Using mantras - how should I and why would I? (9 minute read)
Updated: Jul 13, 2022
Inspired by researching mantras of late, this month's blog explores how mantras are different from positive affirmations, how they have been used in history and across cultures and how they can be used today to help you to calm, or with uncomfortable feelings or difficult people. I consider traditional spiritual mantras, classical mantras and other types. I include10 tips/facts or suggestions, including with some practical mantras for different purposes, some useful and interesting links and some simple steps of how you might try to use mantras, for yourself.
I agree with Ojaya that a mantra soothes us inwardly leading us to greater peace; it's more than relaxation. So if you'd like to journey to deeper serenity than relaxed, then read on.
I've recently been using and enjoying a lovely, very very basic, mindfulness meditation by Titch Nat Hahn, click here. It is so quiet and simple and boils down to simple phrases on the in and out breath. It led to some of the deepest mindful peace and pleasure I've experienced of late. I wondered why... Was it my openness, his peace or a connection somehow that was Goldilocks just right... I used it on my own, mixing up the order as to what felt most true and could sense deeper and deeper states of rest and inner peace. It struck me that I was using something a bit like a mantra. I love the practice so have a listen and enjoy....
That practice really brought home that the key to a good mindfulness practice facilitator is the right person (trusted and respected, calm and congruent themselves) who says just the right thing, at just the right pace, at just the right time, at just the right distance with just the right volume, with just the right accent, in just the right way. It's obviously a tall order but when the Goldilocks-way is not present, it can jar and be counter productive. It dawned on me as to being the reason why people sometimes struggle with mindfulness and give up.
The simplicity of the practice with Titch Nat Hahn unlocked for me, for the first time, why mantras work or don't work or rather had or hadn't worked for me and maybe others. The fact that what he led was just so short, so true for me, that session, struck me as to why group mindfulness can be more difficult for many people (which leads to the increasing demand for one to one teaching and the idea of a mindful counsellor individualising the practices). I felt this was important to me as a mindfulness teacher and a mindful counsellor. I decided to do some more research on using simple mantras, which I hope you find interesting.... Here are tips...
Tip #1 - Understand what a mantra is
man·tra NOUN mantras (plural noun) The word mantra has two meanings. You may have previously associated the word with its first meaning, which originated from Hinduism and Buddhism thousands of years ago. This definition describes a repetition of a word or sound to aid concentration when trying to stay in the here and now - 'Om', for example (see Tip 2 for more information) is a classical mantra from Hinduism, used for over 3000 years. It apparently replicates the sound frequency of the earth itself.
Wikipedia defines mantras as 'sacred utterances, spiritual sound, syllables, words or phonemes, or group of words in Sanskrit, Pali and other languages believed by practitioners to have religious, magical or spiritual powers. Some mantras have a syntactic structure and literal meaning, while others do not.'
It's second meaning, however, is a statement or slogan (spiritual or secular) repeated frequently, as in the Theravada tradition of Buddhism. Other synonyms might be 'saying', 'motto' or 'life mantra'.
Scholars, gurus, yogis and lay people believe the repetition of a sound, word or phrase can resonate so strongly and in such as way as to impact us by drawing our attention in, holding focus and then as a consequence helping us experience the other positive benefits in mindfulness practices.
"The word mantra comes from two Sanskrit words man, ("to think") and tra ("tool'). So the literal translation is "a tool of thought." And that's how mantras are used in Buddhist and Hindu practices, as tools that clear your mind of distractions. Because when you focus on repeating that mantra over and over again, soon the noise will die down and all you will hear is your inner voice. — Russell Simmons
Tip #2 - Classical (or sound) mantras
A note on classic mantras... The best simple summary on classic meditation mantras I could find was from Ojiya website. The writer also defines the Sanskrit word 'mantra' as meaning 'tool of thought' that helps to bring oneself into deep samadhi or deep rest.
Classical mantras are raw, organic sounds whispered from Mother Nature herself (they are sounds originally heard in nature). Classical mantras have no meaning but the sounds themselves are believed to penetrate the nerves in our bodies to harmonise energy. They can remove negative blocks, brain fog, relax and energise.
Click here for a mix I have put together on Youtube of various classical and spiritual mantras to try. Just sit mindfully and stay with the sound and the feelings generated. Join the chant (some of the videos have the text in the comments) if you feel this adds to your mindful meditation.
Tip #3 - Know that mantras are different from positive affirmations
Moving on to secular mantras... When I use the word 'mantra', I'm not referring to 'positive affirmations', like: 'I am beautiful', 'I have abundance' etc. These could be mantras but for me the difference is key: mantras are already things you believe and deeply feel are true; put simply there is no jarring. Positive affirmations are often things you want to be true. There is a difference.
You may already have found that a randomly selected positive affirmation just does not work; if anything it makes you more aware of the lie you're trying to convince yourself is true. I could plausibly repeat 'I am a fried egg' and it feels no different to 'I am a beautiful, thin, wealthy abundant human'. I just know I'm not a fried egg no more or less than I know myself to be a beautiful, thin, wealthy, blah blah human'. Mantras are much more than hopeful sayings.
Tip #4 - Make your mantras already true (in that moment at least)
For me, I have worked out that for mantras in mindfulness practices to have any impact, I must already believe the words as fully true, for me, right now. So going back to the example of the TNH meditation, that started my ponderings, 'breathing slow' and 'breathing deep' works as a mantra for me when I'm practicing mindfulness, because most of the time, my in-breath can be slow and out-breath can be deep. It would not deepen relaxation if it were not true.
