Once upon a time, a woman stumbled upon a tarnished bronze oil lamp in her backyard. Hoping it was one of those genie lamps you hear so much about, she rubbed it. Sure enough, a genie popped out.
“Hello,” said the genie. “As you’ve probably guessed, I’m a genie. I like to stay busy, so give me something to do.”
“Oh, goodie,” said the woman. “Is this a three wish deal?”
“Nope,” the genie replied. “You get me forever.”
“Awesome!” exclaimed the woman. “Could you do the laundry?”
“Yes,” said the genie. “It’s done. What next?”
“How about painting the house?”
“Weed the garden?”
“Neuter the dog?”
“Ummm…. make dinner, I guess.”
“How spicy? Never mind, I chose medium.”
“Gee, thanks so much,” the woman said. “Why don’t you go take a break now?”
“I don’t take breaks,” said the genie.
“Oh, well, go hang out in your bottle and amuse yourself,” she tried.
“I don’t think you get how this works,” said the genie as he brought his face closer to hers. “GIVE ME SOMETHING TO DO OR I’LL EAT YOU!”
The startled woman was quick on her feet and replied, “Ok, I’ve got it. Climb up that flagpole. When you get to the top, slide down. Then climb up again, slide down again, and just keep doing that until I think of something else for you to do.”
It worked, and the woman didn’t get eaten.
In this parable, the genie is meant to represent the human mind. As for the flagpole routine, that’s the value of mantra.
Mantras have a number of forms and purposes. Some believe that mantras, through their particular composition of sounds and ideas, produce a spiritual or therapeutic effect. Certain mantras are meant to be spoken aloud; others can be simply “spoken” mentally. Using a mantra with a meaning you understand may have the additional benefit of aligning your intention around a positive idea, although using a mantra in another language or one without any meaning may be useful in that you won’t be analyzing the meaning.
Most mantras originated in Hinduism and Buddhism, although Sikhism and other religions use them as well. Hebrew, like Sanskrit, is a profoundly intentional language, with each letter also representing a number and spiritual concept, so it has been proposed that Hebrew scripture also has a mantra-like quality. If other religions – or religion in general – make you uneasy, don’t worry. Repeating a mantra that originated in some religious tradition doesn’t indoctrinate you into that religion or make God upset.
There are entire books devoted to the theory and practice of mantras, so rather than try to say everything about them in this brief article, I’ll cut to the chase. Whether or not you believe in the vibrational power of mantras, they are useful for occupying the mind with something that doesn’t involve analysis, and they often help facilitate a meditative state.
There are short mantras and long mantras. I recommend a shorter one for silent meditation, since it’s easier to remember. The shortest one syllable mantras are called bija or “seed” mantras, such as Om, Aim (“aeem”), Shrim (“shreem”), Hrim (“hreem”), Krim (“cream”), Hum, Hu (“hue”), Ram (“rahm”), Vam (“vahm”), and Ham (“hahm”). Some other short ones include Ong, God, Love, and Shanti (peace). Then there are slightly longer ones such as the Sikh mantra Sat Nam (“saht” on inhale, “nahm” on exhale), the Hindu mantra Om Namah Shivaya, and the Buddhist mantra Om Mani Padme Hum (or Om Mani Peme Hung). There are thousands more. You may wish to find one that seems suited to your spiritual sensibilities, or one that just feels good to say. In my opinion, one of the most relaxing is the Willywonkian mantra Oompa Loompa.
This week I’d like you to try meditating with a mantra. Choose one from above or find one you like online or from a book. Sit comfortably and repeat your chosen mantra silently, at a speed that feels comfortable to you. If your mind wanders, just bring it back to the mantra. See if, compared to simply watching the breath, this makes it easier to enter a relaxed state. Report your findings in the comments section below.
Dr. Peter Borten