Beyond the “21 Day Meditation Challenges”

8bJoachim Schneider about the differences between Deepak Chopra’s “21 Day Meditation Challenges” and Primordial Sound Meditation, the technique taught to everyone attending a workshop by Deepak Chopra.

A few years ago the Chopra Center started the “21 Day Meditation Challenges” where over a period of 3 weeks Deepak Chopra guides listeners through meditations using a different mantra each day. As exciting as I have found these “21 Day” series, there is much more to explore in the way Deepak Chopra teaches how to meditate.

Actually, the “21 Day” meditations, particularly the most recent “Expanding Your Happiness”, are quite different from Primordial Sound Meditation, the practice everybody gets introduced to prior to participating in any seminar with Deepak Chopra.

Primordial Sound Meditation got me meditating

While participating in the “21 Day Meditation Challenges” seems intended to help people develop a regular meditation practice, what really got me meditating every day was Primordial Sound Meditation. Primordial Sound Meditation is effortless, enjoyable, beneficial to your health and powerfully connects you to spirit.

Following are some key differences between Primordial Sound Meditation and the meditations during a typical “21 Day Meditation Challenge”.

Background music

One obvious difference is that, during a “21 Day Meditation Challenge”, like on most meditation CDs he publishes, Deepak Chopra uses soothing background music, perhaps to make the experience of sitting in meditation more pleasant for beginning meditators. In contrast, in Primordial Sound Meditation Deepak Chopra explicitly recommends not using background music because, he says, it keeps your awareness on the level of thought. The goal of Primordial Sound Meditation is to take us beyond thought to timeless awareness and spirit.

What does the Mantra mean?

Mantras typically have a meaning and in the “21 Day Meditation Challenge” Deepak Chopra explains the meaning of each mantra he uses.  For example in the recent “Expanding your happiness” series one of the mantras is “Ananda Hum” and he gives its meaning as ” I am bliss”. During the meditation he says “This mantra connects you with your core bliss or happiness”.

In contrast, your individual Primordial Sound Mantra is not assigned a particular meaning. While this mantra may mean something to some people, according to Deepak Chopra, associating a particular meaning with your Primordial Sound mantra keeps your attention on the mind and makes it difficult to slip into the gap between the thoughts where we find infinite possibilities and calm.

Does the mantra resonate with you?

The “21 Day Meditation Challenges” typically include a different mantra for every day. While I am sure these mantras have been carefully selected, they have not been chosen individually for you, like the Primordial Sound. Occasionally, some of these mantras may contain words or letters that you are not comfortable with. Therefore, as you repeat a mantra, listen to what your body is telling you and don’t hesitate to discontinue a mantra, if it does not suit you.

At the Chopra Center I was taught how to meditate effortlessly. From that point of view, you shouldn’t meditate with a mantra unless you like it. Forcing yourself to complete a meditation with a mantra you don’t enjoy, can create a negative association with your meditation and cause you to quit meditating altogether.

In contrast, the Primordial Sound Meditation Mantra is based on your individual horoscope and chosen from among 108 soothing sounds that typically calm and energize rather than agitate you.  Moreover, in rare cases, if your Primordial Sound mantra does not resonate with you, your personal instructor can help you find a more suitable mantra. Also, if you already have a personal mantra, meditating with 21 different mantras for 21 days may cause you to lose your connection with your personal mantra. That is one reason why I like to begin with my personal mantra before trying out the mantra for the day.

Associate a visualization with a mantra?

In his most recent “21 Day Meditation Challenge” called “Expanding your Happiness” Deepak Chopra guides us to visualize something each time we repeat a mantra.  With regards to “Lila Hum” which, according to Deepak Chopra, means “I am playfulness”, he says “As you repeat the mantra, visualize yourself playing, singing and dancing to the cosmic rhythms of life. 

While imagining such scenes may be fun, based on Deepak Chopra’s course on Primordial Sound Meditation, visualizations can keep us on the level of the mind and prevent us from dropping into the space between the thoughts to timeless being. Also, not everyone likes to visualize or is able to do so easily, in which case the meditation can become effortful. In Primordial Sound Meditation we do not need to visualize something while repeating the mantra.

Focusing on “opening up” with each repetition?

Every time he introduces a mantra in one of in the “Expanding your happiness” series, Deepak Chopra uses the following phrase:

With each repetition [of the mantra], feel your body, mind and spirit open and receive just a little more.”

I assume that the goal of this instruction is to help a meditator open up and be more attentive during the practice. As well intended as this may be, by trying to become more receptive with each repetition, some people may concentrate more, which can make the practice more difficult and no longer effortless for them.

While I initially thought this instruction would help me, I found it to over-complicate my meditation. There may be people who benefit from this suggestion but in Primordial Sound Meditation, the way I was taught, it is not necessary to open up your body, mind and spirit with each repetition of the mantra.

Concentrate on the mantra or not?

