The word “mantra” comes from ancient Sanskrit combining man meaning mind and tra meaning instrument, with the idea being that it is an instrument of the mind. A mantra is a word or phrase in Sanskrit that you repeat over and over, either aloud or silently.
I first learned about it when I first encountered meditation because the repetition of a mantra quiets the mind and should bring peace and clarity.
“Om” is probably the most well know Sanskrit Mantra. Om is believed to be the sound of creation. It is the first, original vibration. Positive mantras create a powerful sound vibration that aligns the mind, body and spirit to divine energy.
Using mantras is a type of meditation and chanting one is treated like meditation – seated in a quiet place where you will not be disturbed.
In transcendental meditation, a mantra is considered a personal and secret thing, but now you can find mantras online and even YouTube videos of how to pronounce the ancient Sanskrit words.
I was taught to chant it out loud seven times, then again seven times but softly, and then silently in my head seven more times or for as long as needed silently until the vibration of the sound connects in some way to your subconscious mind.
I learned much later that in India tradition, the mantra is repeated 108 times, using a string of 108 Mala beads to help you keep count. This reminded me of the praying of the rosary and other props used to focus meditation or prayer.
So, are mantras really prayers? I think they can be, but they do not have to have any connection to a religious sect or practice. Mantras, when used properly, are said to direct your life force energy (Prana) through the body and your energy centers. That is why some practitioners credit them with deep healing.
It is easy to make fun of mantras, as Woody Allen did in Annie Hall. (Do you recognize the rather distraught young man in the clip above who has forgotten his mantra? It’s Jeff Goldblum in a bit part back in 1977.)
When I first was given a mantra by some “Buddhists” I met my freshman year of college, I was told that I could request anything and by chanting my mantra regularly my wish would be fulfilled. “Could I get a new guitar?” I asked. “Absolutely,” was the reply.
That is not what mantras are about.
I question the powers attached to an individual mantra. For example, Om Namah Shivaya is the “great redeeming mantra” and is supposed to help us to call on our higher self, overcome our ego, aid in purification and space cleansing, physical and mental healing and increase self-esteem and confidence. That seems like a lot to ask of six syllables.
Om Shanti translates as “peace” and is a popular mantra. Om Namah Shivaya is also a well known Hindu mantra and the most important mantra in Shaivism. It means “O salutations to the auspicious one!” or “adoration to Lord Shiva.”
You don’t have to use a Sanskrit mantra. There are other words and phrases in English or any language you can use. J.D. Salinger introduced me to the Jesus Prayer which is used as a mantra. That short prayer is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Salinger is most famous for The Catcher In The Rye, but after the fame of that book sent him off to a hermit’s life in Cornish, New Hampshire, he wrote Franny and Zooey. That book introduced me – and I’m sure many others – to the Jesus Prayer.
Salinger’s novel also introduced me to the Russian tale The Way of a Pilgrim, which is essentially an introduction to The Philokalia – part of Christian mysticism.
In a literary sense, the story of the siblings Franny and Zooey, the two youngest members of the Glass family which was a frequent focus of Salinger’s writing, may be a reaction to the success of Catcher in the Rye.
Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of Catcher, is full of teenage existential angst. It puts him into a mental hospital. Salinger himself escaped the fame train that his first book put him on and went into isolation and read a lot about philosophy and spirituality.
Franny and Zooey is a modern American take on the path from existential depression to spiritual illumination. Franny explains the method of the Jesus Prayer in this way:
“… if you keep saying that prayer over and over again, you only have to just do it with your lips at first – then eventually what happens, the prayer becomes self-active. Something happens after a while. I don’t know what but something happens, the words get synchronized with the person’s heart-beats, and then you’re actually praying without ceasing. The prayer has one aim, and one aim only. To endow the person who says it with Christ-Consciousness.”
Positive mantras should be words that resonate for you. You could just use a word such as “peace” as your mantra. People will create their own mantra. Someone coming out of a broken relationship or leaving a job might say “I will find a better life.” The mantra can be about your intention.
More than a few self-proclaimed modern”gurus” have built a career (and fortune) by getting people to use mantras (whether they use that word or not) and to repeat over and over positive phrases such as “I am strong.”
In Franny and Zooey, Salinger also has a character warn us about using a mantra.
“You can say the Jesus Prayer from now till doomsday, but if you don’t realize that the only thing that counts in the religious life is detachment, I don’t see how you ever move an inch. Detachment, buddy, and only detachment. Desirelessness. ‘Cessations from all hankerings.’ It’s this business of desiring, if you want to know the goddamn truth, that makes an actor in the first place. Why’re you making me tell you things you already know? Somewhere along the line – in one damn incarnation or another, if you like – you not only had a hankering to be an actor or an actress but to be a good one. You’re stuck with it now. You can’t just walk out on the results of your own hankerings. Cause and effect, buddy, cause and effect. The only thing you can do now, the only religious thing you can do, is act. Act for God, if you want to – be God’s actress, if you want to. What could be prettier?” source
I identified as a college student with Franny Glass. She is a 20-year-old English major. Her story takes place when she visits her boyfriend for a college football weekend at his school. She is already tiring of the phoniness of college life and the egotism of faculty and students – including her boyfriend.
“I’m just sick of ego, ego, ego. My own and everybody else’s. I’m sick of everybody that wants to get somewhere, do something distinguished and all, be somebody interesting. It’s disgusting.’
Her existential crisis is at a point where it is making her physically sick. Her boyfriend doesn’t understand the little book, The Way of a Pilgrim, she has borrowed from the college library that is in her handbag.
At the end of her story, she explains that the prayer means to her that ‘You get to see God. Something happens in some absolutely nonphysical part of the heart—where the Hindus say that Atman resides…”
She is nauseous, sweating and has just confessed out loud what she is feeling. Franny faints on the way to the bathroom. “Alone, Franny lay quite still, looking up at the ceiling. Her lips began to move, forming soundless words, and they continued to move.”
Salinger was writing Catcher fresh from getting out of WWII and surrounded by Beat Generation poets and novelists and their fascination with Eastern philosophies. We know that Salinger also was interested in Eastern religious philosophy such as Zen Buddhism and Hindu Advaita Vedanta, but also Christian spirituality.
The nineteenth-century Russian peasant who wrote The Way of a Pilgrim tells the story of his journey as a mendicant traveller across Russia, He repeats the Jesus Prayer uninterruptedly, as a type of mantra.
It’s too much to say that the two stories of Franny and Zooey are full stories of pilgrims or hero journeys or even someone in crisis finding enlightenment. And it’s too much to say that chanting a mantra will solve all your problems.
Nichiren was a 13th-century Buddhist monk who saw as the essence of Buddhism the belief that we have within us at each moment the ability to overcome any problem or difficulty that we may encounter in life. He believed we have the ability to transform any suffering through a power we possess by being connected to a fundamental law.principle that underlies the workings of all life and the universe.
The name he gave to this principle was “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.” This was the first mantra I was given in that college encounter with budding Buddhists. I chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and I used in meditations for about a year, but I left it.
I rediscovered it (though it had been flashing in my brain on and off for the rest of my life) only a few years ago. I read an article explaining the meaning of the words and then realized that part of what appealed to me about the mantra was that I did not know what the words meant. The mystery of the words was part of my attraction to them.
The past year I have used this mantra as a way to clear my mind of thoughts, especially when I am trying to get to sleep. Luckily, I have forgotten the meaning of the words so that the chanting carries no other meaning, no associations that are an opportunity to distraction. The silent chanting of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo pushes other thoughts away. An empty mind can be a wonderful thing.