How Mantras and Memorization Benefit the Brain February 01, 2018 18:30
I spent nearly a week memorizing a new mantra. Most of the mantras I work with are in Sanskrit, but I came across a Tibetan mantra that resonated with me. The Guru Rinpoche mantra is only eight lines long, but learning it was slow-going and challenging. I don't read the Tibetan language (same is true for Sanskrit), so memorizing a transliterated text is a lot like learning a language within another language, and as a visual learner, it offered a new set of challenges for me. The sounds were new. The combinations of syllables were clumsy and awkward at first. From the outset, memorizing eight short lines seemed very daunting.
I work as a tutor at a local high school, so in between student sessions, I listened to an audio recording of a lama chanting the mantra over and over again (thank goodness for YouTube). My commute home is usually 30-45 minutes long, depending on traffic. Each afternoon I chanted two lines of the mantra while driving home. On Monday, I worked with the first two lines. Tuesday, the second pair, etc The chanting was very slow at first. There were long pauses and hesitations as I worked to find the right sounds in the right order. I had to remain intensely focused, not only on driving, but on reciting each line over and over again. Slowly, over the course of the week, I was able to chant the entire mantra. It required time, effort, and painstaking dedication, but it was worth it. Not only do I have another sound tool to play with in my energetic repertoire and practice, but I did something good for my brain, too. Here are some of the benefits of memorization:
* Mental Flexibility and Agility
Just as consistent, challenging exercise benefits the body, memorization is a useful way to stimulate the brain. Functioning like "mental gymnastics," memorization makes the brain more quick, agile, and flexible.
* Improved Neural Plasticity
Medical research has found that rote memorization benefits the hippocampal foundation, which is crucial for episodic and spatial memory in humans. In a recent Irish study of participants aged 55-70, researchers concluded that repeated activation of memory structures in the brain promote neural plasticity in the aging brain. In other words, we need to use it, or we're going to lose it.
* Improved Focus and Creativity
Working memory involves storing, focusing attention on, and manipulating information for a relatively short period of time. According to Paula Fiet of Weber State University, working memory is essential for learning to occur. Completing exercises (such as memorizing a new mantra) that are aimed at building short-term memory benefits our capacity to learn and to focus.
Working memory is also important for creativity. Dutch researchers have concluded that those who learn to focus and develop their working memory through memorization tasks can free their mind in order to pursue other creative tasks.
* Delayed Cognitive Decline
Researchers from the National Institute on Health and Aging (NIHA) found that adults who engaged in short bursts of memory training maintained higher cognitive function delays. Memorization and other memory training exercises can delay cognitive decline for 7-14 years. So, memorizing mantras can help you stay sharp for years to come.
Over the next forty days or so, I plan to work with this new Guru Rinpoche mantra along with a mala (not while driving, though :). I like the idea of starting the New Year with a new mantra and a new sadhana. I'm looking forward to seeing where this mantra will take me in my practice--how it will benefit my subtle body as well as my mind and body. I'll be sure to keep you posted. In the meantime, find a mantra that resonates with you, and commit it to memory.
the data mentioned in this post came from the following source:
*"In Praise of Memorization: 10 Proven Brain Benefits" (http://www.bestcollegesonline.com/blog/in-praise-of-memorization-10-proven-brain-benefits/)
Beauty...Beads...Breath: Practical Alternatives to a Chanting Practice October 05, 2017 19:43
I have a friend who loves malas, and she's purchased several Middle Moon Malas and requested various custom designs; however, she's not big on chanting. She recently asked me if chanting mantras was required. She was concerned that she was misusing her malas by not incorporating a japa or chanting practice. My response--absolutely not, and I offered her the following simple alternatives.
* Setting an Intention
Setting an intention or offering a dedication at the start of a yoga class can add even more meaning and significance to the practice. Similarly, setting an intention before donning a mala can be a powerful part of a yoga or meditation practice. It can serve as a meaningful reminder throughout the day, and it can help bring your meditation or mindfulness practice from the cushion or mat into your daily life.
