Chanting Mantras as a Spiritual Practice
The 19th Century poet, Emily Dickenson, once wrote, “I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word. Sometimes I write one, and I look at it, until it begins to shine.”
The power of language is indeed undeniable, and most people on this planet certainly aren’t shy about using words to express themselves. A recent study found that each person speaks an average of over 15,000 words per day!
Typically, we speak in order to meet our physical and emotional needs and fulfill our material desires. We order food, talk to coworkers, tell jokes and complain when things don’t go our way. Thus, speaking often stimulates thought, reinforces our extroverted tendencies and draws us into the world.
Words for a Higher Purpose
Yet, words can also be used in another way, for another purpose. Numerous religious and spiritual traditions teach the practice of speaking the name of the divine – not with the intent of helping people communicate information to others, but in order to help slow down the thought process and obtain inner peace.
Catholics repeat prayers using a string of beads called a rosary. Dhikr is an Islamic devotional act, typically involving the recitation, mostly silently, of verses praising God. Nianfo is an East Asian Buddhist mindfulness practice in which the name of Amitabha Buddha in repeated.
In India, repeating the divine name is referred to as japa. This is often done using a string of 108 wooden beads called a japa mala, similar to a rosary. Each time a name – often in the form of a series of words called a mantra – is spoken, the thumb is moved past a bead. This practice may seem simple (because it is!), but it's extremely powerful when done with devotion over time.
Japa helps to quiet the endless stream of thoughts flowing through our overactive minds, giving us the ability to step outside our problems and anxieties for a time. Repeating the name of the divine can help us to remain in the present moment. People who do japa regularly often find that their ability to cope with life’s vicissitudes increases, even during times of the day when they are not doing their practice. Most importantly, each time we speak the divine name with love, we take a step closer to the divine.
Amma and the Divine Name
Amma speaks most highly of the power of repeating the divine name, saying:
Mental purity will come through constant chanting of the divine name. This is the simplest way. You are trying to cross the ocean of transmigration, the cycle of birth and death. The mantra is the oar of the boat; it is the instrument you use to cross the samsara of your restless mind, with its unending thought waves. The mantra can also be compared to a ladder that you climb to reach the heights of God realization.
During Devi Bhava, a special event at the end of Amma’s public programs, Amma gives mantras to those who wish to accept her as their spiritual teacher and begin this practice. The mantras she gives carry her blessings and help those who receive them to deepen their connection with her and with God.
How to Begin this Practice
For those who wish to receive a mantra from Amma, all that is necessary is to attend Devi Bhava and request one. It is not necessary to be part of any particular religious or spiritual tradition to do this. The practice of repeating the divine name is universal. Amma gives each person a mantra that is consistent with his or her concept of the Divine. After she does so, instruction is given on how to most effectively perform japa.
For those who are unable or not yet ready to take the step of asking Amma for a mantra directly, it is still possible to do this practice. Here are the steps to follow:
1. Think about how you conceive of the divine, and select a mantra that you feel will deepen your connection with that form of God. Some common mantras used in different traditions are:
- Om Namah Shivaya – a Hindu mantra
- Om Christave Namah – a mantra to Jesus Christ
- Om Mani Padme Hum – a Buddhist Mantra
- Om Shree Matre Namah – a mantra to God in the form of the Divine Mother
- Om Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu – a mantra wishing peace to all beings
Note that the letter “e” at the end of Chritave, Padme and Matre is pronounced “ay” as in may. Don’t worry if your pronunciation isn’t perfect. With this practice, it’s what’s in your heart that is most important. If none of the mantras listed above appeal to you, choose a divine name or verse that does. Do not tell other people what your mantra is – it is for you alone.
2. Purchase a japa mala or rosary – preferable one with 108 beads. These can be obtained from numerous other vendors, including The Amma Shop. Protect your beads, and do not let other people use or handle them.
3. Set aside 30 minutes of quiet time each day – preferably the same time – when you can do your practice without distraction or interruption.
4. Sit with your spine straight. Take a deep breath through the nose, and repeat the syllable Om out loud three times. Om is a Sanskrit word that is often spoken before sacred names and verses.
5. Hold your beads in your right hand, between the thumb and middle finger. If there is a large bead (sometimes called a guru bead or meru) or a tassel on your mala, begin with your fingers just to the left of this point.
6. Repeat your mantra out loud, slowly and clearly, while visualizing the form of the divine you have chosen to worship. After each repetition, move your finger and thumb forward one bead to the left.
7. You should reach the large bead (or tassel) after 108 repetitions. When you do so, it is traditional to turn the beads around and continue in the opposite direction rather than passing the large bead.
8. Now repeat your mantra silently 108 times, moving one bead at a time, as before.
9. Meditate for a few minutes. Do this by sitting quietly and envisioning your chosen form of the divine within your heart or at the point on your forehead between your eyes. If thoughts come, let them come, but realize that you are not your thoughts, and gently dismiss them.
10. Increase the number of mantra repetitions and amount of time in meditation as you have the time and inclination to do so-- and are able to do with concentration.
You may also repeat your mantra silently throughout the day as often as possible!
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