“She who is grounded in the rhythms of Universal pulsation, without judging the world, quickly realizes that her truest being is one with Shiva. She thus dares to plunge into herself. Through immersing into the perpetual surge of her own Universal Consciousness, she is blown wide open; she becomes complete awakened and lives in the liberated state.”
Sri Ksemaraja/Spanda Karika
as translated by Christopher Tompkins
We’ve all heard the word “mantra,” but what does it really mean? And how can I start to use it?
The Sanskrit root man means “mind” or “to think.” Tra means “to protect, guide, or lead.” So, a mantra is a sound, vibration accompanied by a bhav (feeling/meaning) that protects, guides, and leads the mind. Another meaning of mantra is “a measure,” as in a vibration or rhythm that we attune to, instead of the normal patterning (and therefore vibration) of the untamed mind. According to Rolf Sovik, author of Moving Inward, “A mantra is an audible form of pure consciousness—a pure note reaching the mind from the silent interior space of consciousness. Through meditation the sound of that note is awakened in the mind, transforming inner life by its presence.”
Why use a mantra?
Sally Kempton, one of my favorite Tantric teachers, says that a mantra acts as a “cleaning force—a subtle but extremely strong broom that sweeps the basement of your subconscious.”
I like to think of using mantra as way of tuning into a different music station. So often throughout the day, we subject ourselves to an endless stream of mind-chatter. Studies show that most of the thoughts we have today are dramatically similar to the thoughts we had yesterday. A mantra helps us shift that old thought-flow and tune our attention to higher vibrations of love, compassion, power and capacity.
A mantra is also a challenge. It is like a subtle fire. When you rub your mantra against your old mental patterning, you create something of an internal fire. That fire melts your old conditioning, opening you up for new possibilities and perspectives on your life.
It important to use a mantra that has been empowered, or held, by a lineage or tradition. Anyone can go online and Google “mantra” and start chanting. But the true sacred power of a mantra comes from its being held in love, by a teacher, for many years. In this way, the mantra is “unlocked.” The easiest mantra to begin with is passed to us from the Himalayan Sri Vidya tradition, and it is So Ham. This mantra translates as “I am That.” I translate So Ham as, “I am the very thing I keep looking for.” It is the universal sound of both being and becoming. So is the sound of inhale. Ham is the sound of exhale. As I inhale I hear/am Universal Being, as I exhale I hear myself merging the individual into the Everything, the Goodness, the Highest Power.
How to Work with a Mantra
We look at the practice of using a mantra as working from the gross to the more subtle realms. First, begin by saying your mantra out loud. Over time, sometimes as little as a few minutes, you may be able to move into saying your mantra quietly, like a whisper. Then, after a few minutes, try saying it silently to yourself. You may work with this layer of mantra repetition for a few weeks, or even years. With time, you may begin to actually hear your mantra beginning to unfold on its own. This is a good sign that you are surrendering to the power and vibration held in this sacred sound. Maintain your awareness as a listener of the mantra. There may be 10 percent of you holding the mantra, or having the intention to hear the mantra, and 90 percent of you just listening.
With time and practice, the more subtle levels of the mantra will emerge. There may come a time when you do not hear the words at all, but feel a visceral pulse beginning to emerge. It may manifest in more and more subtle ways—as light, a symbol, or even the apparition of a god or goddess image. Keep coming back to being in the sacred pulse of the mantra, letting it dissolve and resolve any and all obstruction, bringing you back into the silent roar of Love at your heart. With time, the mantra is no longer said or heard, it begins to “say you.” You become the mantra.
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This post was originally published in the Yoga Journal Blog on October 26, 2012.