Mindfulness and Mantras

December 23, 2008

Recently, my yoga teacher gave me a copy of True Love, by Thich Nhat Hanh. One practice of Hanh is the use of mantras to promote what Buddhists call mindfulness. One of his mantras is: “Breathing in – I know I am breathing in. Breathing out – I know I am breathing out.”

In an earlier posting I discussed Vipassana.  In this practice, one focuses on breath, but not with a mantra.  I’ve also covered work meditations, where the ultimate aim is to focus solely on what one is doing without an intermediary of words.

I find when I use Hanh’s mantra, my focus may be more on the words than on the breathing.  It’s easier for me to keep my mind from wandering when I use the mantra, but is my meditation as deep as it could be?  Sometimes I can actually have other thoughts in counterpoint to the mantra.  The mantra never stops, but I’m also thinking about something else.  Yet, with practice I have discovered that it’s possible to silently repeat the mantra, while focusing more on the actual breath than the words.

Last Friday, I was part of a forty-five-minute meditation at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Huntington.  I started silently repeating the mantra, breathing in on the first sentence and out on the second.  After a few minutes, I carefully focused more on the breath than the words. Toward the end of the period, I dropped the mantra. When the bell signaled the end of the meditation I realized I had fallen asleep – something I had no inclination to do while using the mantra.

Is meditation without the mantra deeper than when a mantra is used?  I’d appreciate hearing from anyone with an opinion on this, particularly if you’ve done Vipassana and also used the mantra.

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