So my tip is that the truth of the mantra must not jar before it can do it's job, which is to be a thought tool to hold my focus in the here and now. Initially, you may not be attuned enough to notice if the statements fully resonate or ring true, but as with all things, your awareness will grow and you will soon be able to feel if a mantra is working to calm you or grates.
Use your own true mantras moment by moment. The trick is to use ones that resonate with you fully; if it jars, definitely don't use. If I think about the mantra below deeply it is true, but sometimes I have to think deeply what 'enough' really means and who 'enough' is really for. I am careful to believe what I'm saying or I realise I waste my time. Yet when I say this, mindfully, it is very grounding and reassuring. As you try this mantra, what arises for you? Play with each sentence and as you settle. I expect you may learn some new things...
Tip #5 - How to use a mantra
Help yourself to be alert (good posture that supports wakefulness yet with easy comfort) with good attention (not over tired, as few distractions as possible, warm) and in the moment (establish this with breath awareness or body awareness, sound awareness and so on), then softly (and, as ever, with self-compassion and non-judgement) talk the manta to match your breathing rhythm.
Avoid getting into a mental story or psycho-analysis at this point if you are noticing thoughts or emotions. Just use the mantra to stay present with your voice, your breath and sensations. Notice but don't follow and engage the thoughts. Just gentle bring attention back to the mantra and sensations. Play with more focus on the mantra, more on your sensations, breath etc. Use them all to help you hold focus. As you focus, you may find you relax more deeply.
You can explore the mantras perhaps in a relevant yoga pose or using a relevant compassion gesture. If you're working and silently using a mantra in a tricky situation, facing your boss for example, the process is the same without the yoga position :). Using these simple techniques try some of the mantras below.
Tip #6 - My favourite mantras for self-esteem
I am perfectly imperfect. Good enough as I am. I love this one as it takes away all harsh judgement. I know humans cannot be perfect at everything. Being imperfect allows me to improve, to try my best, to better accept others' weaknesses. That's the perfect human in my eyes, so I am indeed perfectly-imperfect. 'Good enough, as I am' for me sometimes needs backing up with 'I'm trying my best so I'm good enough as I am'. I sometimes combine with: No comparing. No judging. This one brings me back to myself and helps me to stop comparing my weaknesses to someone else's strengths and vice versa. It takes away judgement for me and reminds me that I am as I am and they are as they are. Combined with the above reminder that it's perfect being imperfect, I can be myself without getting wrapped up in 'shoulds' and 'coulds'.
Try these if you're feeling judged by others or yourself. Get your mind on board with believing the truth, then feel the truths.... Then stay in that moment using the mantas to support your moment by moment awareness of the truth. I hope you find it very supportive and grounding if you're having a bit of a wobble of self-belief.
Tip #7 - My favourite mantras for endurance and resilience
Well I have to say, when things get really bad, I have a little secret favourite I shall share that isn't too spiritual or professional. Keep it a secret :)... It is "**** this ****, I'm off to Narnia". When things get to much I chuckle, remember the little meme picture I saw and focus on my breathing and rub my thumb and fore-finger and feel my finger print, getting very focussed on the very therapeutic (for me) sensations of the body. My inner world, is my version of Narnia: away from the reality of the annoyance and the thing that is giving me overwhelm. My mantra: 'Oh/Narnia' as I let go.
More seriously, my other favourites are: 'Mountain, Seasons' as I breathe in and out and imagine I am the mountain and all that is going on around me are just the seasons. This covers all bases for me. I like 'Strong, Steady' or 'Strong, Steadying' if things are wobbly and I feel the former is too incongruent.
Tip #8 - My favourite mantras for mindful breath awareness
Try the following options as you focus awareness fully on your breath experience in the here, in the now, bringing back attention when it strays: 'aware of in/ aware of out progressing to 'in/out', 'breathing deep/breathing slow progressing to deep/slow' , 'aware/letting go', 'here/now' (feeling the experience of being in the moment and mind-fully aware of here/now) and the breath.
Tip #9 - My favourite mantras for compassion practices
For compassionate practices I have used this mantra when feeling a bit shaky, 'I'm just being human (breathing in) and 'That's allowed' (breathing out). Or giving loving kindness to people I find a challenge: 'They are just being human' and 'That's allowed'. I also find it useful and calming to ensure my energy is very soothing, when I am in a counselling role, to use 'I'm okay (breathing in), You're okay (breathing out), allowing myself to feel the sensations of feeling okay to settle, whilst listening and staying focussed and in the moment with the client.
Tip #10 - My best mantras - your best mantras....?
"It too shall end" or "I'm safe" are the two mantras which I find resolve almost all uncomfortable feelings and help me to stay with them.
I would invite you to reflect on your own life mantras and keep a list of these jottings, meditating with each one at different times, to help soothe, stay with an uncomfortable sensation or when having a conversation that challenges you. Try them out. Give things a chance and please feel free to contact me using the 'Contact me' page if you would like some 1:1 mindfulness teaching and support with mantras to help you achieve more calm.
Here is a fairly simple blog on the science behind mantras. https://www.yogajournal.com/yoga-101/sanskrit/mantras-101-the-science-behind-finding-your-mantra-and-how-to-practice-it/
Here is one that is a bit more scientific The Scientific Reason Behind Chanting Hindu Mantras Revealed by Neuroscientists - Indus Scrolls
Take a quiz and find your Sanskrit mantra Want to Find Your Personal Mantra? Take a Quiz! - SOLANCHA
Feel free to comment or get in touch if you would like 1:1 support.