Meditation means different things to different people. To some, it suggests periods of quiet self-observation. To others, it means breath awareness or thinking reflectively. In the yoga tradition, a key element of meditation is the repetition of a sound or a prayer—a mantra—which focuses the mind and becomes a source of inner balance and well-being.
The process of mentally repeating a mantra is called japa, which literally means “muttering” in Sanskrit. With practice, japa becomes well rooted in the mind, and the sound of the mantra flows continuously from moment to moment. It may flow slowly, linked to the breath. Or it may flow at a moderate pace, disengaged from the rhythm of breathing. After considerable practice, the mantra may pulse very rapidly—its syllables no longer carefully articulated. In this case, meditation with the mantra flows without exertion. This phase of practice is called ajapa japa, or effortless repetition.
The mantra becomes audible without mental exertion, and the inner space of the mind is filled with its sound.
Adepts sometimes refer to this phase of meditation as “listening to the mantra.” The mantra becomes audible without mental exertion, and the inner space of the mind is filled with its sound. The resulting practice is effortless and delightful—but it occurs only after considerable experience with a mantra. How can you cultivate ajapa japa? And what is happening in the mind when your mantra sweeps along in perpetual motion? Let’s have a look.
If you have never practiced mantra meditation before, the process of reciting a mantra may appear rather mechanical. But the repetition of a mantra is anything but robotic. With regular practice you will find that japa practice will lead you to a much deeper understanding of yourself as you encounter new layers of your mind. Wants and hopes, duties and obligations, ideals and aspirations surface in your awareness. From meditation to meditation, life unfolds under your inner gaze, asking you to witness it in its entirety.
A mantra serves as a kind of centering device during this process. It offers a resting place for the everyday mind. It collects distracting energies. It brings spiritual insights forward, so that you can integrate them into daily life. Just as great music transforms a listener, a mantra gradually lifts and transforms your mind.
You can use a variety of mantras for meditation. Some meditators are given a personal mantra by their teacher. Others choose to use one of the great Vedic mantras such as the Gayatri mantra (“May my mind be guided by divine light”) or the Maha Mrityunjaya mantra (“May the Lord lead me to freedom from fears and attachments”). You may also recite a prayer such as the Christian invocation Kyrie eleison (“Lord have mercy”) or the Buddhist mantra Om mani padme hum (“May the blessed union of practice and wisdom awaken”). No matter the mantra, its sacred sound can help you progress through both the japa and ajapa japa phases of practice.
Generally speaking, you can progress through three phases of japa practice by doing the following. First, link the mantra sound (or a portion of it) with the flow of your breath. The fusion of breath and mantra makes your concentration stable, reducing the mind’s tendency to wander. Linking the mantra with your breath also slows the pace of mental repetitions, giving you time to patiently witness your concentration process.
Next, let go of the breath and focus your attention on the sound of the mantra alone. Once you disconnect the mantra from the breath, the mantra will begin to pulse at its own moderate pace. Breathing continues to flow smoothly, but awareness settles in the mantra. This shift results in a more refined concentration process. Your mind rests within itself, without the support of an external object (the breath).
Finally, as the mind becomes familiar with the sound of the mantra, it will naturally begin to pulse more quickly and effortlessly. This phase of practice becomes increasingly subtle, turning into ajapa japa as the mantra gains momentum. When the mantra is reverberating very rapidly, you may sense it more as a pulsation of energy than as the articulation of syllables. Nonetheless, the mantra is present, and you remain centered in it.
Unfortunately, the mind has an uncanny knack for losing its focus during periods of japa, letting the mantra slip out of awareness and leaving a tangle of distractions in its place. Using a mala can be very helpful in enhancing concentration at this stage. A mala is a string of 108 beads used to count the repetitions of your mantra during meditation. One round of the mala equals 100 repetitions of the mantra (8 of the mala’s 108 beads are “given away” as a sign of humility and a recognition that your mind likely wandered from its concentration several times). Depending on the practice, your daily meditation session might include two, three, or more rounds of a mala.
To further refine your concentration during japa, weave the sound of one mantra repetition into the next. As one repetition of the mantra ends, let the next one arise. If the space between repetitions is eliminated, then fewer thoughts emerge from the unconscious to distract the mind and carry it away. But don’t force the effort to link one mantra repetition to another. Instead, make smooth transitions from one mantra repetition to the next, so that the chain of sound in your mind flows naturally, easily, and without pause.
Over time, your focus on a mantra will imbed its sacred sound in you more securely.
Despite your best intentions, your efforts to reduce mental distractions could become woefully tiresome to you were it not for the fact that, even in the earliest stages of practice, concentration results in a peaceful and pleasant mind. Over time, your focus on a mantra will imbed its sacred sound in you more securely. When you meditate, it will return to your awareness with greater ease and increased energy.
The unbroken flow of sound created by weaving one mantra repetition into the next is a prelude to ajapa japa. With regular practice, the pace of repetitions will increase. Concentration will deepen. Repetition of the mantra will occur with an effortless momentum in your mind. The mantra will reverberate more rapidly than usual and will seem to continue in the background, even when other distractions occupy your mind. During this phase of practice the mantra whispers incessantly.
The mantra arises, stays for a time, and then moves on, much like a passing encounter with a friend on the street.
Another sign that you’re progressing toward ajapa japa is when your mantra begins to surface in your mind at unexpected times. The mantra may come to you while you are washing the dishes or driving. It happens without any real effort. The mantra arises, stays for a time, and then moves on, much like a passing encounter with a friend on the street.
Eventually, a time comes when you can hear the mantra sound whenever you like, simply by closing your eyes and relaxing. Ajapa japa becomes a deep source of peace and calmness—a center of well-being.
As delightful as ajapa japa sounds, be aware that the mind will still become distracted during its practice. (In fact, if the mind is not well grounded, distractions will arise with almost the same ease as the mantra!) How can you anchor your concentration at a deeper level? How can you train your awareness to truly rest in its focus? The key is to learn how to center your mind in ajapa japa, using the same skills that you practiced in earlier stages of meditation:
Rest your attention in the mantra, allowing other energies to pass through your mind without engaging in them.
Continue to smoothly weave one repetition of the mantra into the next.
Use a mala to deepen your concentration.
Relax into the flow and speed of the mantra, whether its pulse is slow, medium, or fast.
Center your heart, your devotional self, as well as your intellect in the mantra.
If distracting thoughts dislodge your attention, slow your japa down until you can refocus with more stability.
As you follow these steps, japa will evolve into ajapa japa. A moment will come when you will naturally set your mala down and let your mantra emerge as an effortless pulsing of sound. Relaxing in this spontaneous flow, your mantra will cradle your mind in its embrace, a deep center of awareness.
This is not a sudden process. If you are looking for instant enlightenment, you won’t find it here (or, most likely, anywhere else!). But cultivate ajapa japa and your mind will become deeply focused and relaxed. Along the way you will uncover a natural source of happiness and well-being within. In the end, your mantra will become something more than a sound. Its presence will hold you, lift you, and comfort you—the embodiment of Spirit, made audible in you.