When you want to listen to music, you know what to do—tune your radio to the right station and there it is, playing non-stop. Meditation with a mantra, my teacher H H Sri Swami Satchidananda used to say, works the same way: when you want to connect with the spiritual consciousness within, you repeat a mantra to tune into that always-available inner frequency.
The mantra works like a tuning fork, using sound to create a physical sensation that vibrates in your body and mind. Ultimately the practice of mantra meditation, which is also called Japa Yoga and has been practiced for thousands of years, will still the thoughts that dominate your mind so you can experience your full potential and realize your true nature.
Sound is a powerful force. Many spiritual traditions recognize sound as the first form of creation, that sound is the primordial manifestation of Spirit into matter. The Vedas also identify the sound Om as the first, most elemental sound—the sound that creates and includes the full spectrum of sound, and represents the infinite universal Spirit. Om and other mantras traditionally used in the practice of yoga originated from the inner exploration of ancient sages. In deep meditative states, they heard subtle inner sounds that eventually were systematized into one of the oldest alphabets and languages on earth—Sanskrit.
The Rig Veda is generally accepted to be the first scripture where Sanskrit mantras are found in written form and is dated about 1,500 B.C.E. However, since mantras originate from a tradition that even today continues to be transmitted orally, it is believed that they had been used for thousands of years prior to that. These early seekers, attempting to achieve liberation from suffering and union with the Divine, developed a series of sounds that, when chanted internally, can draw the senses inward and quiet the mind. In this stillness, they experienced the more imperceptible aspect of being that resides beyond the mind: oneness with all of life and a sense of profound peace.
How to choose a mantra
Ideally, a mantra for meditation is composed of only a few words or syllables, so that you can repeat it easily, without getting lost in a long phrase. And while the mantra you choose may be imbued with a particular meaning, when you use it for meditation, you focus on repeating it steadily as a way to engage your mind, rather than thinking about the meaning of the word or words.
Perhaps the simplest and most profound mantra is Om. Many traditional Sanskrit mantras include the elemental Om sound, and each one produces a specific experience of sound vibration that corresponds to its meaning. For example, repetition of the mantra Om Shanti, which refers to the supreme peace of the universal Spirit, creates a subtle, yet powerful vibration of peace. Other mantras you might want to try are Hari Om, which refers to the aspect of Spirit that removes the obstacles to awakening, or Om Namah Sivaya, meaning salutations to auspiciousness, the transformative aspect of Spirit.
But you don’t have to limit yourself to Sanskrit. You can choose a word or phrase from any spiritual tradition or sacred language. You could use Amen, Shalom, or Peace—any word that is meaningful to you. Choose something you find uplifting, a word or words that inspire you and engage your heart. Avoid words that stir up thinking or disturb your mind in any way.
You might want to experiment with a few different possibilities to see what feels right for you. But eventually, you’ll want to choose and stick to one mantra. Using it regularly will help you deepen your meditation practice and experience the full benefits.
Preparing Your Instrument
While meditation is essentially a practice of focusing the mind in one direction, it is difficult to steady the mind if the body is uncomfortable or the breath is uneven. Before meditating, you might want to do an asana or pranayama practice to heal the effects of stress, revitalize the body and reset unhealthy breathing patterns that create mental agitation. Chanting is another practice that energizes and engages the mind in the present, and can also effectively lead into silent meditation.
Before you sit, decide how long you plan to meditate. If you are new to the practice, I highly recommend starting with a brief sitting, like 10 or 15 minutes, even 5 if that’s what feels appropriate for you. If you enjoy it, you can always add more time. Just as with asana, it’s more effective to practice regularly—even if it’s for a short time—than to do an occasional marathon sit.
Sit comfortably in a chair or on the floor, supporting your posture with a blanket or a cushion. Find a position that is both aligned with the natural curves of the spine, and relaxed, so that you can remain fairly still. Close your eyes and do some breathing practices (pranayama) or some slow, deep breathing for a few minutes, then relax the breath completely.
Repeat the mantra you’ve chosen aloud, slowly, and steadily, concentrating on its sound as fully as you can. If it is comfortable, you can repeat it in unison with the natural rhythm of the breath, either splitting it so that you repeat half the mantra on the inhale and the other half on the exhale, or repeating it with both the inhale and exhale.
After about ten repetitions, begin silent repetitions by moving only the lips (this helps you keep a steady pace). Then, after another ten repetitions, begin internal repetition with no lip movement.
As thoughts arise, simply return to the mantra, knowing this is a natural part of the process. Gently bring your attention back again and again, experiencing the internal sound as fully as possible.
Continue for the period of time you set aside for meditation. Come out of the meditation by taking a few deep breaths and then sitting quietly to see what you feel. You may feel calm and centered. Or you may experience a ventilation of old thoughts and feelings from the subconscious mind, which might be uncomfortable but is normal and ultimately beneficial. Regardless of your immediate reaction, you can take comfort in knowing that regular practice has immense benefits; it enables you to experience the present moment more fully, and to make conscious choices instead of falling into habitual reactions. Underneath all the busyness of thought, you will discover a vast healing silence, a source of light that can expose and unearth the roots of suffering, and a source of wisdom that can profoundly transform your life.