Once I went to see a spiritual teacher who planned to write a mantra on my tongue using a leaf dipped in honey. But she ran out of leaves. Or honey. I can’t remember which.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. She told me the mantra and we repeated it together. She also told the same mantra to the other hundred or so people who came to see her. I’ve used that mantra off and on for the past 20 years.
Another spiritual teacher gave me a mantra, but it was just for me. He told it to me privately in a closed room, and he instructed me to never repeat it to anyone. He said that keeping it a secret was part of the power of the mantra. I wasn’t sure whether I believed that, but I have kept it a secret for several years.
You probably know what a mantra is, but I’d like to tell you about a woman who found a magic lamp in her backyard. Well, she rubbed it of course, because that’s what you do, and a genie came out.
“Tell me what to do,” he said.
“Is this one of those three wish deals?” the woman responded.
“Not at all,” said the genie. “I’m at your service forever.”
The woman had the genie clean the house, do the laundry, and cook dinner.
“What next?” asked the genie.
“Oh, neuter the cat, I guess.”
“Done!” the genie reported. “What next?”
“Umm, shear the hamster?” the woman offered.
“Done! What next?” asked the genie.
“That’s it!” exclaimed the woman, “why don’t you take a break.”
“It doesn’t work that way,” the genie said, now beginning to appear more oppressive than helpful. “Give me something to do or I’ll eat you!”
The startled woman was quick on her feet and answered, “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.
The genie is like the mind. The flagpole routine is the primary role of a mantra. Not only does the genie/mind demand constant attention, it gets in the way of our accessing the spiritual dimension and experiencing spaciousness in our consciousness. It tends to take up the whole frame.
A mantra gives the mind something to focus on, which, over time (meaning both over the course of each meditative session and over the course of using it day after day), greatly diminishes the degree to which the mind dominates our awareness. Often, what starts out as a mechanical recitation of a word or phrase (usually silently) becomes something more like a self-replicating wave that occupies the mind while our consciousness expands and transcends it. Of course, every time we sit to recite a mantra doesn’t produce a transcendent or mystical experience, but it’s quite common to feel peaceful and expansive.
Besides simply occupying the mind to facilitate meditation, mantras sometimes have other purposes. Some believe that mantras, through their sonic quality and/or meaning, produce a spiritual or therapeutic effect. Certain mantras are meant to be spoken aloud; others can be “spoken” mentally. Some are meant to open a particular part of the body or aspect of consciousness, to express devotion, to invoke or “install” a certain deity, or to elicit a change of fortune. Using a mantra with a meaning you understand may have the additional benefit of aligning your intention around a positive idea. On the other hand, using a mantra in a language you don’t know or one without any meaning frees you from getting analytical about it.
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 sometimes called bija or “seed” mantras, such as Om, Aim (“aeem”), Shrim (“shreem”), Hrim (“hreem”), Krim (“cream”), Hum, Hu (“hue”), Ram (“rahm”), Vam (“vahm”), Ham (“hahm”), Ong, God, and Love.
Two-syllable mantras go well with the breath, since you can say/think the first syllable on the inhale and the second on the exhale. Some common ones include Shanti (peace), So-Ham (I am that [Divine]), Ham-sa (swan, also an inversion of So-Ham), Sat Nam (I am Truth), and one of my favorites, Open.
Common longer mantras include Om Namah Shivaya, Om Mani Padme Hum (or Om Mani Peme Hung), and Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. There are thousands more. Read about these if you’re interested. You may wish to find one that seems suited to your spiritual sensibilities, or one that just feels good to say. There are lots of great books and sites on mantras to explore.
As for the notion that a mantra should be kept secret, some teachers will say that a mantra loses its power if it’s shared. At best this is superstition. At worst, it’s a pretentious attempt to control students, maintain hierarchy, generate mystique, and keep people coming back to pay for increasingly “higher level” mantras. And now I’m going to tell you the “secret” mantra I received: it’s hring. Try it out if you feel like it.
Though I have some disdain for secrecy around mantras, I do believe there’s sometimes value in being selective about sharing the details of your spiritual experiences. Attempts to explain these experiences in words often fall short, and if you share with someone who isn’t receptive, doesn’t understand, or criticizes the experience, this may diminish its significance for you or cause you to doubt yourself. It’s also worth asking yourself why you’re sharing these experiences. Sometimes we do so to better understand them or to be instructive or inspiring to others. Other times it’s because the ego has co-opted our spiritual experiences and is using them to get approval. So it’s a good idea to make sure you’re sharing for the right reasons, you can withstand judgment without losing conviction in your practice, or otherwise to share only with those who can hear you in a non-critical way.
This week I recommend that you 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 or expansive state.