Thirteen Tips on How to Use a Mantra
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THIRTEEN TIPS ON HOW TO USE A MANTRA
MANTRA USE: Following are 13 practical tips on how to use a mantra or
sacred word. These suggestions are general in nature and should apply
to most any use of mantra.
OPPOSITES CAN BOTH BE USEFUL: Mantra japa (repeating or remembering
mantra) can seem a bit complex when we ask what one "should"
or "should not" do, or what is "right" versus "wrong" to do.
Actually, two seemingly opposite practices can both be useful, with
one simply being subtler than the other, or having a greater tendency
to lead attention inward. One method may be a starting place that
naturally evolves into the other.
TWO ENDS OF A SPECTRUM: All of the descriptions below contrast one
pole of a spectrum with the other (external-internal or gross-
subtle). In this way, the practices can easily be compared, while
seeing the relative value of one versus the other. One form of
practice might be useful at one stage, and the other more useful
UNIVERSAL SEED MANTRAS: The foundational, primary sounds are
called "seed" or "bija" vibrations in Sanskrit. Such universal sounds
can also be called basal, prime, primordial, essential or basic sound
vibrations, as well as other descriptive names.
Om is such a sound, especially when focusing on the Mmmmm... sound
vibration, which is somewhat like mentally remembering the sound of a
buzzing bee. Both inhalation and inhalation might be done smoothly
and slowly, while remembering that Mmmm... sound mentally. Om Mantra
can be used as a seed vibration alone, or along with deeper meanings.
Soham is a universal mantra vibration, with Sooo... being remembered
with inhalation and Hummm... being remembered with exhalation.
Ahhh... can be remembered with inhalation and Ummmm... remembered
Many other such sound vibrations can also be used, whether or not
coordinated with breath. For example, any of the single-syllable
vowel sounds can be used, with or without an Mmmm... sound at the end.
It is the practice itself that will convince one of the viability of
such universal sound vibrations as means of relieving the autonomic
nervous system, while calming and focusing the mind. Mantra practice
like this will prepare the mind for deeper meditation beyond the
syllables of the mantras.
LONGER MANTRAS: There are many longer mantras in many languages. Some
are like positive affirmations and some are for specific, desired
benefits. Some are related to religions, and some are not. The
principles of using mantra that are listed below are universal,
applying to all of the many types of mantras.
COMPACT PRAYER: Some mantras can be described is as short, compact
prayers. One can easily think of examples where a particular sentence
or phrase from a longer prayer or writing forms a compact prayer or
mantra. Once again, the principles below are universal, applying to
any of these types of mantra.
1) REPETITION WITH FEELING
One can recite a mantra solely as a mental process, somewhat like
training a parrot in rote repetition. While this may help train the
mind to be one-pointed, it is not nearly as beneficial as reciting
the mantra with feeling. Recitation along with feeling is a deeper
process that brings greater benefits.
In either case, it is important to note that the use of mantra merely
to repress emotions is not the intent. With emotional challenges,
mantra can have a stabilizing effect while a person deals with those
challenges in other healthy ways as well.
2) CHANTING INTERNALLY
Chanting mantra aloud can be a very enjoyable and useful process,
whether alone or done with a group of people.
After some time that process turns inward, and the chanting is done
in the inner silence.
3) REPEATING ITSELF
One might initially use willpower to remember the mantra. This
training the mind has a centering or balancing effect. (However, it
is not a good idea to use mantra to repress, avoid, or escape from
other thoughts and emotions.)
Another approach is to sit silently, with attention inward, and allow
the mantra to arise and repeat itself. It might take some patience,
but this is a subtler practice.
Notice that repeating with willpower is a form of "expression," while
allowing mantra to arise and repeat itself requires "attention."
Expression and attention relate to the indriyas.
The process of attention is more internal than the process of
expression. Also, attention leads to concentration; in turn,
concentration leads to meditation; and then, meditation leads to
4) AT ITS OWN SPEED
Some practitioners and teachers of mantra recitation intentionally
see how fast they can recite the mantra. This can definitely create a
groove in the mind for remembering the mantra.
A more advanced or internal practice is to allow the mantra to come
at it's own speed. Over time, the mantra will naturally shift in
speed, sometimes moving very fast, faster than the mind might
normally be able to recite. At other times, it will naturally move
5) COUNTING OR NOT COUNTING
Counting practices can help to focus the mind and create deep
impressions that have a stabilizing effect.
A practice where a specific number of mantras is done over an
extended period of time (called a purascharna) can be a very
beneficial practice in clearing or purifying the mind. For example,
one might do 125,000 repetitions over a few months. A larger and
longer practice is called a maha-purascharna.
Yet, when counting mantras, awareness might tend to stay more on the
surface level due to the external aspect of the counting.
