Mantras (was: Trans-extropian principles)

Lyle Burkhead (
Sat, 03 Aug 1996 02:35:47 -0500 (EST)

A generalization of the idea of a mantra

A mantra is a sound that is repeated over and over, until it changes
one's consciousness. When I was a little boy, I discovered that if I said
a word, any word, over and over, it would lose its meaning. Try saying
the word "tomorrow," for example. After awhile it will become a
resonant sound in your mind, and it will no longer be a just a token for
the day after today. Then when tomorrow comes, and you stop and
remember this moment, and connect with it -- the result is not quite the
same as deja vu, but similar. (This was one of the first ways I found to
get "stoned.")

Yogis have been experimenting with Sanskrit mantras for many

In the West, we have traditionally changed our consciousness with more
complex patterns of thought. In the renaissance, for example, there was
an elaborate art of memory, in which the student would imagine a
cathedral in great detail, and associate an idea with each point of the
space in the cathedral. He would imagine starting at a certain point, and
going from there to the next point, and so on through an elaborate train
of thought. This is where the expression "in the first place" comes
from. When explaining something, a professor would start at the first
place, then go on to the second place -- almost literally. The students
were expected to "follow," in the same almost-literal sense, as the
professor led them from point to point in the cathedral.

Today, we have lost the rich metaphor of the building. But we still try
to guide ourselves though a train of thought -- that's what a university
curriculum is for. To get a degree in medicine, you go to a series of
lectures and lab meetings where your attention is directed toward
certain topics in a certain order, and you emerge with a mind that thinks
like a doctor's mind. Each profession has its own vocabulary and its
own habits of thought, and each professional person goes through a
long training program to learn those habits of thought.

Everybody, professional or not, learns certain habitual thought patterns.
The idea of a mantra can be generalized to include all habits of thought
that are repeated for a long time and result in a certain form of

Some people don't just do this in their professional training. They try
to guide themselves through a train of thought designed to change their
consciousness, not just when performing practical tasks, but also when
contemplating the universe. When thinking about physics, for example,
such a person -- who, we are assuming, is not a professional physicist --
would study the argument in a certain chapter of a certain book, and go
over it in his mind, over and over, connecting words to images, putting
the images together into a whole, until he "saw" the principle of
relativity, i.e. he saw, as an immediate gestalt, how the constancy of the
speed of light is the central axiom which makes the rest of
electromagnetism coherent. He would see this vision as clearly as the
renaissance student saw his cathedral.

This results in a change of consciousness every bit as intense as LSD,
and much more productive.

The same phenomenon occurs in other areas besides science. Jimmie
Connors repeated the tennis mantra with such force that he could see, as
the ball left his opponent's racquet, which way it was spinning. To him,
when he was at his peak of concentration, a tennis ball looked as big as
a basketball, and seemed to be moving in slow motion.

Video games can also be effective mantras, especially the ones which
take you through a series of screens, each one similar to the earlier ones,
but faster and more difficult. If you play one of these games hundreds
of times, until you can routinely reach the 15th screen, you find yourself
in a new state of consciousness, in which a lot of things seem to move
in slow motion.

Most people don't make this effort. They let their environment guide
their thoughts. Most people go through a daily mantra of muzak and tv,
created for them by the entertainment industry, which is more than
happy to perform this service.

So, there are conscious mantras, patterns of thought chosen by us,
and default mantras, given to us -- sometimes forced on us, to some
extent -- by society. We always have a choice, either to create
a mantra for ourselves, or to drift along on one of the many mantras
that are provided for us.

Now, suppose someone decides to take control of his own mind, and
choose his own mantra, day by day. He is going to let his thoughts be
guided, not by his environment, but by his quest to see the origins of
things. Suppose he studies causality in many contexts: he reads
Cairns-Smith and Kauffman on the origin of life, Rene Thom on
embryology and morphogenetic forms, Ophiel on creative visualization,
Aristotle on the four kinds of causality, Leibniz and Heidegger on the
Principle of Sufficient Reason, and so forth. Suppose he forms the
habit of seeing things not as they present themselves, but as part of a
causal chain. For example, a towel came from a store, before that from
a factory, before that from a cotton mill, before that from a farm; and
meanwhile, on another causal track, it began as an idea in somebody's
mind. The student who follows this mantra for years, until it becomes
part of the fabric of his thoughts, will, at unpredictable times, fall into a
state of reverie, perhaps artificially induced, perhaps not, in which the
vision I mentioned earlier will appear.