In this edition of Ask the Expert, meditation teacher and senior Kripalu faculty member Bhavani Lorraine Nelson answers questions from readers.
My mind races when I sit. Can mantras help?
The reason I cover five or six different techniques in my Introduction to Meditation program is because not every type of meditation is effective for everyone. Some people thrive on simply sitting with the breath; for others, the breath is very ephemeral, so the mind has free rein to wander. Some concentration practices can be more engaging for the mind and help it to quiet down. Mantra is one of those—it can be helpful for people who find it difficult to sit simply with the breath.
Recent scientific research on mantra practice shows that it is very soothing to the nervous system because of the repetition. Setting an intention when repeating a mantra adds to the power of the practice. There are different mantras for different goals; practitioners can create a “family” of mantras to use at specific times and for specific purposes. It’s important, though, to have a primary mantra, just as you have a primary yoga practice. To find one, you might start with Thomas Ashley-Farrand’s book Healing Mantras. Choose a mantra that you’re drawn to and can imagine wanting to repeat often.
Is it “cheating” to visualize pretty patterns and concentrate on those, to stop “thinking”?
There are three stages of meditation: dharana (concentration); dhyana (mindfulness); and samadhi (absorption). Most of us begin with concentration exercises. What you’re doing is beginning to train the mind to stay with something. The only thing that varies among the different techniques is the object being concentrated on—a mantra, the breath, the feet if you’re doing walking meditation, or a visualization. The practice of visualization, which is an inner tratak, or gazing, is absolutely a legitimate concentration practice, but it does not mean simply letting “pretty patterns” flow through the mind. With visualization, you are still training the mind to stay with a chosen object. So get the image very clearly in your mind, and stay with that image throughout your entire sit.
The mind craves newness; with whatever practice you choose, you may feel like moving to another during your sit, but within a given session of meditation, it’s more effective to choose one practice and stay with it.
What exactly is metta meditation, and what are its benefits?
Metta, or loving-kindness meditation, involves the giving of blessings, and though the classic phrases come from the Buddha, to me it’s a very ecumenical practice. There are a number of slightly different versions of the four statements—the important thing is to find or create a version that works for you and use those phrases for yourself and for everyone else to whom you give the blessings. Here is one of the simplest versions:
May I be safe.
May I be happy.
May I be healthy.
May I live with ease.
Once you’ve offered the blessings to yourself, you offer them to others and finally to all beings, saying, “May you…” and “May all beings…” with each phrase.
The Buddha gave a list of 11 benefits of metta meditation, from peaceful sleep to a serene mind to protection from external dangers. I feel that loving-kindness meditation is a wonderful practice for our times, because our times are so chaotic. I recommend it to families to practice together, to caregivers to practice when they walk into a patient’s room, to teachers to practice while their students are taking a test. The biggest benefit of metta meditation: you get happier. It doesn’t matter to whom you’re giving the blessings, they come through you, so you get the benefit each time you repeat the phrase. Try it!
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