The role of breath, desire and mantra in stress relief.
Stress is common to all of us. It is not a deep philosophical subject, yet its implications are very deep. Stress concerns everyone in modern society, being one of the factors that threatens our life at a very early age. It can bring a kind of suffering which makes it difficult to experience the purpose and meaning of life.
The moment stress develops within us, certain important things take place. One of the most vital things is that the rhythm of our breathing changes, and as a result of that change a lot of problems take place within us. In the Upanishads, our rishis told stories about the great implications relating to the make-up of our physiology, what we consist of, and that our body, mind and intellect – the senses – are interconnected and interdependent, and how they function in different ways: co-ordinating our consciousness in such a way that, if we are able to understand it and manage the different kind of conflicts happening within us, we can experience in this world great peace, great harmony, great happiness, because, basically, the world is a happy place and there is an ocean of bliss, of happiness, within us.
Unfortunately, man suffers because he does not understand how to manage his inner conflicts. These tendencies of mismanagement and misunderstanding have to do with a lack of self-control.
The power of breath in stress relief
The Upanishads say that once the senses were competing with each other, each one was claiming to be superior to the others. In this context of competition they threatened each other. The eyes – sight – said to the other senses: “I will leave this body, let me see how you will manage”. On returning, sight asked: “Well, how did you all manage?” “Everything went on well except that the whole world was plunged in darkness; we could not see a single thing,” they answered. And so it happened with the senses of hearing, taste, smell and touch. Each one, respectively, left the body and on returning asked how the other senses had managed. When the sense of taste was away food had no taste; the whole world was still when there was no hearing, and it was impossible to smell anything without the sense of smell. Without the senses it seemed as if the world was not existing; with them it was existing in one form or another. Breath – prana – then said: “It is me who is going now; see how you manage!” The moment breath threatened to leave the body, the senses tried to stop it and pleaded: “Please, do not go,” because they realized that the moment breath left the body their existence would also be finished.
This is the power of breathing – pranayama – as it is emphasized in our scriptures. Breath is basic to our being. It is central to our physical and mental existence. It even relates to our spiritual life.
Stress affects our breath
When stress develops within us, it creates tension in the body, which lessens our breathing. Then our system needs a lot of oxygen to rejuvenate it. When we cannot get that oxygen, our system starts to deterioriate, creating a lot of different problems such as pains like headaches or migraines. Stress can also be the cause of heart problems. All these things are a result of prana, the breath.
In Reversing Heart Diseases – a study, a book written in New York two or three years ago – pranayama or breath-control was emphasized. So, breathing plays a vital part in our life. How many of us know how to breathe? We take it for granted that we can breathe properly. Sometimes people are not even aware when their tummy goes in or out. But when you watch a sleeping little baby – who has no stress – you will see how it breathes, how its tummy moves. That depth of breathing we do not have generally. We talk of a lack of sleep. However, it is not sleep but relaxation that is necessary. Under tense conditions we cannot relax and when we go to sleep in a tense mood, with a heart under constant stress and a lack of relaxation, heart – as well as many other – problems start. So, these are some of the symptoms of the direct effects of a stressful nature, a stressful life, a stressful mind.
Nothing may be wrong; you may have everything. It does not necessarily mean that stress is developed because we are lacking something, although in most cases we find that people tend to think that there is some problem, and as a result of this problem stress develops within us. The whole problem of our modern, materialistic society is stress-orientated. In a materialistic life – when we are going in pursuit of material things – it is natural that stress develops within us because material things cannot give us the type of satisfaction whereby we become contented, whereby we develop inner peace, inner harmony. On the contrary, in pursuit of material things, more and more desires develop within us: we want this, that, and so many other things. We do not think carefully, we do not think properly about what we really need. More often we do not know what is good for us and even when we know what is good for us we go for wrong things.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna asked Lord Krishna: “Oh Krishna, in spite of knowing what is right and wrong, a person still does wrong things as if he is propelled to do so by an external force. Why is it? What is it?”
Lord Krishna answered that passion, anger and greed are born out of our craving for sense-satisfaction. As a result of this craving within us, our mind becomes imbalanced. With an imbalanced mind we cannot think what is good or not good for us, and even when we know what is good for us we still go and do wrong things, take wrong things, those things that are not good for us, because we are forced by our nature to do these wrong things. So, we do not do things to satisfy our physical nature, the nature within us, for each of us responds according to what our nature is.
This, then, is the great in-depth study of our rishis: What is man and why does man behave as he does, how is our nature developed, in what direction, and how does it respond? The vibrations of what we hear, see, taste, touch and smell get within us and form our nature. From this nature comes what we call our character, and according to this nature – the character within us – we respond to rajas, tamas or sattva – activity, inertia or harmonious vibration. Our nature is what we are; it is our second self, as Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita. Therefore, it is essential for us to understand and purify our nature. When our nature becomes pure, when passionate tendencies are no longer there, we experience peace, then all the stress we have within us will disappear.
So stress is not necessarily coming from the outside world but develops within us because we do not understand ourselves, and therefore we are not able to control the forces of nature that enter our being and develop our attitude or character. If we take, for example, a cup of poison and we pour pure water into that cup, there will come a time when the cup will be emptied of all poison and only pure water has remained in the cup, because the poison has been overflowing. So it is with our nature with all its negativity which is not only of this birth. We have many births; all these things have accumulated birth after birth and form our nature, which forces us in a particular direction. We do not know how to handle these things within us, and so we are in the hands of our nature. Where our nature takes us we go; we do not know what to do. But our rishis say: “No, that is not right. We can handle our problems”. Even if these stress factors develop within us, we are able to manage them, we can handle them.
Rather than allowing these negative things to enter our being, we can control that through the chanting of a mantra. A mantra is that which protects the mind. With it we are able to protect ourselves from these influences entering our being. The nature of the mind is such that only one thing can enter it at one time and not two things. In order to prevent other things entering our mind, we can, purposefully, put one thing into it. When nothing else has a chance to enter the mind, it is protected from external influences and it starts to rejuvenate itself. And there will come a time when the nature itself becomes rejuvenated. When that happens the sense of freedom develops within us through which stressful factors, whatever is there, will disappear.
When Valmiki – who was a rogue, who was not living at all a spiritual life – continuously repeated the mantra he had received, his whole being transformed from an ordinary man into a rishi, just by repetition of the mantra.
And Siddharta – a frustrated man, a man under stress, full of illusions – sat under the bodi tree with determination: “I will know the truth”. After sitting there thus, without moving, ultimately all this negativity started to empty itself, all these negative vibrations, and he emerged from that state as the Buddha, the enlightened One. What does “the enlightened One” mean? It means one who is full of knowledge, wisdom.
The Bhagavad Gita, or ‘Song of God’, one of the sacred Hindu texts, recounts the dialogue between Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, and Arjuna, His disciple.
Reprinted with the kind permission of Share International Magazine.
‘Breathing and Stress Relief’ Swami Nirliptananda
Swami Nirlipananda is a senior Swami in one of the temples of the Asian community in London, deeply acquainted with the teachings of Maitreya.