Yogic sages tell us that our essential nature is truth, consciousness, and bliss. The source of our misery is estrangement from our essential nature. Although the mind searches unceasingly for ways to end its suffering, it usually confines its search to the external world and thus finds only more stress. Even when we gain enough wisdom to look within, at first we encounter only scattered or uncontrollable thoughts, feelings, and daydreams. While meditation is the path that leads to absolute reality, a scattered mind is sure to cause delays. Mantra, the eternal sound or word, is the vehicle by which the mind becomes one-pointed and inward and thus reaches the eternal silence that is the source of bliss.
WHAT IS A MANTRA?
A mantra is a word, phrase, or set of sounds that, according to the yogic tradition, was revealed to the sages and transmitted in a precise manner to seekers through the process of initiation. Because these related concepts—mantra and initiation—are complex and subtle, they have frequently been misunderstood and misrepresented as the practice of meditation has spread from traditional spiritual communities into the larger society.
A mantra is a revealed word or divine sound received or experienced by an adept in the state of deep samadhi (spiritual absorption). It is a sound body for the divine being; a condensed form of spiritual energy. It can also be thought of as a compact prayer—a means of communicating with the absolute reality. The yogic texts often compare mantra to a boat or a bridge that an aspirant can use to cross the mire of delusion created by the external world and to reach the center of consciousness within. According to mystics and yogis, mantra is an eternal friend who accompanies the meditator even after death, lighting the path in the realm where the light of the sun and the moon cannot penetrate. According to the more esoteric literature of the yogic tradition, mantra is the essence of guru shakti, the power of the spiritual master. In other words, mantra is itself the guru: mantra, God, guru, and one’s Self are identical.
This last concept is difficult to grasp for those who are not familiar with the branch of metaphysics known as spanda, the science of eternal vibration. To explain briefly, spanda holds that all creation evolves from Nada, sound. The sound referred to is not speech uttered by a human voice or the audible sound produced when two objects strike each other, but anahata nada, the unstruck sound which vibrates eternally in the realm of pure consciousness. This unstruck sound, the Word that existed before the beginning of creation, is called akshara, shabda Brahman, vak shakti, or spanda.
Although a full-fledged doctrine of the Word developed only in the East, this concept is found in all of the world’s great spiritual traditions, including Buddhism, Sufism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, as well as in the spiritual practices of many tribal societies.
To have the vision of a mantra requires purity of heart and a perfectly one-pointed mind, which prepare the seeker to face the brilliance of the transcendental light in which the sense of duality vanishes. The glory of this revelation is such that the seer and the seen become one. In that moment, that which was unmanifest becomes manifest in the form of mantra and radiates in the inner chamber of the seer’s heart. From then on it shines forth, and the seekers of that truth are naturally drawn to the seer who embodies it.
INITIATION. Mantra clothes itself in the yogic language of Sanskrit. In the spiritual realm, the ultimate revelation, which is also the ultimate initiation, comes in the form of a silent communication in the universal language and is communicable to very few. Initiation of a Mantra comes from a mentor/guri to that student.
Meditative mantras can consist of a syllable or a number of syllables. The phonemes of such mantras are arranged so that the words formed by them cannot be found in any familiar language. Therefore, it is not possible to draw a meaning from those mantras.
The transformative power lies in the sound of the mantra itself.
Meditative mantras, which are found mainly in the Upanishads, are used as tools for contemplation. Their meanings are so condensed and compact that the aspirant may need to ponder them repeatedly over a long period of time. As he or she does so, the meaning manifests in a continuous wave, illuminating the interior chambers of the mind and heart and thus bringing about transformation. Such mantras are said to be particularly suited for intellectuals and those who are drawn to philosophy.
Ordinarily, when a practitioner knows the meaning of the mantra he or she is practicing, a feeling for it develops during the course of meditation, without which the practice becomes dry or mechanical. However, most of the highly secret, mysterious, and potent mantras—called maha vidyas—consist of one or more syllables without forming a word. According to the mantravedins, the knowers of mantra science, if such mantras are received in the course of an authentic initiation, they will keep manifesting spiritual fervor in the heart of the practitioner, helping to unfold the psychological conditions and determination that an aspirant needs to follow the path.
