What comes to mind when you hear the word mantra? Maybe a monk chanting on the side of a mountain. Or maybe it’s a motivational word or quote that brings you inspiration - words to live by, so to speak. While these are good definitions of mantra in our culture this isn’t so much what I mean when I talk about mantra meditation.
Mantra meditation is a form of meditation where we use a mantra to help guide us into a positive feeling state. Mantra isn't some Sanskrit word with magical powers of enlightenment. Mantra is literally a tool of the mind. Let me explain.
We can think of the mind like an ocean where there are different layers of experience. Thoughts (thinking mind) —> Knowing (understanding) —> Emotions (sense of feeling we get from our understanding)—> Pure Feeling (just the sensations without the thoughts) —> Being (existence)
Your mind is an ocean.
We use mantra as a tool to navigate through these layers of mind. The most important thing to remember is that we want to choose a mantra that has personal significance and resonance for us. This should literally be a word that inspires positive feelings in our body (belly/chest).
Mantra is ultimately a feeling, not a word, phrase, or thought. As we start our meditation we can use a word to inspire feeling as we make our way down through the layers of mind. But the mantra is the direct feeling which is where we want to end up. So...
Pick a mantra that’s easy to feel your way into.
We may start off with a word like…relax…or release. Or it could be a broader word like peace…or harmony. It may be a pet’s name or little one that, when you think about, brings about a sense of care and compassion. It doesn’t matter what the word or vision is so long as it’s personal to you.
(For the sake of ease, we’ll use ‘relax’ as our example for the rest of this article.)
The next step is use the word to inspire thought. So, sit in a comfortable chair or lie down and close your eyes. Start by repeating the word relax (sometimes it helps to speak it audibly but it can be done just in our own head). Relax. It’s just a thought.
From there, start to get an idea of your understanding of this word. In order to do this, you might think, ‘what would it feel like to relax?’ or ‘how would I know I’m relaxing?’. The purpose here is to get a better understanding of how you relate to the mantra.
The next layer is emotions. As you move deeper you’ll notice a feeling inspired by your understanding of the mantra. You may actually start to feel a sense of ease as your body relaxes more fully and easily. It’s at this layer that you might begin to let go of the verbalization (mental or audible). Remember, the mantra is the feeling itself.
Through this process you move closer and closer to your direct experience of the mantra and find a space of pure feeling. Once you get to this feeling state you no longer need to repeat the word at all. The feeling is now the mantra and you can simply allow yourself to be pulled deeper and deeper into the direct feeling.
The last layer of mind is being, where you are totally at ease and in alignment with your nature. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The goal isn’t necessarily to reach this place every time. In fact, you won’t at first. The intention is to practice moving through the layers of mind and to become more skillful at using the mantra as a tool.
Mantra meditation is not a linear process, you’re not just going to sink right down through the layers. As you practice you’ll notice that you kind of bob up and down through the layers. I like to call this cycling. You can think of cycling as your ability to recognize where your attention is, to let go of unhelpful and resistant thoughts, and to gently guide yourself back towards a place of feeling using the mantra.
So it may look something like this...
Start by repeating the mantra, relax —> begin to sense of relaxation —> distracting thought comes up and attention shifts —> recognize we’re away from the mantra and we guide our attention back to the thought of relax or the feeling —> get a little deeper this time and start to get a sense of relaxation in the body —> another resistant thought comes up and that pulls us out again —> recognize the thought and gently steer back toward the feeling using the mantra —> and so it continues...
Cycling is a very important part of the meditation practice because this is where you actually start to develop your skills of awareness (recognizing what has your attention), allowing and release (letting go of resistant thoughts). You’ll get better at using the mantra to navigate through the layers of mind over time with practice. Take it slow and be patient.
So, when folks tell me they had a ‘bad’ meditation what I often parse out through our conversation is that they experienced a lot of thoughts. This is where it’s important to remember that it’s the mind’s job to create thoughts. Just like the heart is responsible for pumping blood and the lungs for breathing, our mind is for thinking! You don’t want to try to stop it, but you do want to learn how to navigate it and use it to your advantage.
“What you put your attention on grows strong in your life.” - Maharishi Mahesh Yogi
The mind is the most powerful tool we have. It’s how we dream, create, and ultimately accomplish our goals in life. But we’ve never been taught how to use it effectively so much of the time it feels like our mind has control over us. Especially when we tend to be thinking of anxious or stressful thoughts! As we develop better control over our mind through meditation, we can accomplish anything we put our mind to.