Let's say you set an intention to be more present, more focused on the here and now. Each time you catch a glimpse of the beads around your neck or resting on the corner of your mat, each time you feel the beads against your skin or feel the weight of the mala as it shifts and moves across your body, as you shift and move throughout your day, these all serve as reminders of your intention. Be here. Be present. Be aware of this moment.
My intention with Middle Moon Malas has always been to create designs that are both functional and beautiful. Many of my customers tell me that they frequently receive compliments on their unique designs. Each compliment, each inquiry can also be reminders--be present--be here--be in this moment. No chanting necessary.
*Working with Breath
Another alternative to chanting is to incorporate a breath practice. Variety is important and valuable to just about anything in life. Just as practicing the same physical poses over and over can lead to repetitive stress and injury, mindlessly chanting the same mantra can lead to boredom and lack of focus.
There are no benefits to simply repeating or chanting a mantra--sharp focus and clarity of mind are essential to any meditation practice. Sometimes it's good to shake things up and add something different to the practice.
While I do have a daily recitation practice, sometimes I'll sit with my mala and let the breath be my focus. My right hand thumb and second finger on the first bead next to the guru, I take a long, slow inhalation. At the peak of the inhale, my fingers slide to the second bead, and I release a long, slow exhalation. One inhale, one exhale at a time, shifting to the next bead during the pauses between breaths. Again, no mantra, no chanting required. The breath becomes the focal point--the beads become tactile and visual reminders to remain present. Each sustains the other--to remain present--to breathe--and to be.
As with any practice, it's important to do what resonates with you. If chanting works for you, great! If not, great! You have options and choices. The important point is to cultivate a meaningful practice that is beneficial to you and that works for you.
One, Two, Three: Counter Beads and the Purposes They Serve September 06, 2017 18:20
What are counter beads, and why do some malas have them? A standard mala contains 108 beads; however, some malas include counter beads as well. These beads aren’t randomly placed extras. A japa practice is similar to a road trip, and counter beads can play an important part along the path of this mindful, meditative journey.
One of the primary purposes of counter beads is they act as rest stops or pause points in a meditation practice. Just like the brief pause at the peak of an inhalation, and the suspension at the base of an exhalation, counter beads can act as natural pauses in the recitation practice. They give practitioners a moment to hold space and take stock of the quality of the practice in that moment. The point of a japa practice isn’t simply to barrel through 108 recitations of a mantra. It’s not a race, and there isn’t a trophy waiting for us at the end of the finish line. A mantra practice is about training the mind; it’s about aligning and elevating our energetic frequencies so that we can become our best selves, and experience a sense of connection and interconnection with others and our world. There needs to be a balance between effort and rest, so in our practice, when our inner world is calling, counter beads remind us, “Please hold.”
Another important purpose that counter beads offer is they act as mindfulness markers in the practice. Much like street signs or mile markers on a highway, counter beads remind us to stay present, focused, and alert in our practice. They encourage us to drive safely and to stay on course as we navigate the circuit of our mala. They help prevent our minds from wandering away from our intentions, and they prevent us from getting caught up in a tangle of mental chatter. Counters help to gauge both time and distance in our practice, and they can ease the restless monkey mind when it asks, repeatedly, “Are we there, yet?”
Finally, counter beads can add a little bling, shimmer, and character to the mala and to the meditative journey. Much like fuzzy dice, a bumper sticker, or fancy detailing on a car, jazzy counter beads add a little bit of extra sparkle to help bring balance to the design of a mala. As a designer, I like to add counter beads that are different sizes, shapes, colors, or textures to break up the pattern of the design. Sometimes, it’s just a single counter bead after the 54th bead, or midpoint. Some malas include counters after bead #27 and #81, marking the first quarter and the last quarter of the design. For other pieces, I incorporate three counters, dividing the mala into four equal segments. Counters can be aesthetically pleasing to the eye or to the touch, offering visual or tactile interest to a design, which, as an added bonus, can inspire a meditator to practice, or simply make the journey more personalized, pleasing, or fun.
