What is a mantra, and how does it apply to self-help?
Mantras are a common self-help practice in one way or another. We’ve seen celebrities like Oprah Winfrey promote them as a method of improving our lives, but most people dismiss it as a fad that’s just going to die out like most others. However, mantras and words in general have been shown to be very powerful throughout history.
Wildmind, a site about Buddhist meditation defines mantras as “words or phrases that are chanted out loud or internally as objects of meditation” Many cultures throughout the ages have believed in the power of words whether it be for meditation or for spiritual reasons. The power of words expands beyond just Buddhism, however. Even in modern day English the connections between magic and words can be found. For instance, the word “spell” can mean both how to write a word or mystic words said to use magic. Further back in time, the words glamour and grammar share an interesting origin, all based on how words reached and evolved in different parts of Europe.
Gramma-techne was the Greek term for the science or art of letters. This came into English as the word grammar, but also came in Scots (as “glammer”) to mean “to cast a spell upon”… The word glammer was anglicized as glamour, and came to have its more contemporary romantic and aesthetic associations, where someone is able to influence us, not by the power of their words, but by the beauty of their appearance.
If we travel to India, words, specifically names, had powers of their own. It was believed that if you knew the true name of a god, then you would be able to call upon that god for help. All religions in one form or another see words as powerful. Prayer is found in many religions, and it both uses words to help us ease our minds of something we may want or hope for, and acknowledges the possible existence of a higher power.
In the modern era, mantras are popular because of how easy they appear to be. Giovanni Dienstmann, a meditation teacher and coach, helps us to better understand the thought process behind repeating a word or phrase. He says, “Sound is vibration. And all the cells in our bodies are vibrating. Everything in the universe is vibrating, and each has its own rhythm. Our thoughts and feelings are, indeed, vibrations in your body and your consciousness.” He goes on further to claim that it also effects our hormones, thinking, behavior, and our psychological well-being.
Musicians and filmmakers use sound to inspire thoughts or feelings within the listener. If you were to take ambient music out of a movie or show, you’d be surprised to find just how awkward it feels, and just how difficult it is to get into what you’re watching without the backtracks.
“Sound, rhythm and speech have profound effects on your body, thoughts, and emotions. Mantra meditation is the use of these three elements with the purpose of purifying, pacifying and transforming your mind and heart.”
Dienstmann calls mantras “instruments of the mind” that can help you change your body and psyche. For mantras to be effective, we need to focus only on the word or words so that we are no disturbed by other thoughts. It creates a peaceful feeling that can be held for as long as we can focus on just the words of the mantra.
The next step is to decide which type of mantra is right for you. There are two types, according to Dienstmann: secular and spiritual. The secular approach is for those who wish to keep their mantra usage separate from their religion, and is commonly used to try and help someone feel better, relax, or grow as a person. It’s easy to begin your meditation with mantras, you just need to find an attribute that you want to instill in yourself, see if it works for you by using it for several minutes, and then making sure it has no negative connotations. This is the more common form, and is the one you’ll see recommended by reality TV doctors and other TV personalities.
The other type, spiritual, is meant to have more meaning. There’s normally a specific religious goal, or something very specific that you’re looking to achieve. Dienstmann recommends picking, “a traditional mantra – a word or sound that has been used by spiritual seekers for centuries, with noble attitude and intention.” The usual origins for a lot of these words come from many middle eastern countries. That said, he insists that the replicating the exact pronunciation and intonation of the word or words is important since there is a specific sound vibration being looked for.
Spiritual mantras feature a more rigorous process to use than secular does. The first step, he says, is to “Find a teacher/master of that tradition – someone you respect – and ask him or her to suggest a mantra for you.” Given that mantras aren’t popular to the common person, this can be a difficult process. Once you’ve found it though, experimentation is key. Rather than trying each one for a few minutes, he insists that you experiment with it for a few days, until you find the one that works best for you. The key difference between secular and spiritual mantras is that you must keep the mantra a secret because “sacred is secret.”
The article goes further in depth about the different ways you can use the words and what the best way to position yourself is, but we don’t really need that stuff for this. Putting all of the information together, we can say that a mantra is something that initially became popularized by Buddhist monks, but predates them by hundreds of years. The power of words can be cited in different cultures from the British Isles to India.
The two different types on mantras are spiritual and secular and each has its own uses and specific ways of practicing them. Secular being the more common one, and spiritual being the one used for people who can afford to be more committed to the practice. With a better understanding of what mantras are, how they’re practiced, and where they originated, we can better critique them and their effectiveness.
Dienstmann, George. “Mantra Meditation – The Why, the How, and the Methods.” Live and Dare, 2 Feb. 2018, liveanddare.com/mantra-meditation
Bodhipaksa. “Mantra Meditation.” Wildmind Buddhist Meditation, 2006, http://www.wildmind.org/mantras.