What is a mantra, and how does it apply to self-help?
Mantras are a self-help tool promoted by the personal-enrichment community that promises to help practitioners to improve their attitude and mood towards their everyday lives. Celebrities dominant in the fields of television such Oprah Winfrey practice mantra usage themselves, and promote it as a way to squash negative thoughts and attitudes towards yourself. The power of words has been observed for centuries, and modern-day practitioners are just the most recent people to have recognized mantra usage as a way to improve their everyday lives.
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 someone knew the true name of a god, then that person 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.
Even as kids we acknowledged the existence of power in words. Many of us pretended to be magicians by saying “Abracadabra” while moving our magic wands over our hats, and pulling out an invisible rabbit to the amazement of our parents. Pop culture cultivates new words all the time that have strong meanings. Every few months, there are new, fad words created, and people use them to try and seem cool. Not saying them make us seem like outcasts, and saying old ones make us seem slow.
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.
“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 us change our 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 for us to decide which type of mantra is right for us. 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 relatively easy to begin using mantras. It starts by finding an attribute that we want to instill in ourselves, and then using it for a few minutes. If we feel that it’s working, then we can keep using it. If not, we can always find another one until we find the right one. This is the more common form, and is the one we’ll see commonly 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 a person is 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 we’ve found it though, experimentation is key. Rather than trying each one for a few minutes, he insists that we experiment with it for a few days, until we find the one that works best for us. The key difference between secular and spiritual mantras is that we must keep the mantra a secret because “sacred is secret.”
The article goes further in depth about the different ways we can use the words and what the best way us to position ourselves is, but for a newcomer to mantras, it isn’t necessary just yet.
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.