Whether you prefer a mala that includes counter beads or not, a japa practice is a meaningful journey, and having a mala that motivates you to practice and that reflects your intentions will help you grow and enjoy the ride.
Completing the Circuit: Adding Variety to a Mantra Practice September 05, 2016 14:03I like variety, as well, so sometimes, I chant while sitting on a meditation cushion. Sometimes, I chant silently. Sometimes, I write out the mantra in a small notebook. Sometimes, I chant aloud while driving, but my favorite way to practice is to chant while walking.
One Breath, One Bead at a Time. July 04, 2016 16:04
The Zombie Apocalypse is real. For 25 years, I taught high school English. For many of those years, I felt trapped in a perpetual cycle of planning lessons, creating tests and essay assignments, grading papers, and attempting to manage and meet the academic needs of students crammed in over-crowded classrooms. I often felt confined by the clock and by the ever-present and perpetually-increasing demands that a data-driven system thrives on—the almighty standardized test scores.
I felt stressed—all the time—and I spent very little time in the present moment. This constant striving, doing, rushing, pushing, and grasping for the future or ruminating and worrying about the past kept me from meeting the needs of my students and taking care of myself. It also kept me out of the present moment, and it prevented me from enjoying my life. My students never really knew who I was—and neither did I.
For a quarter of a century, I was caught up in a trance, and yoga and meditation gradually helped me break the spell and encouraged me to find balance and purpose in my life.
My first experience with yoga and meditation occurred when I was a freshman at Butler. A guest speaker came to our Physical Education/Health class. My fellow classmates and I were crammed into a small classroom/storage room, and many of us giggled our way through the guided meditation followed by a brief asana practice in the gym. This was not an ideal environment to explore the benefits of meditation and yoga, and it certainly didn’t leave a lasting or accurate impression on me.
I revisited meditation when I was pregnant with my daughter in 1994, and in 2000, started regularly attending a yoga class at a local gym. Progress was glacially slow—but gradually, very gradually, I started to find a respite from the 10,000 distractions and thoughts that blocked my path, and I started to connect and reconnect with myself.
Stilling the constant mental chatter in meditation was a big challenge in the beginning—and still can be at times, even now. But with consistent practice, and, ideally, after an hour of asana practice, it’s much easier to climb inside the present moment. Memories, thoughts, and feelings still rise to the surface, but it’s easier now to briefly acknowledge them, allow them to drift away in order to make room for the spaces between thoughts.
Yoga, too, has helped. It has helped me focus on my breathing—and to bring my awareness out of the mind and into the body—even for just a little while. Yoga also allows me to sit more comfortably when I’m meditating—and to sit for longer periods of time.
In recent years, I have added a mantra practice with malas to enhance my meditation and yoga practice. Using a mala gives me a tactile anchor that keeps me rooted and grounded in the here and now. Each bead becomes a fresh focal point, a new beginning, ushering in a new moment. Each inhalation, each exhalation, each repetition of the mantra welcomes now, and now, and now.
Ultimately, my yoga and meditation practice has saved my life—it has helped me find balance and perspective, and it has prevented me from falling off the precipice of perpetual busyness and disappearing into the abyss of the living dead.
I’ve since retired from teaching full-time. I still tutor part-time, and working with students one-on-one allows me to give them my undivided attention—to be fully present. I also teach and practice yoga, and along with running a small business, I still remain very busy, but I am no longer a slave to busyness. I am living my life on my own terms, and I am living my life one moment at a time—one bead at a time.
Honoring Those Who Have Come before You June 01, 2016 08:00
My introduction to a meditation practice was not dramatic, by any means. My japa roots are humble ones; I fell into this practice by a combination of happenstance, intuition, and luck. I didn’t have a guru or a spiritual teacher to show me the way. My spiritual teachers were found mainly in books and Sounds True courses on cassette tapes (later CDs): Louise Hay, Alan Watts, Marianne Williamson, Eckhart Tolle, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Don Miguel Ruiz, Caroline Myss, and Carl Jung. Each book, each lecture was like an individual bead on a sutra—one following the other—each one connected and interconnected—leading me to exactly where I was meant to go…and be.
