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.
Music as mantra
With mantra you can use a single, repeated sound, a series of sounds, or a series of words as a focus for meditation. 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.
In the same way, our music tradition expresses and explores in sound all the different kinds of emotions and states of mind 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.
In our culture learning about and looking after our emotions has been mainly left to chance. This is not so in the meditation tradition. Here there is the knowledge of how emotions work and the tools and techniques to train and understand them, mantra being an important one of them.
Both music and mantra open your mind beyond its immediate concerns so that you can embrace the full richness of your emotional life, and ultimately be able to feel yourself an integral part of humanity and life.
By Dr Graham Williams
Founder of Lifeflow Meditation Centre, Concert Pianist and Board Member of Meditation Australia