In terms of whether to focus on the mantra or how to focus on it, the highly regarded Vedic scholar Dr. David Frawley, now in charge of certifying Primordial Sound Meditation instructors at the Chopra Center, describes how the Primordial Sound Mantra can be energized by concentrating on it (See Articles by David Frawley on Primordial Sound Meditation). His seminal book “Mantra Yoga and Primal Sound” has been highly praised by Deepak Chopra who seems to have used a number of the mantras from Frawley’s book for his “21 Day Meditation Challenge – Finding Your Flow”.

In contrast, when I was certified in Primordial Sound Meditation at the Chopra Center in 2003 by the late David Simon, the former head of the Chopra Center and by Roger Gabriel, the recommendation was that it “is not necessary to concentrate” during meditation. Simon even said that Primordial Sound Meditation was not a “concentration camp”.

In my experience, not needing to concentrate makes it easier for someone to get into meditation and establish a regular practice. On the other hand, being told to concentrate during meditation causes some people to “try hard”, “strain” and get frustrated, which runs counter to the idea of Primordial Sound Meditation being effortless.

However, for those people who like to concentrate during meditation, David Frawley’s suggestions may be invaluable to deepen their practice.

Given the different preferences regarding this matter and in my experience with meditation students, my approach is to teach meditation effortlessly and make concentrating on your personal mantra an optional advanced technique, once someone has established a regular practice.

Are you really a Raja Yogi?

Concentration, in Sanskrit “Dharana”, is part of Raja Yoga and the eightfold Asthanga Yoga path as laid out by Patanjali. The 8 steps of this path include Yama which make up moral precepts such as non-violence or truthfulness, Niyama, self-discipline, Asana, the yoga postures, (4) Pranayama, breath control, (5) Prathyahara, avoiding distractions, (6) Dharana, concentrating or controlling the mind, (7) Dhyana, contemplative meditation as a timeless pure being and (8) Samadhi, becoming one with all.

While most yoga studios following Patanjali’s 8 steps interpret these to involve a strict daily regiment of physical, emotional and mental control and concentration, in their book “The 7 Spiritual Laws of Yoga” Deepak Chopra and David Simon emphasize more the effortless and comfortable nature of yoga postures  and meditation. If you find concentration or control challenging or unappealing as part of your doing Yoga, meditation or breathing exercises, you may not be on a strict Raja Yoga path. Maybe  you pursue Bhakti, grateful devotion, Karma, joyful service or Jnana Yoga, understanding, instead. Presenting Raja Yoga in a concentrative way may leave out a lot people for whom meditating, practicing yoga or breathing exercises are a vital part of their physical and spiritual development toward enlightenment

Pronounce the Mantras correctly?

Coming from a traditional point of view, in his book “Mantra Yoga and Primal Sound” David Frawley emphasizes the importance of pronouncing a mantra correctly  in order for it to have any power. In contrast, David Simon said the mantras used for Primordial Sound did not need to be pronounced correctly. In my own experience, as important as I find speaking another language correctly, I have seen meditators get very frustrated trying to say a mantra right. I therefore agree with David Simon’s recommendation that the Primordial Sound Mantra does not have to be said “right” and that it  can be just a faint idea. This recommendation is especially helpful when it comes to Sanskrit retroflex or cerebral sounds that would require rolling one’s tongue back in a way that people from a Western European language background typically are not accustomed to doing.

Regarding the question as to whether to say a mantra correctly or not, one also needs to keep in mind that Primordial Sound Meditation is not a mantra recitation technique where pronunciation may be more important and where you repeat a mantra aloud  in a certain rhythm for a specific number of times.  In Primordial Sound Meditation where we use the mantra silently, I tell my students to allow the mantra to repeat itself in the way and the sequence it wants to without a certain rhythm or concentration. I go so far and say that the mantra decides how it wants to be pronounced, not the meditator.

Personal Ceremony

During the “21 Day Meditation Challenges” Deepak Chopra introduces a different mantra every day on a recorded meditation. While everything is possible, it is unlikely that anyone of those mantras will become a special mantra for you.

In his Primordial Sound Meditation course, Deepak Chopra teaches that for thousands of years the experience has been that people typically do not meditate long-term with a mantra unless they receive it as part of a special ceremony.  When you get a mantra in the mail from someone or via a recording, there is no real magic which could compel you to meditate regularly. At the same time the Chopra Center teaches that you are your own best Guru.  You are the only person who knows whether you feel good right now or not. While students can always contact their instructor if they have questions, I don’t seek contact with students unless they do. Having taught this meditation for over 10 years and from what I hear from other teachers, I am not aware of anyone who has developed an unhealthy dependency on their instructor or the Chopra Center. According to Mantra Shastra, the science of mantra, to dissociate yourself from a group or a secret Mantra, all you have to do is tell your secret mantra to someone else to “break the spell”.

Can additional mantras be included with the Primordial Sound?

In the Primordial Sound Meditation certification course I attended, Deepak Chopra taught that the Primordial Sound Mantra is complete as it is. He recommends to meditate for at least 20 minutes with one’s Primordial Sound before using other mantras or sutras for the meditation to be most effective.

