Mantra is a sound vibration through which we mindfully focus our thoughts, our feelings, and our highest intention. —Girish
A mantra is a syllable, word, or group of words that has psychological or spiritual power. The earliest mantras go back three thousand years, when they were first used on the Indian subcontinent. The resonance that arises between a sound vibration and our thoughts, feelings, and intentions happens naturally, much like two tuning forks resonating at the same frequency. Today, there are a multitude of phrases readily available throughout the world’s meditative traditions.
The word mantra is derived from two Sanskrit words—manas, meaning “mind,” and tra, meaning “protect.” Together they translate to “protection,” and in some cases, “compassion.” Our original, still mind is always here, but our worries and fears leak all over everything, so our original self goes unnoticed.
A mantra has the power to protect us from this leaking. And since compassion can be described as wisdom actualized, a mantra also cultivates clarity and wisdom. A mantra, then, is a tool that protects the mind, cultivates clarity and wisdom, and actualizes compassion.
Although most prominent in Eastern traditions, mantras are also used in other traditions and religions. A popular mantra for Protestant Christians is simply the name Jesus. Catholics commonly repeat the Hail Mary prayer or Ave Maria—my Catholic grandmother used to work her prayer beads continually with the Hail Mary or Ave Maria. Many Jewish practitioners recite Baruch atah Adonai, meaning “Blessed art thou, oh Lord.”
The very first phrase I used to mindfully focus my thoughts, feelings, and highest intention—knowing almost nothing about Buddhism—was from The Teachings of the Mystics by W. T. Stace. It was Jesus’s simple phrase, “the peace that passeth understanding.” I repeated it, over and over, during a train ride from San Francisco to Salt Lake City. This was before I began a meditation practice or even knew what meditation was. I discovered that if I repeated it continually with heartfelt effort throughout the trip, I became surrounded and permeated by a feeling of deep spaciousness and joy. Once I fell into the groove of it, the sense of spaciousness sustained itself through the remainder of the trip.
Most of the mantras I have used since then have come from the Buddhist tradition, with one exception. During the three or four years I spent with a Lakota spiritual guide, I followed his advice to repeat Mitakuye Oyasin, which translates to “all my relatives.” Whenever I felt walled off, as if I were somehow excluded from the interbeing nature of all life, I would chant Mitakuye Oyasin.
Mitakuye Oyasin reflects the Lakota worldview that all beings are interconnected. And time after time, I fell into the same deep spaciousness and joyful sense of interbeing I’d experienced many years before when I first heard it. If you do this yourself, you may find that the joyful stillness you aspire to is closer than you think, closer than your own breath.
Teacher and author Sally Kempton said that a mantra is “a bit like rubbing a flint against a stone to strike fire.” She goes on to say that it’s the friction between the syllables of the mantra that ignites the fire and, over time, shifts your inner state.
One way that the fire shifts your inner state is by burning through the turmoil and the incessant mental chatter that can get so stirred up during our meditation. As we come back to our word or phrase again and again, there is the potential to open into a great spaciousness that includes everything and is, at the same time, infused with a deep calm—even in the midst of so much seemingly insurmountable turmoil.
Yogis have used mantras for hundreds of years to experience the profound sense of calm that mantra practice can bring about, and Western science is finally catching up. Modern brain-imaging techniques have confirmed the benefits of this ancient practice. In one study in 2017, researchers from Linköping University in Sweden measured activity in a region of the brain called the default mode network—the area that’s active when we are remembering, regretting, and rehearsing—to measure the effects of mantra practice. The researchers concluded that mantra practice induced a state of deep relaxation, and furthermore, they found that a regular practice could promote the ability to deal with life’s stresses more skillfully.
Find a mantra that resonates with you and try to set aside ten to twenty minutes a day to practice. Once you’ve chosen a specific mantra, it’s best to stay with it for some months, giving it a chance to do its work, before considering a switch to another one.
Begin by sitting in a comfortable position. Repeat the mantra a few times silently, on each inhale and exhale. Don’t try to focus on the mantra too hard; simply allow your body and mind to relax into it. Just like you would in any other type of meditation, when thoughts or feelings enter your mind, simply notice them and then return to silently reciting the word or phrase.
The most frequently recited mantra in the Zen tradition comes from the Heart Sutra: gate gate paragate parasamgate (gate is pronounced ga-tay). It translates to “gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond.” You can repeat one word or the entire series of words.
When I was having an especially difficult time staying focused during a seven-day retreat, Suzuki Roshi suggested that I make this mantra the focus of my meditation. It was a surprising suggestion because, at that time, Suzuki had never talked about using techniques of any kind, much less mantras. All these years later, I continue to be grateful for this instruction, and I still use it whenever I’m experiencing some difficulty in my meditation.
Gate gate paragate parasamgate is about going beyond our limiting beliefs, which cloud our ability to see clearly. And going beyond strongly held beliefs requires that we go beyond the three types of poisonous glue that hold these beliefs in place. The first type is greed: we grasp at any shiny object that promises immediate pleasure. The second poisonous glue is hatred: we push away anything that interferes with our getting what we want. And the third is ignorance: our tendency to ignore everything else.
So far, I have mentioned several mantras from which you may choose. Here are three more that you might find to be useful:
May I meet this moment fully.
May I meet it as a friend.
In the first sentence you are affirming that an alert and balanced mind, which is not caught by before or after, is a possibility for you. In the second sentence, you are affirming your ability to welcome whatever comes with an open heart.
Real, but not true
This mantra affirms that your thoughts and emotions are real— but not necessarily true. When we believe something to be true, we naturally contract around it. If you can relax into this short but insightful mantra, new meanings and possibilities may be revealed.
Things as it is
This expression originated with Suzuki Roshi and has since become a popular mantra. While grammatically incorrect—which I foolishly pointed out to him once—Suzuki’s odd nomenclature has a unifying effect. It acknowledges conventional reality, which is often referred to in Buddhism as “the 10,000 things”—and then, in the same breath, affirms the no-thingness of ultimate reality.
Choosing a mantra is not complicated. Just select one that resonates with you, engages you, and burns through your mental chatter. Thich Nhat Hanh suggested “deep” on the in-breath and “peace” on the out-breath, or “present moment” on the in-breath and “only moment” on the out-breath. It really can be that simple—and at the same time quite powerful.
The nineteenth-century poet Alfred Lord Tennyson discovered that he could calm his mind by merely sitting still and repeating his own name. Here’s how he described the experience: “My individuality itself seems to dissolve and fade away into boundless being . . . the loss of personality seeming no extinction, but the one true life.”
I’m sure it’s obvious by now that the specific mantra is not so important. What is important is consistency and engagement. When you catch yourself trying to empower the mantra yourself, just return to the actual practice of pouring your whole body and mind into the mantra and letting go of any thought of gain or loss. Your effort is to simply be present with the mantra—wherever it takes you, there you are, fully present and at one with the mantra, which, within itself, includes all beings.
From Enlightenment Is an Accident: Ancient Wisdom and Simple Practices to Make You Accident Prone by Tim Burkett, edited by Wanda Isle © 2023 by Tim Burkett. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. www.shambhala.com
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