Choosing & Using a Mantram
By Eknath Easwaran
By Eknath Easwaran
exercise some care in your choice of a mantram. After all, it will be with you
for a long time. Deliberate for a while and take into account the practical
significance of the words, your religious background, and your personal
response. A bit of self-knowledge is required when it comes to making a selection.
Some people respond profoundly to the Virgin Mary, and Hail Mary may be
the mantram for them. Or perhaps her holy son touches them deeply, and Jesus,
Jesus will be their choice. But other people, owing to the conditioning of
their youth, have a kind of allergy to certain names, sometimes the ones from
their own religious traditions. When people tell me they do not care for a
particular holy name, I simply encourage them to choose something else. That’s
plain economy. It will take a long while to become established in the mantram;
is there time to spend a couple of years just learning to like it?
If you have such negative associations from childhood, you might choose Rama. Easy to say, sonorous, it embodies a principle — the principle of joy — that everybody, irrespective of background, can appreciate. I also recommend Om mani padme hum to those with reservations about the holy name. This mantram, associated with the Compassionate Buddha, does not refer to God at all. The Buddha’s approach is free of ritual, theology, and dogma, full of empirical examination. He does not indulge in metaphysical speculation; he simply says, “Here is the boat; there lies the goal, the opposite shore. Don’t take my word for what you will find there; go and find out for yourselves.”
Initially, the mantram you have chosen may not sound natural to your ears. But I assure you this will soon pass. After a little while the mantram will “take,” and you will see for yourself the difference it makes in your life. These matters go beyond the diversity of languages, and your higher Self, your true Self, will not care whether you speak to it in English, Arabic, Latin, or Sanskrit.
Occasionally someone will ask, “Can I make up my own mantram? How about ‘Peace’?” Peace is a beautiful word, I know, but not any word will do as a mantram. I strongly urge you to choose a mantram that has been sanctified by long use — one of proven power, that has enabled many men and women before you to realize the unity of life. The roots of such a mantram go far deeper than we can ever know when we begin to use it. This profundity enables it to grow in our consciousness.
After you have chosen your mantram carefully, please do not change it under any circumstances. Many people let themselves be swept away by novelty; it is part of the restlessness of our age. They will use a mantram for six weeks and then tire of it. They change to another, and then grow weary of that one too. So they go on in this way, new mantram after new, like a farmer who keeps starting a new well; they will never find water.
Let me urge you not to yield to the temptation to change your mantram if you do not seem to be getting anywhere, as may happen from time to time. That is only a trick of the wily mind to throw you off — usually because you are getting somewhere, and the mind knows it. No matter what comes up that seems newer and better, keep digging away with your chosen mantram. One day you will strike the living waters!
The purpose of having a mantram is to repeat it as often as possible. Beautiful calligraphy of the words for your wall is not enough; you have to set about making the mantram an integral part of all your responses, all your thoughts and feelings. And you have to persist. If you do it for just a few minutes and then lose heart, little will be gained.
Sometimes you hear that it is essential to repeat a mantram a certain number of times or for a specified period of time. Perhaps some spiritual teachers living in the monastic context have required that of their students, but where are we who live in the world going to find an hour or two of uninterrupted time for repeating the mantram? You might manage that if you work the graveyard shift at a toll bridge, or if you have a role in a movie where they need a couple of hours to put on your makeup, but most of us are going to have to catch as catch can.
Over the years I have learned to use every opportunity, no matter how brief, to repeat the mantram. We can take advantage of all the odds and ends of time that present themselves during the day, and even set out to find them, as a miser scans the sidewalk for a coin that has chanced to fall from someone’s pocket. We all come upon these little bits of time, you know, but most of us fail to seize them. Look at the people at bus stops at a loss for what to do! Some tug their ear lobes or work their knuckles; some vacantly watch the cars drive by or read a billboard for the eleventh time. Others keep rising to see if the bus is coming, as if that would bring it any sooner. And just watch people at a theater intermission as they rush out to have a cigarette or to eat food they don’t need!
Actually, many injurious habits result from our efforts to fill empty time. Considering the health risks in smoking and overeating, imagine how people must dread having nothing to do and what price they will pay to avoid it. The mantram ends this dread permanently.