I started to meditate when I was pregnant with my daughter, Elise. At the time, I was naïve enough to think that meditation would help me transcend the pain of childbirth. I never dreamed that it would become a lifelong habit that would help me navigate the joys and challenges of life, and that it would become an absolute necessity for the demands of parenthood.
In the winter of 1994, I made weekly trips to a small home in Broad Ripple that had been converted into a meditation center. I remember our shoes lined up in neat rows by the door, the faint smell of jasmine incense, sunlight streaming through partially opened blinds, and that purple maternity Barneyesque sweat suit that I wore (It was the only thing comfortable enough for me to sit and meditate in). I was full of hope and purpose, and I was eager to welcome a new life as well as a new practice into my own life.
I persisted, sitting every evening in front of a small votive candle on the floor of my daughter’s freshly-painted nursery. After she was born, sitting in meditation became more sporadic, but it still happened—and life also happened. However, I found new teachers to lead the way—poets, this time: Li-Young Lee, Jane Hirschfield, Gary Snyder, Dorianne Laux, Ted Kooser, Rita Dove, Charles Simic, Rumi, Dōgen…
I bought my first mala before I knew what it was for—or how to use it. I knew they were sacred, like the rosaries I had seen my mother and grandmother use, and I knew that they were connected to meditation and spiritual practices, but that was all. I was drawn to the black specks on the creamy white bodhi seeds—a Moon and Stars Mala. It called to me, and I answered. For a long time, I kept it in my home office; it shared space on a table with a small candle and a statue of Kwan Yin. I liked the feel of the seeds between my fingers—and sometimes I wore it to school.
Eventually, all of the pieces of the puzzle came together with the help of many more teachers. This time, real-live human beings were coming into my life to enhance my practice, and I was very grateful for their arrival. I was able to link my meditation, yoga, and mantra practices together, integrating body, mind, and spirit.
What started as naïve curiosity had blossomed and deepened into a sincere, heart-driven practice and a desire to share this practice with others. I love creating and designing custom malas for others, never forgetting how my own practice began, and honoring the teachers (literary and real-life) who helped me along the way. My meditation practice started before I gave birth to my daughter, but what I didn’t realize is that, all along, this practice was helping me awaken, helping me realize my potential, and helping me serve others in a meaningful way.
From Rut to Groove: Diving Deeply into the Heart of a Mantra Practice May 10, 2016 12:27
Repeating a mantra is like chanting the rhythm of your own heart. A mantra practice is a journey that spirals inward to the center of your capital “S” self. According to the Zen master Huang Po, our true nature “shines through the whole universe.” It is our “all-pervading radiant beauty,” and a regular mantra practice can be a vehicle to access and appreciate that shimmering, radiant beauty at the heart of the Self.
I’ve been exploring the adventures of a regular mantra practice for nearly two years. I’ve embarked on various forty-day sadhanas with different mantras—logging patterns, side-effects, and reactions much like an anthropologist or biologist in the field jots down notes and observations. After several months, I’ve finally hit a wall. Granted, my life has picked up momentum—I’ve grown busier with “have to’s” and domestic obligations. I have bills to pay, classes to teach, workshops to take, malas to create, yada, yada, yada.
Last night I found myself hurrying to complete a round of the long version of the Gayatri so I wouldn’t miss the opening scene of Penny Dreadful. That’s pretty bad (on many levels). When my mantra practice becomes another item on my checklist to complete, I know it’s time to make a change.
In the midst of managing the distractions and obstacles that life is hurling my way, I’d grown weary and bored with chanting, and my practice had become stale and mechanical as a result. Fortunately, a mantra practice is not a hindrance; it’s designed to help us navigate life’s challenging, murky waters.
