Why does mantra meditation seem to be a burden?
Question: Meditation is supposed to make us peaceful and joyful, but why does it often seem to be a boredom and a burden?
Answer summary: Mantra meditation is like a workout for the mind. It strengthens us by first straining our mental muscles. We need to willingly go through the strain to get to the rewards of peace and joy.
When we do workouts, we know that it will be a strain; lifting weights isn’t relaxing. But we also know that workouts will make us fitter and stronger. So we persevere in the workouts in spite of the strain.
The basic principle of workout applies to mantra meditation, but at the mental level. During mantra meditation, we are essentially doing a workout for the mind. The mind that is habituated to the small and big issues of life is confronted with the biggest of all issues: God himself, Krishna manifesting as his holy names. Just as our muscles grow by lifting big weights, our mind grows by thinking big thoughts. And the biggest of all thoughts is thought about Krishna, for he is the biggest of all things and beings. Just as we need to exert ourselves to lift big weights, we also need to exert ourselves to fix our thoughts on Krishna, to metaphorically speaking, lift Krishna with our mental muscles.
How meditation strengthens our mental muscles
The Bhagavad-gita (04.11) informs us that in spiritual life, Krishna reciprocates according to the quality of our efforts. When we chant his names prayerfully, seeking to invoke his presence, he reciprocates by manifesting his presence. Because he is the supreme unchanging reality, realizing his presence pacifies us; we understand that beyond the agitating changes of daily life is a stable Krishna-centered reality to which we belong. Further, because Krishna is the reservoir of supreme love, relishing his love strengthens us; we understand that we are not alone in facing life’s challenges. Krishna is forever with us, benevolently watching and guiding us through these challenges towards his eternal blissful abode.
We may not think of these things consciously when we chant. Nonetheless, invoking Krishna’s presence by chanting causes an enriching awareness of these truths to seep into our consciousness. Just as basking in the gentle morning sun causes healing sunlight to enter into our body.
By thus engaging us in big Krishna-thoughts, mantra meditation expands our mind, just as lifting big weights expands our muscles. Just as small weights don’t trouble a person habituated to lifting big weights, the small thoughts of daily life – trivial temptations and incidental irritations – don’t trouble us when we habituate ourselves to thinking about Krishna through regular meditation. Even the big problems of life don’t intimidate us when we let the supremely big presence of Krishna calm and comfort us.
Thus, the strengthening our mental muscles is one of the rewards of mantra meditation, a reward that we can perceive even in the early stages of our spiritual life.
Why chanting appears to be a boredom and burden
However, we may find mantra meditation a boredom when we chant without seeking or sensing Krishna’s presence. We mutter the mantras, but as we don’t call out to Krishna, we don’t invoke his presence. When we don’t experience Krishna’s presence, our mantra meditation becomes a mere ritual, a shell without substance. We become like a person going through the motions of weight-lifting without actually holding any weights in the hands. Just as a person pretending to lift weights will soon get bored, we get bored with our facade of meditation.
Of course, our meditation is not entirely a pretense; we are physically engaged in the activities of meditation and are verbally uttering the mantras. The mantras centered on the names of Krishna are so powerful that just their verbal utterance gives some benefits. However, the mind finds our physical simulation of meditation burdensome.
Because the mind can’t stay inactive; it has to think of something. When during chanting it doesn’t get to think of Krishna as we haven’t invoked his presence, it starts thinking about hundreds of other things. It may fantasize about plans that need to be executed. Or it may fret over tensions that need to be resolved. Or it may just fool around in the trivialities of routine life – who spoke what gossip about whom, for example.
However, whatever the mind thinks of during chanting, it can’t do anything about it. As we are chanting, we are not doing anything practical to tackle the issues that the mind is grappling. So the mind feels that chanting is coming in the way of getting on with life’s practical business. Naturally, such ritualistic chanting seems burdensome. We become like a person who is lifting weights while thinking of everything else that could be done during that time, say watch the ongoing cricket match at home. Just as the distracted weight-lifter finds the weights burdensome, we find our physical simulation of meditation burdensome.
If we don’t want our mantra meditation to become either a boredom or a burden, we need to conscientiously remember the centrality of invoking and experiencing Krishna’s presence for the mental workout. When we diligently try to call out to Krishna and thus invoke his presence, chanting will become interesting, thereby freeing us from the negative feelings of boredom and burden. And when Krishna reciprocates according to his sweet will and manifests his all-attractive presence to us, chanting will become absorbing, thereby making us peaceful and joyful.