Whatever form they take, the purpose of all meditative mantras is to enable the practitioner to go beyond the mind and have a direct experience of his or her essential nature. It is not the meaning of the mantra but its subtle vibrations that lead or carry the meditator to the center of silence within. However, this process cannot really be understood until it is experienced personally.
THE UNIVERSAL MANTRA
The best way to begin the practice of mantra is by working with the breath, because the most easily recognizable inner sound is the sound of the breath. If you sit in a quiet place and attend to the flow of your breath, you can easily hear the sound “so . . .” as you inhale and the sound “hum . . .” as you exhale. The sound so-hum is a universal mantra that reverberates without any effort on our part as we inhale and exhale. A human being is born with this mantra and life depends on it completely. Breathing follows the rhythm of life contained in the sound so-hum. Paying attention to that sound during inhalation and exhalation is attending to the rhythm of life itself. So-hum is subtler than the breath. These are not symbolic statements, but facts verifiable by your own experience. Stress, fear, and anxiety vanish the moment the mind is allowed to rest in so-hum.
A more profound analysis of this mantra requires a basic understanding of the etymology of Sanskrit. Sanskrit is patterned on the rhythm of the life force, and was developed and perfected by seers who had the ability to hear those subtle rhythms.
THE PROGRESSIVE USE OF MANTRA
In the initial states of a meditation practice, students are taught to use this natural mantra while practicing breath awareness. At this stage, formal initiation by a teacher is not necessary. So-hum belongs to the language of the life force and sends out its revelation—That I am—in continuous waves. Even if you consider so-hum to be a Sanskrit mantra, it retains its universality because the meaning, “That I am,” does not contradict any faith or creed. For contemplative purposes, it can be interpreted as “I am that ever-existent truth”; “I am part of the Divine Being”; “I am that devotee of the Supreme One”; and so on.
In a systematic approach to meditation, the practitioner begins by quieting and balancing the physical body, learning how to make the breath serene, and cultivating a comfortable, stable sitting posture. That is the purpose of the physical postures and the breathing practices of hatha yoga. The next step is to withdraw the mind from external affairs and begin the practice of breath awareness. You observe how the breath flows from the tip of the nostrils to the heart center and back again. In the beginning, this simple practice creates a feeling of tranquility because it is in marked contrast to your usual habit of letting the mind wander at will. But as the superficial mental clutter begins to recede, more subtle habits surface, and breath awareness no longer bestows such a deep feeling of peace.
At this stage, meditation on the mantra so-hum is introduced. Because this sound has the intrinsic ability to draw the mind inward, it induces a deeper state of tranquility than does the practice of breath awareness alone. But again, after a period of months or years, as the mind becomes calmer and you gain access to a deeper level of your being, even more subtle and problematic habit patterns become visible. This is the point at which initiation enters the picture, as well as the point at which mantra science becomes esoteric. There is a noticeable effect when you use so-hum as an object of meditation. You will see a result whether you understand mantra science and have faith in it or not. But for the next level of mantra, which you receive at a personal level during the course of initiation, you must have some degree of insight into mantra science and a strong conviction.
The reason for this is that mantra meditation is a process through which you work systematically to bring successively deeper levels of your inner experience into conscious awareness. This process has two aspects: refining and purifying the existing impressions of the mind, and cultivating and deepening the experience of the mantra in order to create a positive groove in both conscious and unconscious levels of the mind. In the beginning, before you have acquired an awareness of the deeper levels within, it is almost impossible to observe and appreciate the deep changes that are taking place during the course of mantra meditation. Still these changes are occurring. Students who have little or no understanding of mantra science and lack patience often feel discouraged, since they cannot see any dramatic or immediate changes as a result of their practice. Many become disheartened and conclude that their mantra is not the “right” mantra. Then they may seek other practices or simply discontinue their practice and abandon the path of meditation altogether. Either way, the fruit of this discouragement is skepticism, which is one of the chief obstacles to spiritual attainment.