Two minutes here . . . five minutes there . . . all those snatches of time add up. On the Blue Mountain in India, where I lived, the villagers lacked the means for traveling to town, so the small bank sent a boy around to the cottages every day on a bicycle to ask if anybody wanted to make a deposit. Usually there would only be a few small coins, but all was carefully recorded, and at the end of the year someone might have amassed fifty or a hundred rupees. That is how the mantram works. It accumulates and accumulates, finally paying a far richer dividend than any bank ever can.
The mantram also proves to be an absorbing companion when we are doing mechanical tasks. All of us have chores which don’t require concentration — cleaning the house or shop, washing the car or the dishes, brushing hair, brushing teeth — and most of our attention flies elsewhere, commonly to the future or past. All that excess mental power can be put behind the mantram, so that as we clean things, we clean our consciousness as well.
But do distinguish such mechanical tasks from activities that require concentration. When listening to music or lectures, when reading, writing, studying, or conversing with others, it is good to be fully attentive. These are not times for repeating the mantram.
I have observed that many people treat driving as automatic. But lives are at stake, and to avoid accidents we must be supremely vigilant. Even in light traffic the unexpected can happen: a tire goes flat, an animal or child darts onto the road. So please do not repeat the mantram at the wheel. When operating any kind of powerful machinery, or when using dangerous tools like chisels or kitchen knives, concentrate on the job at hand.
It is refreshing to close one’s eyes and repeat the mantram silently a few times before each meal — a reminder that food comes to us as a gift from the Lord, a precious gift of energy to be used wisely. If you eat lunch on the job, the mantram also brings detachment, the ability to drop your work and enjoy the meal in front of you. In fact, you might stop briefly to repeat the mantram and draw yourself out of your involvement several times during the day. If you are doing close work — reading, typing, sewing, or small repair jobs — you can use this moment to rest your eyes by shifting your gaze into the far distance.
Carry the mantram along when you step out for your daily exercise, too. Energetic movement is not an option, not a luxury, but an imperative on the spiritual path if we are to do the work that needs doing. Young people require strenuous activities, such as jogging, swimming, and hard work, that tax the heart and lungs. And nearly all of us, of course, can walk, as briskly as our condition permits. I say “briskly” because the body is designed for and thrives on vigorous motion, so give it a pace that will send the blood spinning through the veins and bring the cells to life. And as you exercise, repeat the mantram; you will be regenerating your mind as well as your body.
Here again, you should not wait until you come upon a full free hour; perhaps it will never happen. Use the time you have, five or ten or fifteen minutes. Instead of coffee or a snack, try a mantram break. To the store or bank, at the beach or park, up and down stairs, wherever you can, move with your mantram.
The mantram works best when we repeat it silently in the mind with as much concentration as possible. Mantrams are usually rhythmical, but if you sing or chant them it will draw your attention towards the tune or rhythm and away from the mantram itself. Saying your mantram a few times out loud may help you get it going in your mind, but by and large I encourage you to stick to a silent repetition.
And you need not concern yourself with finding just the “right” pronunciation or intonation when you say your mantram. If the Lord will listen to you in any language, he will certainly accept your accent, wherever you are from. Above all, it is the calling that counts, and we want to focus on that and on nothing peripheral.
Our aim, remember, is to drive the mantram to the deepest levels of consciousness, where it operates not as words but as a healing power. So avoid anything that holds you to the surface level; otherwise, you are in the position of someone trying to dive to the bottom of a lake while wearing water wings. For this reason, I do not recommend counting your repetitions or using manual aids like a rosary. Though these things may seem helpful at the start, keeping track of numbers or remembering what your hands are doing binds you to the physical level and can lead to a merely mechanical repetition.
Trying to synchronize your mantram with physiological processes, such as heartbeat or breathing, also divides your attention. No harm will result if this happens by itself, but do not try to make the connection. Actually, it can be quite hazardous to interfere with vital functions that are already operating smoothly without our conscious intervention.
This excerpt is from Eknath Easwaran's book Passage Meditation.