Accordingly, while I have found it interesting to experiment with additional mantras from the “21 Day Meditation Challenges”, I prefer to start quietly with my personal mantra. After 10 or 15 minutes of meditating with my own mantra it is easier for me to play with another mantra and perhaps gradually include that as part of my personal mantra, if I find doing so beneficial. Also, according to Mantra Shastra, the number of syllables or words a mantra has, affects what area of life it influences. So, adding words to your personal mantra may not only change the flavor of the mantra but also the areas of your life which it affects.

Effortless Focus?

People differ in terms of what practice helps them liberate or realize themselves. An overview of various meditative techniques shows that meditations differ based on whether they are mindful, concentrated or effortless.  To me, Primordial Sound Meditation, the way I was taught, is effortless, yet using an anchor because there is a mantra that we keep comfortably coming back to. The meditations from the recent “Expand Your Happiness” series I would categorize as mildly controlled focus, because with every repetition of the mantra you are asked to “visualize” something or continue to “be open”. There is nothing wrong with controlled focus. Most of life’s coordinated activities  like driving a car or dancing Salsa require controlled focus and can train an individual to concentrate better. In contrast, Primordial Sound Meditation is not a meditation to improve your concentration or train the mind but to effortlessly let the mind find timeless bliss. Concentration improves as a side effect.

What is your method?

In Vedic astrology spiritual techniques can be distinguished according to whether someone prefers concentration (Sun), effortlessness (Moon), detached action (Mars), mindfulness (Mercury), concentration and effortlessness (Jupiter), devotion (Venus) self-restraint (Saturn), going within (Ketu), going out into the world (Rahu) or a combination of these.  Such preferences may even change over the years and what we like may not necessarily liberate us, in case of an unhealthy addiction.  The Primordial Sound mantra is based on the moon’s position at the time of your birth and lends itself therefore to being repeated effortlessly. While spiritual instructors typically teach the technique that works for them, I find that, regardless of your ultimate preference, an effortless meditation technique such as Primordial Sound Mediation is a wonderful way to establish a regular and fulfilling practice onto which you can build additional techniques of your choosing.

Has Deepak Chopra changed his meditation approach?

At times, Deepak Chopra’s meditation style in the “21 Day” series seems to contradict the way he has taught Primordial Sound Meditation since the early 90’s. I don’t know why he is teaching one technique over the internet and another in his workshops but it seems that while he may have evolved his approach, more likely, he wants to use a different format to reach people who are new to meditation. Using background music and having a different mantra each day and including visualizations, focusing practices and other variations probably is designed to keep new meditators interested. The “21 Day” series also shows that there are many different ways to heal, become more joyful and connect to spirit.

Recommendations for participating in the 21 Day Challenge

Here are some ideas I have found helpful for taking part in a “21 Day Meditation Challenge”.

  • Don’t repeat a mantra you are not comfortable with. Especially having to concentrate on such a mantra can irritate you and in the worst case cause you to quit meditating altogether. You may observe your breathing instead or use another mantra that you do like. Also, you may want to try a mantra aloud first to see if it works for you. When you notice that it doesn’t feel good, don’t hesitate to discard it.
  • If you are not sure about whether a mantra suits you, meditate effortlessly without concentrating on it in order to not cause any additional aggravation. Also, according to Mantra Shastra one recommendation is to start the mantra with “Om” to help neutralize any adverse effects it may have on you.
  • Do you already have a mantra you are happy with? if so, you may want to begin your meditation with this mantra. After 10 or 20 minutes try additional mantras as presented in the “Challenge”. Beginning your meditation with a different mantra every day may cause you to lose the connection to your personal mantra.
  • You may find some mantras comfortable for loud recitations but not for quiet meditation. For instance, I prefer repeating Deepak Chopra’s  funny laughing mantra “Upahasa”, from the “Expanding Your happiness” series, aloud rather than silently.  According to the renowned mantra teacher Thomas Farrand repeating a mantra loudly affects you on a physical level, whispering it on an emotional level and saying it quietly on a spiritual level.
  • In case you begin to experience physical or emotional pain during your meditation, stop the mantra, adjust your sitting position, in case of physical discomfort, and simply observe your breathing. When pain or discomfort arises during the meditation and you don’t change your posture to get more comfortable, you may create a negative association with the meditation and the mantra you are using and quit meditating altogether.
  • Learn Primordial Sound Meditation. There are thousands of teachers trained by the Chopra Center who can teach you this invaluable practice. Or, if you can afford it, attend a meditation workshop with Deepak Chopra. If you prefer an effortless rather than concentrated meditation, check in advance with your instructors to see what style they teach. Primordial Sound Meditation is an easy, fun and wonderfully effortless path to bliss.

About the Author

Joachim Schneider, Ph.D, Social Psychology, was trained by Deepak Chopra and the Chopra Center in Carlsbad, California as a certified Primordial Sound Meditation Instructor in 2003. He has practiced this style of meditation since 1998 and written many songs, even though he never did that before.  He teaches Spirit Sound Meditation, his version of Primordial Sound Meditation, an easy and comfortable technique allowing your mind to effortlessly take you into bliss. Schneider is also a certified Life Coach and Career facilitator. According to Jaimini Astrology, he is a singing „mantrika“, an “enchanter, one knowing sacred spells.”