Mantra meditation is a process through which you work systematically to bring successively deeper levels of your inner experience into conscious awareness.
For this reason, it is important to spend some time considering the following questions before seeking mantra initiation: What compels me to look for further guidance? How do I know that I am ready for initiation? How can I be certain that the person who initiates me is part of an authentic spiritual lineage, has attained direct experience of mantra, and is not just someone who has read a lot of books and is a persuasive speaker? Is initiation necessary for my further growth and development? What commitment on my part is implied by accepting initiation, and what can I expect from the teacher?
THE MEANING OF INITIATION
Yogic history tells us that seekers must avoid the two extremes of blind faith and skepticism. Understanding your true motives for seeking further guidance in the form of initiation requires both purity of heart and sharpness of intellect. Have you become enthusiastic about getting initiated because you read an inspiring article or attended a riveting lecture? Listen to the cry of the soul for liberation—that will help you decide whether it is the time to seek initiation. Don’t seek initiation because you have tried a number of other options and it seems that you might as well try this one too. The right time is when your longing becomes so intense that it is painful to continue waiting. This intense yearning is the fruit of your good karma, and along with it a natural process of unfoldment begins.
As for the qualifications of the initiator, it has been said that a good student cannot end up with a bad teacher. To determine if you’ve found the right path, the right tradition, and the right teacher, ask yourself how spontaneously and effortlessly you are drawn in that direction. Observe carefully what is reflecting in your mind and listen attentively to what is echoing in your heart. ~ Pandit Rajmani Tigunait
A PERSONAL NOTE ABOUT MY INITIATION and NON INITIATION
When I was young (11) I was put on an orange and white pill because I was diagnosed as “Hyperactive”. I felt “insulted” and already was aligning with holistic living. Took this pretty little capsule for 3 days. Learned that “Hyperactivity” (as it was called in the 70’s) was a coping mechanism of the brain for stress received when very young. I learned also that the brain is neuroplastic! And that meditation can change things back.
So…as a rock and roll lover, I new about the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (Founder of transcendental Meditation that is based on Mantra). I had seen in the paper that he was coming to Rochester NY for a few days. Off I went.
On a rooftop of some building in downtown Rochester – I received instruction and ultimately my Mantra. I have to say, what a wonderful event it as to be with like-minded people for the first time in my life. I took this practice seriously. And it worked.
Rules of the mantra are:
- Never externalize it (never say it out loud or share it with anyone )
- Repeat over and over in the mind
- Twice per day in silent sitting
- Eventually in time the mantra falls away and meditation arrives.
Don’t anticipate that – that’s not the point at this time – enjoy this practice.
Here’s the thing….it needs dedication – tapas!
Practicing twice a day – morning and night and will never forget that first time of transcendence of ego. It’s a real game changer. Everything changes. It’s beautiful.Note: Chanting the mantra will keep the body (mouth, throat etc.) active, and therefore not allow it to sink into the state of natural, deep rest that TM is famous for. Chanting also controls the mind and prevents it from settling into silence, as it naturally wants to do. And modern science has shown us that these quieter, deeper levels of life are more powerful – the nuclear level is far more powerful than the atomic level. Similarly, mantras are more powerful when they are thought rather than chanted, but the biggest power is discovered when the mantra is transcended as in the process of Transcendental Meditation.
The above is “close” to the process of transcendental Meditation. The learning process is generally a few days long in the presence of the TM teacher. This is called “initiation”.
On another note…decades later at the Satchidananda Ashram after completing Meditation Certification with Swami K, I was offered initiation. How wonderful! But I shared I already had one but still “wanted another”. Swami K refused – as it was indicated my initial mantra was enough. Within seconds, I knew what she meant. She was right.
PLEASE NOTE: Affirmations are different than mantras. Example: an affirmation might be “May I be well” or “I am at peace”. While lovely, affirmations have a different ‘destination’ and can get caught up in duality which is the opposite direction of mantra.
I included a picture of a Zen kitty – as I will never forget when I was putting my precious cat peanut “down” back in 1997, she started purring……the Vet indicated it was her “mantra”.