My resistance is an indication that I’m ready to dive more deeply. At the surface, a mantra practice is the parrot-like recitation of spiritual formulas—the memorization of Sanskrit words—the tactile sensations of beads sliding between finger and thumb. However, this is just the surface—there is much more waiting to be discovered at the heart of the practice and within the heart of the Self.
Boredom, anger, and restlessness had settled into my practice —and while it’s easy to blame the busyness of my life, I know that’s not entirely true. It’s time to start listening to my heart—to begin to pay attention—to really pay attention to what I’m feeling—to be patient—to sit with those feelings–to allow them to surface—without judgment—without repressing them—to hold space for my heart to speak—to make time to listen and to honor its messages.
For now, I’ve suspended the forty-day sadhana experiments with supplemental mantras. I’m focusing my attention solely on the long Gayatri—rededicating—recommitting to my practice—but I’m also refining my intention and attention. I’m not simply reciting words and counting beads. I’m listening to my heart, I’m reconnecting to this practice, I’m trusting that it will take me where I am supposed to go, and I’m diving deeper, escaping the rut and plunging into the groove.
Seizing the Present Moment: One Bead at a Time July 08, 2015 09:07
Like clockwork, the first warm July days bring one of my favorite sounds—that spiraling whir of cicadas grinding away the summer in the trees. Their song is bittersweet for me, reminding me that the summer is passing quickly. Their jarring, cyclical songs function much like a natural mantra, reminding me to “be present…be present…be present” and to enjoy what’s left of the summer.
Repetition is soothing and comforting. It creates a familiar and recognizable pattern that can offer reassurance when stressed and bring a sense of order to chaos. Everything in the universe is made of vibration, and all sounds create movements of energy. Mantra is a Sanskrit word that means “sound tool.” A mantra can be a word, phrase, or affirmation that is repeated in the mind, whispered, chanted, or sung in order to set an intention or aid in concentration during meditation practice. The mantras we use represent the qualities or traits that we wish to embody or to permeate our consciousness. When used in conjunction with a mala, the practice becomes even more visceral, and each bead is infused with the essence of the mantra.
The most effective mantras are the ones that are simple, significant, easy to remember, and phrased in the positive. In order for mantras to make a beneficial difference in our lives, they must be repeated often….and believed.
Example Sanskrit Mantras
Om—Primordial sound of creation. Brings us into harmony with the universe
Santośa (pronounced san-tōsha)—Contentment
Om Namah Shivaya—Honors Shiva, the god of transformation
Om Gum Ganapatayai Namaha—I honor Ganesha, the remover of obstacles. I ask for blessings and protection.
So-Hum or Ham—Sah—“I am that” or “That I am.”
El Shaddai—Hebrew name for God
Om mani padme hum—invokes blessings of Chenrezig, the embodiment of compassion in Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
Modern Examples—or Create Your Own Mantra
Today, I choose joy.
I am strong, I am confident, I am healthy, and I am well.
I love myself. I respect myself. I am worthy.
The universe is my source and will provide.
I send you joy. I send you peace. I send you health. I send you love.
In addition to calming the mind and silencing the incessant mental chatter of that nagging inner critic, reciting, chanting, singing, or simply thinking mantras can have other positive effects on the body:
*stimulates the relaxation response
*lowers heart rate and blood pressure
*stimulates immune function
*increases physical vitality and energy
*alleviates depression by decreasing stress hormones in body
*promotes breath control
*helps synchronize the left and right hemispheres of the brain
*oxygenates the brain through increased blood flow
*calms brainwave activity
*stimulates melatonin production, which can improve sleep quality
Hearing the cicadas’ collective song of celebration and endurance today inspired me to take my meditation practice outside. I sat under a white oak tree, mala in hand, and chanted along with the cicadas: “be present…be present… be present…enjoy this moment…this moment…this…moment…of…summer.”
Under My Thumb....or...What Is a Mala, Anyway? April 11, 2015 18:55
The Rolling Stones are slated to appear in Indianapolis on July 4 later this year. WTTS, a local, independent radio station, just played “Under My Thumb” as a tribute and a reminder to listeners to “buy your tickets now.” The iconic Stones have been around forever, and they are still rockin’ and rollin’ for their fans today.
