A mantra is a tool for concentrating the mind. A mantra is a word or sound one repeats aloud or silently that brings one to a focussed state of peace. Often it is a name of God or a spiritual phrase. The Hindu and Buddhist traditions have identified many mantras and elaborated upon their various characteristics and effects upon the meditator. Mantras are used in most every other mystical tradition as well. The mantra is a spiritual tool worthy of deep study by the spiritual seeker. Yet, one can benefit from the use of a mantra without adhering to any particular set of beliefs.
In his book The Relaxation Response, Herbert Benson describes how his research found that physiological changes associated with the relaxation response, for instance, decreased oxygen consumption; decreased carbon-dioxide elimination; decreased rate of breathing, could be elicited using a meaningless word or phrase, just as they can be elicited with a sacred mantra.
Benson suggested using the word "One" as a mental device to shift the mind from logical, externally oriented thought. Repeating the word in coordination with the breath shuts off the flow of thoughts that keeps us revved up in our normal waking state.
When we think words, our vocal apparatus moves. If you observe closely, you may notice this subvocal activity in your throat as you read. A mantra may work, in part, by blocking the activity in our vocal apparatus, which in turn halts the regular flow of thoughts. A mantra also occupies space in our conscious mind, which slows the data flow. It's a bit like multitasking. If you use up most of your RAM, your software will run more slowly. You might wonder, do smarter people need a longer mantra to use up more of their mental system resources? No. Fortunately it doesn't work like that.
In a practical sense, any soothing word or sound can be used as a mantra. Some teachers suggest using a nonsense word. Others prescribe a word of deep spiritual meaning. We suggest you use one that will grow in meaning for you through repetition. While meditation has physiological and psychological benefits as a mental exercise alone, it is also a fundamental tool for attaining deeper meaning in life, for reaching a higher level of consciousness. Its benefits are transformational if you allow them to be. One could do hatha yoga or Tai Chi in the same spirit as one approaches calistenic exercises and receive benefit. One could do meditation as a relaxation exercise and obtain benefits. But one would also be missing out on the wonderousness of it all.
Sometimes people are given a mantra by their spiritual teacher. If you don't have such a guide, then you can pick a mantra that resonates for you. It is also suggested that once you have chosen a mantra that feels right, you stay with it and make it part of you, rather than switching from one to the other haphazardly.
OM GURU OM
OM NAMAH SHIVAYA
AUM MANE PADME HUM
LORD HAVE MERCY
CHRIST HAVE MERCY
PEACE TO ALL
ALL IS ONE
In the Vedic tradition, "OM" is the great mantra. It is written, "Even as all leaves come from a stem, all words come from the sound OM. OM is the whole universe. OM is the truth of the whole universe." When one practices the mantra OM, one can come to sense the unity of all things. The vibration of "OM" is said to contain all vibration. It is the sound of water falling, the voice of thunder, the pealing of cathedral bells, the sacred sound of the ram's horn. It is the hum of honey bees, the beat of a drum, the hum of an engine, the whisper of your computer fan, the purr of a kitten, the beat of your heart, the sound of your breath.
Traditionally, OM, or AUM, is pronounced AH-OWM. When spoken aloud, this word starts in the back of the throat with "AHHH," works its way forward with "OOWW," and finishes at the lips with "MMM." It uses the whole vocal apparatus. In part this is why it is said, "All words come from the sound OM."
If you are in an appropriate place, pronounce the mantra aloud. As with any mantra, it should be repeated by lovingly coordinating it with the incoming and outgoing breaths. You can also use the mantra silently. Hear it in your mind. Repeat it over and over.
Let the vibration of OM fill you. Let it activate your life energy. Let the sound vibration merge with thought vibration. Allow your mind to be clear of all other thoughts. If thoughts arise, let them go and come back to the mantra.
Practice the mantra daily. Invite the mantra to stay with you during your day. Incorporate it into any rhythmic activity, walking or typing or sweeping the floor, for instance. Insert it into the pauses between your thoughts. Let it float you to subtler and subtler realms.
© 2002 Tom Barrett