Mantras - An Introduction

Image by mailumes, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.


Image by mailumes, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.

In a previous post, I explained the benefits I have experienced by committing to a regular meditation practice. One of the techniques that can be used during a meditation session is the recitation of mantras. In this post I will introduce mantras and give you some advice on how best to use them in your own meditation practice.

What are mantras?

Mantras are essentially words or phrases that are repeated many times, over and over again. The symbol in the image shown above is the Sanskrit text for the mantra Om, which is perhaps the most well-known mantra, and often what a novice meditator assumes he or she will be chanting during every meditation session. However, Om is not the only mantra available to a meditator, nor is it the only aspect of meditation.

As described on Deepak Chopra's webpage about mantras:

"The word mantra has two parts: man, which is the root of the Sanskrit word for mind; and tra, which is the root of the word instrument. A mantra is therefore an instrument of the mind, a powerful sound or vibration that you can use to enter a deep state of meditation."

Taken from the Wikipedia article on mantras:

"'Mantra' means a sacred utterance, numinous sound, or a syllable, word, phonemes, or group of words believed by some to have psychological and spiritual power. A mantra may or may not have syntactic structure or literal meaning; the spiritual value of a mantra comes when it is audible, visible, or present in thought."

My personal take on mantras is that using them in a meditation practice helps calm the mind and focus attention. There have been times during my own meditation sessions that reciting mantras has led me to another state of consciousness. These experiences are difficult for me to describe, but the important message I would like to share is that using mantras can be an effective meditation technique.

How Do Mantras Work?

Repeating a mantra allows the mind to focus wholly on one particular sound or meaning. When we practice mantra repetition during meditation, we allow the vibration and meaning of the mantra to meld with our subconscious mind while also detaching from the racing thoughts that often fill our mind. This leads to myriad positive results, including altering the brain's chemical balance, freeing the mind from injurious thoughts, identifying negative habits, elevating our spirituality, and healing diseases.

The practice of repeating a mantra over and over again replaces the normal thought processes that we experience. It is really easy to get caught in our thoughts without even realizing it, and mantras can help us break that pattern by refocusing our attention on one specific word, sound, or phrase. After all, it is difficult to think about one thing while focusing your attention on another!

Three Mantras for Beginners

Included below are three mantras that are excellent for novice meditators. I have included each mantra's respective meaning and pronunciation that will help you started with incorporating mantras into your meditation practice. Please note that executing the correct pronunciation of a mantra is not as important as cultivating an honest intention while reciting the mantra. In addition, there are debates about the correct pronunciation of mantras. When in doubt, just do your best.

1) Om

  • Translation: Om is said to be the sound of the universe. It is generally understood to be the original vibration, representing the birth, death, and re-birth process of Samsara.
  • Pronunciation: Om has an alternate spelling of Aum, which is the sound that is made when the mantra is pronounced correctly. Position your mouth as you would say the vowel "U". Start vocalizing "Aum" and finish with "M" in the form of a deep hum. Another way to recite Om is to open your mouth, begin to utter "Aahh", slowly close your mouth as it becomes "Ooh", and when you close your mouth the sound becomes "Mmm".

2) Om Namah Shivaya

  • Translation: Also known as Panchakshara, the "five-syllable" mantra Namah Shivaya is a holy salutation to Shiva. Shiva is understood to be the supreme deity of transformation who represents the truest, highest self. When an Om is included at the beginning of the mantra, the phrase translates to "I bow to Shiva". When I first started using this mantra, I imagined the meaning to be "I bow to myself", which helped me dedicate myself to my then-new meditation practice and thus, to myself.
  • Pronunciation: When the beginning Om is included, this mantra is simply pronounced "Aum-Nah-Mah-Shee-Vah-Yah". I found this video from Yoga Vidya to be very helpful when learning to pronounce this mantra.

3) Om Mani Padme Hum

  • Translation: This mantra loosely translates to "The jewel is in the lotus" or "Praise to the jewel in the lotus". It is said that all the teachings of the Buddha are contained in this mantra, and it cannot really be translated into a simple phrase or sentence. If you are interested in further reading, this explanation on Dharma Haven gives a thorough explanation of the meaning behind the mantra.
  • Pronunciation: This mantra is pronounced "Aum-Mah-Nee-Pahd-May-Hum". The vowel in they syllable "Hum" is pronounced as in the English word "hook". The final consonant in that syllable is often pronounced "ng" as in "gong".

How to Recite Mantras

Learning to recite mantras is fairly straightforward. It is important to find a physical space that is pleasant to be in for an extended period and a time of day when you will not be interrupted by others. To begin, simply sit in a comfortable meditation pose with either closed or open eyes and repeat the mantra.

A mantra is traditionally repeated 108 times, the same count as the number of beads on a mala. There are many reasons given for the number 108, ranging from numerological theories to metaphysical explanations of the amount of energy lines there are in the human body. A more thorough examination of the reasons behind the number 108 can be found at SwamiJ.com. I have found using mala beads to be extremely helpful when first learning to recite mantras.

It is okay to begin by reciting mantras out loud, however the goal in many spiritual traditions is to arrive at the point where you can recite the mantra silently in your mind. The idea behind this is that once you are able to recite the mantra silently, you are fully entering the silence of the mind. While you repeat the mantra, the process generates a conscious vibration that carries the mind into deeper levels of awareness. As you continue with your meditation, the mantra becomes less prominent in your mind, and eventually you are led to the realm of pure consciousness from which the vibration arose.

Now that you have a basic understanding of what mantras are, how they work, some mantras to begin with, and how to recite them, I invite you to give the technique a try during your next meditation session.

Namaste.