Malas have also been rockin’ and rollin’ since the dawn of mankind. Every culture and religion on the planet has incorporated rosaries, prayer beads, japa malas, or subha as a way to deepen their spiritual practice. The materials, designs, and even number of beads may vary, but the common denominator is the same—to be still, to climb inside, and to connect with Universal Source, God, Allah, Shakti, Shiva, Spirit, Energy, Light….whatever name we choose to call that creative force that’s bigger than ourselves.
So, what is a mala?
* Mala means “garland” in Sanskrit. It is a strand of beads used for mantra meditations, recitations, or chanting.
* A mala is a meditation tool that contains 108 beads (although some contain 27 or 54 beads). Some malas include additional marker beads or counter beads, which are not counted as part of the meditation cycle. Instead, these marker beads function as reflection points or pauses, giving the meditator the opportunity to reconnect with his/her intention or focus.
* The large guru bead (teacher bead/guiding bead) or pendant acts as the starting and ending point. However, the guru is not counted, and it is never crossed if the meditator chooses to chant/recite more than one circuit.
* Malas (like prayer beads and rosaries) have been used for centuries as a meditation aid in virtually every spiritual or religious practice. You don’t have to belong to a particular religion or denomination to use a mala.
* Some meditators prefer to wear their mala as it reminds them of their intentions or affirmations throughout the day.
* Malas can also be used to decorate a sacred space. They add color and texture to an altar space or shrine.
* Some yoga practitioners wear their malas during practice or keep them on their mats to absorb the energy of their practice. A mala is a tangible reminder of the spiritual and mental benefits of their practice.
* Use a mala to recite or chant a mantra, prayer, or affirmation for each bead in the circuit. Recitations can be silent, whispered, spoken aloud, or sung.
Middle Moon Malas are hand-knotted between each gemstone bead, seed, or bead unit. This allows the meditator to see and feel more of the bead between the finger and thumb while meditating. Traditionally, full malas contain 108 beads. Why? While open to interpretation, there are more than 108 reasons why this number is so significant. Here are just a few:
* 108 is a “harshad” number, which is Sanskrit for “great joy.” A harshad number is an integer that is divisible by the sum of its digits. 1+0+8 = 9. 108 divided by 9 = 12.
* Any mathematician will tell you there’s power in numbers. One to the first power (1x1), times two to the second power (2x2=4), times three to the third power (3x3x3= 27), equals 108.
* 108 energy lines or nadis converge to create the heart chakra—and one of them, the Sushumna, is believed to be the path to realization.
* There are 108 qualities of praiseworthy souls and 108 stages along the journey of the human soul.
* The number 108 connect to the relationship between the Sun, the Moon, and the Earth. The diameter of the sun is 108 times the diameter of the earth. The metal silver is associated with the moon. The atomic weight of silver is 108 (well, it’s actually 107.8682, but we’ll round up).
* In Sanskrit, the language of yoga, there are 54 letters in the alphabet. Each has masculine and feminine form, Shiva and Shakti. Consequently, 54 times 2 = 108.
You can sing, chant, whisper, or think the mantra that you choose to use with your mala. Your mantra can be a traditional prayer (“Our Father”) or a traditional Sanskrit mantra (“Om gum ganapatyai namaha). It can be a personal affirmation, a phrase, or a single word that helps you connect with your intention, purpose, or source.
You can use different mantras for the same mala, or, each mala can have its own mantra. I am a collector of malas, and I tend to favor the latter approach. One of my favorite mantras comes from Aibileen Clark, a character from Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help: “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”
Mantras can be as personal and specific or as universal and general as you’d like. They can inspire, uplift, instruct, or honor a concept, belief, philosophy, deity, guide, or ethical code of your choosing. Each bead on your mala resonates with the mantra that you choose, and the repetition creates a soothing flow, allowing you to absorb and connect with the message more deeply. Just like the lyric goes, and in meditation, too, “It’s down to me…the change has come…under my thumb.”