An ancient yogic text, the Shvetashvatara Upanishad, likens the process of reciting a mantra (mantra japa in Sanskrit) to uncovering the inner essence of something. Much like pressing sesame seeds yields sesame oil, churning milk produces butter, or digging a well exposes water, the sages say, the power of repeating a mantra reveals something deeper within each of us than what we see on the surface.
According to this Upanishad, mantra japa is akin to lighting a fire with fire sticks. When two sticks, aranis, are vigorously rubbed together, they ignite—a metaphor for inner awakening.
Making one’s body/mind the lower arani and the mantra Om the upper one, practice meditation as if you are rubbing two fire sticks together, and in the process unveil the inner Self which is hidden within you. (1.14)
Practice meditation as if you are rubbing two fire sticks together, and in the process unveil the inner Self which is hidden within you. Thus, reciting a mantra uncovers the experience of Being.
Thus, says the text, reciting a mantra uncovers the experience of Being.
What Is a Mantra?
Using mantra meditation to uncover our essential being sounds great, but what exactly is a mantra? A mantra is a sound that has, as the ancient sages say, one foot in this world and one foot in a world that transcends ordinary sensory and psychological experience. The foot located in this world resides in the mind, where the mantra is first recited and then gradually internalized—like the words and melody of a favorite song. The other foot of the mantra is para, or beyond.
Mantras are not simply mysterious formulae nor are they meaningless or alien sets of sounds. Each mantra collects the energies of inner life—your motivations, aims, and desires—and elevates them to a new level. Eventually the practice of mantra leads to a fusion between the mind of the practitioner and the transcendental reality the mantra embodies.
A devotional experience as well as a conceptual one, every mantra contains an element of reverence for the Infinite. This can be found in phrases such as “we worship,” “we revere,” “we bow to,” and “we cherish” found in many mantras. Mantras also contain within them the name of the Infinite as a way of expressing one or more aspects of the Divine’s presence. As in most spiritual traditions, a variety of names embody the concept of the Infinite—Father, Mother, Lord, or Source of Healing. But in mantra japa, none of these terms is meant to externalize God or to replace a meditator’s religious affiliation. Instead, each name points to an aspect of the Indescribable as a vehicle through which a meditator can realize his or her own essential nature.
In addition to the name of the Infinite, many mantras incorporate a “seed sound,” a bija mantra, that captures in very concentrated form aspects of potential spiritual energy. These sounds are woven into mantras and add to their potency. They are, it is said, devices for linking the mind to such qualities as strength, health, peace, and happiness. With practice, these qualities emerge in the mind to guide and protect a meditator.
The Lower Stick
The first step in mantra meditation grooms the body and the mind to receive the mantra. This “lower stick” preparation comprises a series of steps, each assisting in the process of collecting and focusing mental energy.
1. Your body. Select a posture you find both comfortable and steady. Classically, only a few postures are considered appropriate for meditation, but if you’re just learning—or have any injuries—you may need to find a more comfortable alternative. You can, for example, sit against a wall or in a chair to help you relax your physical effort and focus on what is occurring in your mind.
2. Your breath. Once you rest your body, focus on your breathing. By smoothing and softening the breath, you can reduce emotional tensions. In the process, see if you can find the pace of breathing that is natural and just right for you. Then your breath can become the relaxed focus of your attention.
3. Your mind. Finally, as a prelude to engaging with a mantra, feel the breath continuously flowing in and out of your nostrils. By training your mind to rest in this single sensation, other senses relax and turn inward, helping you gather together mental energies that are otherwise easily dissipated.
Thus, by resting your body, deepening your breath, and centering your attention on the breath in the nostrils, you prepare the way for mantra meditation and establish a solid foundation—a stable lower stick—for practice.
The Upper Stick
Once the body and the mind are primed, you’re ready for the “upper stick,” the actual sound of the mantra, which will protect, nourish, and guide your mind. Because a mantra focuses attention within the mind itself, it offers a simple alternative to distracting thoughts and emotions and creates a sense of inner distance, acting as an alambana, a meditative support for the mind.
A common mantra to start with is the so’ham mantra, which is associated with the flow of the breath. To practice this mantra, recite the sound so with the inhalation and the sound ham (pronounced “hum”) with the exhalation, letting the mantra sounds flow through the entire length of the breath. These sounds magnify the cleansing and nourishing qualities of each breath and soon become a deep source of nurturance. A literal translation of so’ham is “I am who I am” or “I am That.”
Breathing and the so’ham mantra are profoundly linked in meditation, but that doesn’t mean you should alter your breathing pattern to link it to the mantra. In fact, you should maintain the natural pace of your breath when you practice; otherwise the mantra will disturb your breathing, and your nervous system will no longer remain relaxed. Preserve the natural flow of your breathing, and you will find that you can rest in the sound of the mantra far more easily.
Refining the Mantra Flow
While the so’ham mantra coordinates with your breathing pattern, most mantras do not. Mantras such as the Gayatri mantra, the Maha Mrityunjaya mantra, or any of the initiation mantras given for personal practice soon separate themselves from the breath and find their own pace, creating a strong mental focus with little awareness of body or breath. That’s when the mantra becomes the upper fire stick—repetitively rubbing against the lower stick of the body/mind.
When the sound of the mantra flows smoothly in the mind, the process is termed japa, mental repetition. When it begins to flow even more rapidly as a kind of effortless pulsing, it is known as ajapa-japa.
The pace of a mantra changes with practice. It may start slowly, gradually increase in speed until it seems to flow effortlessly, and finally pulse so quickly that you are no longer articulating the sounds of the mantra clearly. This change in pace is one of the ways in which a mantra “leads.” When the sound of the mantra flows smoothly in the mind, the process is termed japa, mental repetition. When it begins to flow even more rapidly as a kind of effortless pulsing, it is known asajapa-japa.
For all mantras—with the exception of the so’ham mantra—using a mala (a string of beads) is a useful adjunct to practice. A mala serves two primary purposes—it measures your practice (one mala marks 100 repetitions) and it helps maintain the focus of your attention. When your mind wanders, your fingers on the mala serve as a gentle reminder to return to your inner focus.
An Essence Emerges
Parroting a mantra is not the goal of mantra practice. While the pace of your mantra recitation may vary from slow to fast, remember to do it with full attention. The key element of practice is to let your mind rest in the sound of the mantra. When you meditate, use the early stages of practice to relax and anchor your body and breath. Then refine your focus, let the sound of the mantra arise, and rest in it.
The key element of practice is to let your mind rest in the sound of the mantra. When you meditate, use the early stages of practice to relax and anchor your body and breath. Then refine your focus, let the sound of the mantra arise, and rest in it.
It is true that a mantra confines the mind—that is part of the discipline of meditation. By centering your mind in a mantra and allowing the mantra sound to fill the space of your mind, you can set other thoughts and mental processes aside and stabilize your attention. Although the journey is gradual, you will sense that little by little the effort to confine the mind in this way actually produces quite the opposite effect.
During periods of mantra japa, despite the fact that the mind remains occupied by the repetitive sound of the mantra, a deep inner silence is awakened. You will begin to sense that you are, in essence, something more than your mind’s activities, something more than your mind. You are a silent witness, an enduring presence, and a fountainhead of joy. At that point, your mantra will be more than a simple resting place for your mind. It will provide the strength to support you over the winding meditative journey ahead.