Music & Mantra
by Dr Graham Williams
Music is the great mantra tradition of our own culture and I’m including in this all the different kinds of music we hear each day – popular, jazz, rock, classical, dance, rap, military and film music. The word music is derived from the word muse which means “to meditate on something”. So music is a form of meditation.
Mantra is a Sanskrit word that comes from mano meaning mind, and tra meaning tool. Mantra, then, is a tool for focussing the mind through meditating on sound. This is also what you are doing when you are listening to music.
What is mantra?
With mantra you are using a sound, or a series of sounds, or a series of words, as a focus for your mind. Repeating a sound over and over holds your focus and allows you to let go of the constant undercurrent of thought that generally runs our lives. Mantras open your mind beyond its immediate concerns so that you are able to feel yourself as an integral part of humanity and life.
Mantras also speak directly to your body and your emotions and so can be used to get to know all the different qualities and aspects of your mind on a level which is normally impossible. For example, I had no idea that the image and idea of compassion which I had learned was so syrupy and so inappropriate to reality until I used a mantra of compassion as part of my own practice.
Music as mantra
In our music tradition we express and explore in sound all the different kinds of emotions which we experience. Even though you are not immediately aware of it, every sound you hear vibrates in your body and so your body responds and resonates directly with all the sounds of music.
If you have ever been close to a horse when there is a sudden sound you can see a shiver go right across its body. Our bodies do exactly the same thing. If there is a sudden, loud noise your whole body will jump. But at a more subtle level you can become aware of your body resonating to the sounds around you; for example, to the sound of the sea. As you open to this you can feel the sound of a breaking wave go right through your whole body – it’s an incredibly blissful feeling.
This is one of the things which makes listening to music such a powerful experience. Music is doing exactly what mantra is designed to do – creating sounds which resonate directly in specific parts of your body.
It makes a fascinating exercise to explore this as you listen to music. There is music which comes straight from the earth and resonates directly in your gut, like the sound of the didgeridoo. One of the things people love about pop music is the pounding rhythm. You can literally feel your groin and your belly responding. The pure energy of music which dances and is joyful also resonates directly in your belly.
We all love music of the heart, all the different expressions of the emotions we feel in our hearts. So music can be tender, wistful, yearning, melancholic or passionate and, as you listen, you can feel your heart and your body responding to the point where it can bring you to tears. For example, everyone has their favourite song which is associated with when they fell in love for the first time.
Music can catch you in the throat and as its energy rises through your body it can find its release in your throat like a shout of joy or a cry of anguish.
And then there is music of the head, music which is clear and cool, working its way through exquisitely intricate patterns. Finally, music can move through your whole body, rising in a powerful surge from your gut right through to an ecstatic explosion at the crown of your head.
Embracing our emotions
In a sense learning mantra is exactly like learning how to write for all the different instruments of music with all their different qualities and colours – except you are learning to do this with your own mind, emotions and body.
Every possible emotion can be learned through both music and mantra – joy, wild energy, determination, power, love, ecstasy, and deep peace, to name just a few. Great music is great, not only because it expresses all these emotions, but also because it holds opposite emotions together at the same time, so that joy is infused with sadness, melancholy with bliss.
You can also learn how to take a potentially destructive emotion like anger and by using it creatively, completely transform it into crystal clarity, for you learn that every destructive emotion has its complementary creative form. Through the power of sound it is possible to know and to express the entire range of human emotional experience.
Dr. Graham Williams has over thirty years’ experience teaching both meditation and mindfulness, is the Director of The Lifeflow Meditation Centre and an adjunct lecturer in the School of Medicine at Flinders University. He has written two books, Insight and Love which is in its third edition and Life in Balance. They are both available online. The Lifeflow Centre provides regular meditation courses in their city studio and retreats at their retreat centre in a beautiful, relaxing hills setting. P 8379 9001 W lifeflow.com.au