Niggun: Mantra of Calm

Niggun: Mantra of Calm
Placid pond, reflecting a blue sky with a few clouds, the reflection surrounded by an island of lily pads with white lotus flowers, illustrating a post about niggun, a mantra of calm.

What is a niggun?

Simply put: a niggun is a wordless melody. But, in spiritual work, it is more than that. A niggun is a melody of the soul. An expression from the heart of the composer. Or a soothing vibration gifted by another. Even, sometimes, a guide on an inner journey.

If you’re lucky, a niggun appears when you need it. Then, it stays with you, so you can call on it when you need it. Like the one I’m introducing here. I call it “the niggun of light” because it leads me out of the dark tunnels of anger.

Here’s the story of its birth. An emergency delivery, in very heavy traffic.

So, there I was. Driving a fellow spiritual teacher to the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal. It’s just a 30 km (18 mile) drive. But, if you’re familiar with the route, then you know. Traffic is unpredictable. Cars can sit on the Lions Gate Bridge. And sit and sit, for hours. But still, I was surprised by what happened that day.

During the first hour of our drive, my colleague and I discussed spiritual development. We shared tools, practices, insights, and experiences. One teacher taught him a powerful mantra. “If you chant these words,” the teacher had said, “you will never again erupt in anger.”

So, we talked about what it means to “chant a mantra.” First out loud; then with a whisper; next as a thought; and, finally, as a feeling.

First level: Just learn it. Sing it out. Memorize it and feel the music in your body.

Second level: Watch your behavior. If you find yourself expressing anger, remember the mantra. Whisper the words and calm yourself.

Third level: Observe your thoughts. For example, how you interpret your own feelings of irritation. Do you leap to blame others? If so, think of the mantra. Use it as a counter-thought.

Fourth level: Refine your feelings. If you’ve used the mantra well, then you can trust it. Before your anger even arises, the mantra will chant itself.

Then, we even enjoyed the second hour of the drive. My colleague talked about his life. About why he was eager to get home that evening.

But the third hour? My colleague began to fret. He worried he might miss the ferry. So, he became anxious. And then angry. At the traffic, at the other drivers, and, then, at me.

But when we finally approached the terminal, he saw that the boat would not leave without him. So, he calmed down and said a cheerful goodbye. Then, I turned the car around to head home through the same thick traffic. And I thought about our chat. Maybe my colleague just hadn’t chanted the mantra enough yet!

As I drove home, I heard a niggun inside my mind. Over and over I chanted it. For the three hours it took to drive 18 miles. But you know what? I stayed calm, even happy. Because the niggun worked at the fourth level, above. It filled my inner space so that anger did not arise.

And now I have it whenever I need it.



Want to learn more about the practice of niggun? Here’s a beautiful essay by my colleague Rabbi Hannah Dresner. Want to learn more about chant? Here’s an essay I wrote about multi-faith approaches.

Photo credit: Laura Duhan-Kaplan, Riley Park pond.

  1. How wise you are, my dear teacher. No lectures today, no stretching. Ah, like a putting one’s hot feet in a cool stream. I loved this niggun, I’ll love learning it. This time, though, I just felt joyful, and rose to dance. In these times, I’ve striven to be ok enough, but not often do I reach joy. But today, wth your gift. So thank you, with love.
    Shabbat Shalom.

    1. Thank you, Ora, a wise teacher yourself. Enjoy the dance.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *