Vanity thought #104. What am I thinking?

Still exploring better ways to chant japa.

A few days ago I mentioned semantic satiation – a psychological reaction to repeating a word many times over. Generally the word loses its meaning. Does it affect our practice of chanting?

At first I hoped to find some zealous anti-cultists on the Net who surely have covered the evils of repetitive chanting and then I would try and refute their arguments. That is not very interesting, however. We already know they are wrong, so why bother?

The phenomenon itself is fascinating enough to think of its implications. And why not?

I must admit I know very little on the subject but no one ever studied the effect chanting Hare Krishna from this angle either and I am not writing a doctoral dissertation, just a blog post.

So what is semantic satiation? How does it work?

First of all, semantic refers to meanings. Words must mean something first and then lose the meaning later.

In earlier experiments, about a hundred years ago, people were just asked to report when they thought satiation took place. Later on scientists figured out better ways to measure it.

When people are asked to repeat numbers, for example, you can always give them a test and measure both the accuracy and speed of solving numerical problems before and after.

The results are indisputable – meanings really gets lost.

But can we equate numbers with names? In as much as both carry the meaning, and here we run into a little problem of what our Names really mean. Do they have any objective meaning? Not really, I don’t know anyone who has seen Krishna in person, most of what we mean by “Krishna” is what we ascribe to Him ourselves. How can we measure something so subjective?

We can separate, however, when the Name really doesn’t mean anything to us and when we say it with feelings and intensity.

When scientists studied effects of similar words, words that are loaded with all kinds of personal meanings, they’ve found that satiation is not a straightforward process. At first the meaning actually becomes clearer and more, well, meaningful. Then the increase in appreciation of the word slows down, reaches its highest point, and then drops off into satiation itself.

I bet everyone can observe exactly the same behavior during japa – waves of intensity and concentration when the Name really starts making sense followed by periods of downs when the mind wanders away.

See, the effects of satiation are temporary, the meaning never gets lost forever, there’s just this temporary mental fatigue that goes away after a while.

There’s also a stage where people LOAD new meanings into the words they repeat, they generate these new meanings themselves. Happens a lot when I chant, too. I just had  a blog post about it a couple of days ago.

Scientists also discovered some very useful applications for semantic satiation. People with phobias, for example, need to confront their fears to realize that they are groundless. One way to get them to face their nightmares is to bring them to the satiation point. At first people would freak out, going up the inverted U curve where their fears actually magnify, but after prolonged exposure and repetition the they will move down the inverted U and that’s when their fears become meaningless and they become cured.

I wonder how it works on people with Tourette syndrome, you know, guys who swear uncontrollably.

Another practical application is in education where drills and repetition have long been the staple food. Scientists discovered that retarded and culturally deprived children have very high tolerance against satiation. They never seem to get enough, never become fatigued.

When applied to Krishna Consciousness it sounds a lot like calls for being simple and not thinking too much. Some devotees can indeed read the same chapter from Bhagavat Gita again and again and never feel bored. That is great, but, psychologically speaking, it’s not normal. Culturally deprived children, for example, lose their interest once they assimilate into the “normal” group and acquire about the same amount of experience.

By culturally deprived I mean someone who’s never seen a television and so can sit and watch the same cartoon or a movie replayed again and again, and the ads, too. This doesn’t last long, however.

So, while re-reading Bhagavat Gita might mean the devotee has real love and appreciation for everything related to Krishna and thus never gets bored, or it might mean he hasn’t reached the same amount of exposure yet. Eventually everyone will get curious about going beyond Prabhupada’s books. That’s just a stage, like getting married and starting a family. Not the best for spiritual practice but if you don’t do it you’ll literally go mad.

That’s why we, devotees in general, also like to look at our philosophy and the shastras from different angles. That’s how we keep our interest going, and this practice is actually thousands years old – even great scriptures like Bhagavatam must be delivered in a way that reflects the level of the audience. It’s in this captivating exchange between the speaker and the listener that Krishna appears in full, not in droning on and on, reading lines from a book. I know it’s my fault that I think listening to this it’s boring and you can leave me here, rotting in material consciousness, but wouldn’t I and people like me make a lot more progress if the subject matter is presented in a more appealing way?

I hope my own blog does not often disappoint in this regard.

In cases where high satiation point is desirable, like in education, there are ways to keep students attention and prevent slipping in meaningless stage. Teachers are taught how to repeat the same things over and over again but each time with a new twist, present a new angle to the same concept.

In experiments with word repetition they try changing speed, volume, and pitch. That’s exactly how devotees chant their japa, too. Every now and then someone would start chanting louder or faster or quieter or tries a bit different rhythm. This is totally normal for someone fighting the mental fatigue and trying to keep concentration on the Names.

Another observation concerning words with multiple level meanings is that people might start with assigning one meaning to the word and end with assigning completely different. Usually they’ll start with more complex one and end up with the simpler one. The word “soft”, for example, might start with connections to “soft music” or “soft heart” and end with basic “soft to the touch”.

I’ve noticed the same change when chanting Krishna’s names, too. Multidimensional awe and inspiration first, with lots of details and flavors, and then slipping into “just that one, can’t feel the greatness anymore”.

One of the best ways to fight semantic satiation is subvocal repetition, when you say the words in your mind but not out loud. Some say that this is how japa must be chanted, btw. They say what we do in ISKCON is not japa, it’s kirtan.

Whatever, Srila Haridasa Thakur has established the superiority of loud chanting five hundred years ago. No need to start that old argument again.

But then one might say that Haridas Thakur didn’t have a problem with semantic satiation. It happens to devotees only on the stage of offensive chanting, when the Name behaves like an ordinary material sound. On the next stages Its spiritual potencies take over and all this psychological mambo-jumbo loses all relevance.

Until we get there, however, I don’t see the reason we shouldn’t try all available means to keep our attention on japa. Changing speed, changing positions, getting up and walking or sitting down – whatever helps us avoid slipping in meaningless, mindless repetition. It’s not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of determination at the cost of damage to our false egos.

Yes, a great devotee might chant all his rounds sitting cross-legged on the floor with a straight back and eyes half-closed, deep in meditation. Most of us are not there yet and so we shouldn’t pretend.

Perhaps we should try to mentally repeat the words, too. Not just say the mantra on autopilot but get the mind to follow each Name, each syllable, as in subvocal chanting.

Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with taking a break and doing something else if the Name has stopped meaning anything to us. I don’t think chanting in the state of mental fatigue is very productive. If all we do is sixteen rounds a day then getting these sixteen rounds rights is probably more important than simply chanting through regardless of quality.

So what if it would take two and half hours with all the breaks? As long as we have time for that, then what’s the problem? Many of us would have wasted that extra hour on something else anyway, after or in between the rounds – what’s the difference?

When I think of applying it to my own schedule I see that all objections come from the little guy inside of me who wants his “me” time all to himself. That little guy who thinks that japa takes too much of my time already.

Should I listen to him? I don’t think so.

Whatevs, my own mental fatigue has fully settled in already. Will resume tomorrow.

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