The first six months of my life were spent on an RAF aerodrome, and as a child I heard the grown-ups talking of military aircraft and of daring aerial battles during the war. No small wonder that I still think of flight as a metaphor for spiritual progress.
As every western devotee of Krishna knows, the daily commitment of a dedicated practitioner is to chant a minimum of sixteen rounds each day. This takes around two hours. The effect of the Hare Krishna mantra is quite remarkable, especially when recited early in the morning with mental focus and without distraction. The meditator feels uplifted by gradual degrees until there is a distinct feeling of lightness; of being free from gravity.
But in order to derive the most benefit from mantra meditation it must be done with determination and a feeling of gratitude and respect. Wherever the mind wanders it must be brought back to the sound of the mantra. That may take some time each morning; the mind still has to struggle with the lingering remnants of the night’s dreams, snatches of remembered conversation or hopes and longings for the future. Eventually, after an extended period of mental wrestling, the intelligence overpowers the mind and a level of absorption is reached.
I think of it as the gradual ascent of an aircraft – a British wartime Spitfire, naturally. So here’s what chanting sixteen rounds feels like in flight mode:
0 – 4 Rounds
The first round is usually accompanied by much coughing and spluttering. The engine is cold, having been out in the field all night. As you turn over the engine it may take a minute or two before it catches and you can rev it up. But once warm, the chocks are kicked aside, your plane turned in the right direction and you begin making your taxi down to the runway. You look at the sky, look at the wind direction, and begin to pick up speed along the runway. You begin to feel an intermittent lift as your plane reaches take-off speed.
4 -8 Rounds
You lift the nose of your Spitfire, but you’re a little too soon, and you jerkily come down to the ground again. Picking up just a little more speed, you see the trees flash past you. Again that feeling of lightness. And then the noise in your head stops: your wheels are no longer bumping along the ground. At first you’re only a few inches above the ground, but slowly, gradually, you lift and the ground sinks away from your eyes. Only the tops of the trees are visible. You’re flying.
8 – 12 Rounds
But you’re still too low to relax. You have to climb because flying low is dangerous. It takes more effort to climb than it does to take off. So you adjust the throttle and pull back on the lever, aiming for the wisp of cloud up ahead of you. Suddenly it goes darker; you are surrounded by cloud. You can’t see anything ahead or to the sides of you. You feel mild panic at having your vision so restricted. But after a few minutes, as you continue to climb, the cockpit becomes lighter and lighter.
12 – 16 Rounds
You break through the cloud cover and watch as it gently retreats slowly below you. The strength of the sunlight up here surprises you. It’s a completely different world; clean and fresh, light and bright. Up here there is only you, the bright blue sky and the Sun. For a moment even the mechanics that got you up here seem to disappear. The aircraft has become only a distant presence. You can’t even hear the engine anymore. You are soaring now, climbing ever higher. Nothing can stop you now. You are free.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air. . . .
Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
— John Gillespie Magee, Spitfire Pilot