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Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, United States
Karen is a yogini, writer, student, teacher and meditator. She founded Garden Street School of Yoga in 2000. Karen lives with her husband Chris. They have two amazing sons, Eli and Leo (both of them young men).

Jan 12, 2012

Doing the 108

Just before the holidays I cleaned my house. (This was itself a cause for great holiday celebration :). When I finished, I drew a card from an inspiration deck to aim my focus for the holiday time ahead. I got "prayer". (I joked to myself, "Woo Hoo.....wild times!)

I didn't resonate with the focus of "prayer" at the time I drew the card but as the month and its circumstances unfolded, the reason I had drawn "prayer" became clear. Situations unfolded - in the lives of ones dear to me - about which there was nothing I could DO.  No fixing. No real influence. No big opinion or brilliant ideas to offer. These were situations that were not mine to do anything about and they yet sat painfully on my heart, as if they were my own. And in a certain way, they were my own, as my heart and karma connection to those involved is strong. 

That's when I resolved to chant 108 repetitions of the Maha Mrytyunjaya mantra daily.   This particular mantra is, in essence, asking for the grace of liberation. It acknowledges the need for, and asks for a loosening from, the narrowness, limitation, contraction and smallness that can rule our perspective and our life. All that smallness, when added up, becomes suffering and bondage, like the small ties that bound Gulliver. (In case you didn't do your high school reading assignment, the image that works here is of Gulliver visiting the Lilliputians.  They tie him - a giant - down with 10,000 small bonds of petty concern).  Just so, the "Big Perspective", the giant wonder and infinite upsurge of spirit in life can be forgotten entirely, leaving us tied down in a clench of smallness (the anava mala).  Lee called it the "cramp" - a word which, for me, evokes a practical, physical understanding. A cramp in my calf quickly narrows and contracts my perspective - as it shuts off the flow of blood and life to the area in question and brings a definite suffering. The anava mala,  or cramp, is the root contraction which has us living in a certainty sure (that is not True) that we are outside of grace and left behind.   

The Maha Mrytyunjaya mantra is said to bring an energetic blessing and dissolving of cramps of various sorts - for ourselves and for those to whom we are connected by bonds of great love or by bonds of blood. This blessing serves as a wind in our sails - releasing us from the doldrums of forgetting, freeing us from at least some of the infinite small bonds of karma, simply and gently. In the mantra there is an image of a cucumber loosening from the stalk. Naturally, spontaneously and at the right moment the cucumber and the stalk mutually release one another. The stalk retreats away from the fruit when it is ripe.  Our contractions of various sorts - which served us at one time - can loosen and recede - when the time is ripe....when we are ready. But we do need help. The loosening and release is a big deal.  If it were easy to loosen - we would find the dying process to be easy. It is not. It's big work. We need help. (One of the circumstances that got me serious about "doing the 108" is my mother's situation - so close to death......and her hard work - and lots of help - loosening from life).

When I chant I typically do not think about all of the above, about the meaning of the words, about the teachings regarding the chant. I just chant. The chanting reveals the energy of the chant.  Revelation from Participation.

So - I have been diligently "doing the 108".

Once, while chanting 108 Mrytyunjayas, I felt as if I were walking a baby at night.....easing it over the threshold to peaceful sleep. That was a powerful and direct experience of what I had been taught about the chant.  The direct experience allowed me to understand at a deeper level the teaching which says that  this chant is one to do for a loved one who is transitioning - whether that transition is a more ordinary one like a child from waking to sleep - or a bigger one like a loved one passing over.

Another direct experience I had "doing the 108" was of it's powerful housecleaning (samskara burning) action in me. I was ostensibly chanting / praying for others. And yet I felt a steady and strong loosening, melting and untangling of something in me. This powerful and direct experience of the energy of the chant allowed me to appreciate the teaching that this chant is to be done for those with whom you have blood ties or to whom you are bound by great love.  In the circumstances for which I was chanting / praying, there were bonds of both karma and great love....and so it is no surprise that chanting like this would set me up for an interior housecleaning. Once again, the participation in the practice revealed the power of the practice. 

Chanting and the other forms of sadhana I practice have linked study. Asana involves knowing the body, alignment, anatomy and poses. Similarly, pranayama, meditation, chanting, puja, formal contemplation (bhavana) all involve study, discernment, translation. And all these forms of sadhana have beautiful, inspiring and poetic descriptions of their practice, written by someone who has participated in - and directly experienced - the beauty of their practice from the inside out..

From an "outside in" perspective, sadhana can look very odd - even superstitious. Without  participation, even the picturesque shapes of asana can seem a bit pointless and not the most optimal means to - for example -  create cardiovascular health or flexible and toned muscles. Chanting, meditation etc definitely can look oddly pointless from the "outside in". 

From the inside out, however, the practice is anything but odd or pointless. Participation is the ends and the means.

Participate. Life wants me to participate. God wants me to participate.  In the participation is the revelation. "Understanding" according to Lee, "is the booby prize".

As usual, all of this reminds me of some of my favorite poetry. Copied below. Enjoy.

Thanks for Reading!

From Rilke
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear: 

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing

Embody me. 
Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in. 

Let everything happen to you:  beauty and terror.
Just keep going.
No feeling is final.
Don't let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.

from Mary Oliver
Have you ever tried to enter the long black branches of other lives --
tried to imagine what the crisp fringes, full of honey, hanging
from the branches of the young locust trees, in early morning, feel like?

Do you think this world was only an entertainment for you?

Never to enter the sea and notice how the water divides
with perfect courtesy, to let you in!
Never to lie down on the grass, as though you were the grass!
Never to leap to the air as you open your wings over the dark acorn of your heart!

No wonder we hear, in your mournful voice, the complaint
that something is missing from your life!

Who can open the door who does not reach for the latch?

Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?

While the soul, after all, is only a window,

and the opening of the window no more difficult
than the wakening from a little sleep.


For how long will you continue to listen to those dark shouters,
caution and prudence?
Fall in! Fall in!

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