When the counting is set aside, the mantra can more purely shift to a
deeper form of meditation, where attention is naturally drawn to the
mantra as a single object of focus.
Both practices, counting and not counting, are useful and have their
place in sadhana (spiritual practices).
6) WITH OR WITHOUT MALA
In the beginning of using mantra, it can be beneficial to use mala or
counting beads when remembering mantra (mala usually has 108 beads).
By getting the physical body involved through the motion of the
fingers, it can be much easier for the mind to stay focused.
However, setting aside the mala, disengaging the use of the motion of
the body (the karmendriyas) allows the attention to more purely go
inward, past body and sensory awareness, following the mantra as it
leads you inward.
Both types of practice, with or without mala, are useful and have
their place in sadhana (spiritual practices).
7) FOUR LEVELS
Mantra will naturally move inward through stages, if allowed. It is
important to remember this, so as to not unintentionally keep
meditation shallow when it is trying to move into deeper peace.
For example, the word "shanti" means peace or tranquility.
The "feeling" that gradually emerges is more internal and peaceful
than is the "repetition" of the syllables alone. When the syllables
drift away, one might then meditate on the "feeling" of peace itself,
which is more subtle. Initially, this feeling might fade quickly, and
be resurrected by again remembering the syllables of the mantra.
Gradually, that "feeling" has fewer breaks or distractions, and
becomes a somewhat constant, pervasive "awareness."
This eventually leads inward to a deep "awareness" that is the root
of the sound. It somewhat defies description, but as a root of the
sound, it is like a soundless sound of the mantra that is resting in
8) MANTRA AS A NAME OF GOD
Some practitioners use as their mantra a name of God from within
their religion, or as given by a teacher.
At first the mantra or name might be used externally through
repetition, chanting, or in song.
Or, the name or mantra might be recited or remembered internally.
Then, the name or mantra itself might drift away, as the grosser
sound is replaced by a deeper longing or communion for what is behind
the name or mantra.
9) MANTRA WILL "LEAD"
Sometimes the mantra is naturally trying to "lead" attention into
silence, and the practitioner thinks that mantra is being forgotten.
There may be extra effort to then continue to recite, or internally
speak the mantra.
Deeper than this is to allow the mantra to naturally "lead" attention
to its deeper, subtler aspect that rests in the silence.
This "leading" process can be tricky in practice, as one might just
be falling asleep. It requires a bit of practice and attention to
notice the difference between drifting off into sleep and going into
a deeper, quieter, more clear state of mantra meditation.
This "leading" quality is one of the most important aspects of mantra
10) SPEAKING VS. LISTENING
A good way to understand this dimension is to think of songs you may
have heard. Once those sounds are in your mind, they automatically
arise, without any effort.
Initially one may internally "speak" or "recite" the mantra.
Later, the practice is more like "listening to" or "remembering" the
mantra, than actively speaking.
One may or may not literally "hear" an inner sound. It is the
mental "stance" of listening or remembering that is being practiced
here. It is somewhat like remembering a person whom you love. The
name of the person may come and go in your mind field, but the memory
of the person is not dependent on the presence of the name.
(To further understand the significance of the difference
between "speaking" and "hearing," see the paper on the indriyas.
11) DEALING WITH THOUGHTS
Mantra can unwisely be used to repress ones thinking process. Mantra
should not be used to avoid life and dealing with mental and
emotional issues. At meditation time, one can easily get into an
inner fight between the mantra and the stream of thoughts. This is
not the best thing to do.
Better than fighting, is to allow a period of time for inner
reflection or internal dialogue to explore and deal with those
thoughts and emotions. Then, it is much easier to remember the mantra
as it naturally arises in the stream of the mind.
12) JAPA AND LISTENING
Some translate the Sanskrit word "Japa" as "reciting" or "repeating,"
while others translate "Japa" as "listening" or "remembering." One is
an active process of "expressing," while the other is a passive
process of "paying attention."
These are two different approaches to the use of mantra (mantra
japa). The process of actively reciting or repeating is
more "externally" focused, while the process of listening or paying
attention is more "internally" focused.
The "active" process is easier to practice in the beginning, while
the "attention" process is more internal and advanced.
13) AJAPA JAPA
For the approach whereby mantra japa means actively "repeating"
(noted above), this process might become automatic over time (like
spontaneously singing a song you have heard many times). This
automatic repetition is one form of the term "ajapa japa."
For the approach whereby mantra japa means "listening" or "paying
attention," that awareness might gradually become a constant
awareness of the underlying feeling associated with the mantra. This
is another, subtler form of the term "ajapa japa."
Where mantra japa means "repetition," then putting "a-" in front of
it means "without" repetition. Hence, "ajapa japa" is
repetition "without" repetition (it is automatic).
Where mantra japa means "listening" or "remembering," then "ajapa
japa" means constant remembering "without" the effort of reciting to
cause that awareness.