mind becomes, the more we can realize in our daily lives our true birthright of security, joy, and tireless energy to work for the welfare of those around us. Meher Baba, a well-known saint of modern India, used to say that a mind that is fast is sick, a mind that is slow is sound, and a mind that is still is divine. This is what the Bible means when it says, “Be still and know that I am God.”
In comparing the mind to the sea, I again recall those walks my wife and I used to take every day around Lake Merritt in Oakland. Usually the wind ruffled the water, and all we could see was the surface. But on rare mornings when there was no wind and the lake was absolutely calm, we could see right down to the bottom. Similarly, when the mind is stilled, we become aware of the divine presence, the Lord of Love, who is enshrined in the very depths of our consciousness. This does not mean seeing visions or hearing voices; it means that we have had direct, immediate experience that all life is one. When we have had this experience, we will be incapable of doing anything that violates this unity of life, and we will live for the welfare of all.
If we can take advantage of all the opportunities for repeating the mantram – while waiting, while walking, while falling asleep at night – the mantram can help keep the mind calm and secure. When we are afraid or angry or driven by a strong urge for our own personal satisfaction at the expense of those around us, the mantram can transform these strong emotions into a source of tremendous positive power and help us refrain from acting or speaking impulsively. This is not repressing these powerful emotions; it is using them rather than letting them use us. The mantram has the power to turn fear into fearlessness, anger into compassion, and hatred into love.
This excerpt is from Eknath Easwaran's book The Mantram Handbook.