In this piece I will talk about gathas, which are similar to mantras except that they tend to be the focus of specific activities to help us be more meditative rather than attached to sitting, itself. Gatha is a derivation of the Sanskrit word “gai,” which loosely means songs or verses that call us to the present moment. As with mantras we may join them with the breath or use them to gently disrupt our internal chatter with or without our breath. At our Zen center we used to have gathas posted in key places for activities like waking up in the morning, brushing our teeth, taking out the garbage, entering the meditation hall –and we even had one posted by the mirror in the bathroom for shaving.
Here are a few samples:
Driving a Car (Andrew Weiss)
This car is my legs.
It goes where I choose.
When I drive with awareness,
Everyone lives in safety.
Turning on the Television (Andrew Weiss)
Mind and television.
Receive what I choose.
I select well-being
And nourish joy.
Preparing Food (Andrew Weiss)
Earth, water, sun, and air,
All live in this food I prepare.
Before Taking Food (Thich Nhat Hanh)
My bowl, empty now,
will soon be filled with precious food.
Beings all over the world are struggling to live.
How fortunate we are to have this meal.
Gathas are used with any specific activity to help us move into what is called the Threefold Purity; no idea of actor, action, or acted upon.
Here’s another example (author unknown):
Feeding Cats in the Morning
Breathing in I hear the sound of a snapping lid
Breathing out I smell beef or chicken
Spooning food into your bowl before the sun rises
I bid you good morning, my feline friend
As with mantras, we can compose our own gathas inspired by our daily experiences, as above. It’s good to choose an activity that we regularly perform. We create and memorize the gatha, then we recite it each time we engage in the activity. When we do this persistently, our activities may become a sort of meditation in motion.
Here are three simple steps to take once you have selected a gatha (You might follow the same steps for a mantra). Recite, Synchronize, and Simplify.
As an example, here’s one that I wrote to use during my daily walk to the lake near my house.
Looking at Bde Maka Ska, Seeing my true nature in its reflection, Heartmind at peace
Step One: I stop before going down to the lake, aware of my inbreath and my outbreath. I observe the beauty of the lake’s shimmering surface. Then I recite the entire gatha.
Step Two: I synchronize with my breath: “Looking at Bde Maka Ska,” I breathe in; followed by “Seeing my true nature,” as I breathe out; followed by “in its reflection,” as I breathe in. Finally, “Heartmind at peace,” as I breathe out.
Step Three: I shorten the mantra or gatha after I have practiced with it and internalized it. Breathing in, I say, “looking.” Breathing out, I say, “seeing my true nature.” Breathing in and out, I say “Peace.” I continue this as long as I am with the activity.
Here are some other examples of gathas:
1.) If you find yourself habitually checking the upcoming weather on your phone, turn it into a meditation practice. As you click the icon, breathe in and notice the temperature. Regardless of how hot or cold it is, exhale and silently say, “This is.”
This may help you short-circuit all the junk you say to yourself (e.g., “yuk, it’s going to snow, or rain, when is it ever going to get warm? What am I doing living here? etc.) Instead, you can embrace the weather just as it is, which can bring you great peace of mind.
2. A student I have worked with has become addicted to checking social media throughout the day. Regardless of what the icon is, whether it’s on Instagram or something else the habitual clicking it open becomes a drug for our restless little self. This student’s practice has become: before clicking the icon, taking a breath and observing his state of mind; seeing whatever’s going on and then noticing any judgments he has about his habit—realizing his urge to distract from himself from whatever activity he has been engaged in.
3. I have been supporting someone who finds Tik Tok her link to the outside world during the pandemic!She admitted that she continually asks herself, How many likes and follows did I get? For which posts? With my support, she has developed the following practice:
Breathing in when she clicks, and saying, “watching my thoughts.” And then as she breathes out, releasing them as she says, “returning to my body.” Then attending to any part of her body that holds tension: her throat, belly, jaw, feet. And repeating that as appropriate.
4. When taking a shower, you can turn a series of robotic movements into an exercise of feeling good: I breathe in, feeling the warm water. I breathe out letting go of worries and concerns. Then you can shorten this to: Warm Water, letting go, Warm water, letting go.
I encourage you to come up with your own words or phrases to help cut thru your chatter during your meditation or outside of it.
Whatever actions are mindless and automatic in your life could use mantra or gatha support since anything can be the seed for spiritual transformation. We can turn all our rote activities into little gateways into a deep quietness. Little by little, the tangle of our thoughts loosens, and we crack open to feel a connection with all life. When we do this, the mind drops into the heart and joins with the breath and activity, returning us to our deepest self.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher