One of my favorite passages in the Bhagavad-gītā is where Krishna, the personification of the Divine, tells his stricken warrior friend Arjuna that:
For him who has conquered the mind, the mind is the best of friends; but for one who has failed to do so, his mind will remain the greatest enemy. (Chapter 6, Verse 6)
Of all the pearls of wisdom we try to teach our students at our Gita Circle student club at New York University, this is one passage that really seems to stick out in a very visceral, practical way. The Gita is a book of everyday reasoning, a treatise of spiritual technology designed to help us take a step back from the world in order to engage with it further, as the great sages from the Himalayas to Walden Pond did for many ages before we tread upon this world.
Nowhere is this reasoning more intensely felt when we stop our everyday scheming and dreaming to ask some pertinent questions: What is my mind? How does it work? How does it exist? Why does it seem unable to focus when I need it to? Who is the “I” that is observing the mind? Our mind is more powerful, and with a much deeper memory than any visionary device from the labs at Apple or Google. It is considered the “sixth sense”, intimately linked to how the rest of our senses interact and respond, for better or for worse, to the physical reality that surrounds us.
As our students at NYU also experience, when we meditate together, we are instantly confronted with the fact that the mind prefers to be in an adversarial position. Even to just focus simply our breath for a few moments at a time in a tremendous endeavor.
Arjuna, in the Gita, agrees when he says:
The mind is restless, turbulent, obstinate and very strong, O Krsna, and to subdue it, I think, is more difficult than controlling the wind.
Krishna, while trying to present the true reality of our bodily and mental nature as clearly as possible in the Gita, is also trying to show us that we can transcend this nature into the actuality of our being as spirit, so he responds to Arjuna's plea by saying:
O mighty-armed son of Kuntī, it is undoubtedly very difficult to curb the restless mind, but it is possible by suitable practice and by detachment.
The wisdom texts of the Bhakti tradition have a specific and compassionate design to help us access this suitable practice and detachment, in the form of a specific style of meditation using mantra. Many of us are familiar with this word, but not as much as with its actual meaning. Contemporary Bhakti scholar Stephen Knapp explains:
Man means the mind, tra means deliverance. Therefore, a spiritual mantra is the pure sound vibration for delivering the mind from material to spiritual consciousness. This is the goal of any spiritual path.
The Bhakti tradition of the Gita recommends the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra (Hare Krishna/Hare Krishna/Krishna Krishna/Hare Hare/Hare Rama/Hare Rama/Rama Rama/Hare Hare), which is known as the maha-mantra (“great chant for deliverance”). This mantra consists of three names of the Divine: Hare (the feminine aspect of the Divine), Krishna (the all-attractive aspect of the Divine), and Rama (the pleasure reservoir of the Divine).
Just by resounding the vibrations of these names within one's body, mind, and heart, one comes into contact with the Divine, with God, who is not different from His/Her holy names. Chanting mantras engages so many of our faculties, from our hands delicately handling our prayer beads to our voices soaring in the musical chanting of these mantras, also known as kirtan.
This is something I do every day (quite early in the day, befitting my monk lifestyle) in a consistent timeframe and manner, which gives me fuel to swim the upstream tide of spiritual life in the material world. Paul McCartney said that meditation to him was akin to brushing one's teeth, in that he couldn't imagine going without it. I certainly agree with that but I know as well the intention behind meditation must go deeper.
The chanting of mantras allows us, as we learn to focus, control, and harness the power of our mind for spiritual good, to gain access to these deeper benefits of meditation. By chanting the Hare Krishna mantra, for example, we gain access to the heart of the reality of our being, as spirit soul seeking to return to our eternal loving relationship with God.
Truly, meditation is meant to bring us to this reality, and while we can certainly enjoy and prosper from the stress relief and mental growth we get from our practice, we should always be striving for the divine love that is within us, which allows us to fully connect to God and to all life around us.
Chris Fici is a writer/teacher/monk in the bhakti-yoga tradition. He has been practicing at the Bhaktivedanta Ashram at the Bhakti Center in New York City since 2009. After receiving a degree in film studies at the University of Michigan, Chris began his exploration and study of the bhakti tradition. He currently teaches classes on the culture and art of vegetarian cooking, as well as the living philosophy of the Bhagavad-Gita, at New York University and Columbia University.