The word mantra comes from the Sanskrit writings of the Vedic period of present-day India, and means "a sacred utterance". Mantras can be anything from a single syllable to a few sentences, so long as the word(s) are believed to hold a special power. Because of this belief, mantras are frequently used in meditation and prayer; in fact for many people, use of a mantra often represents a succinct and portable version of a greater intention. That is to say, rather than reciting a long-winded prayer or sitting through a lengthy visualization, the practitioner has condensed the power of that intention into a compact word or phrase. If one focuses on their prayer with the chosen mantra in mind, one can essentially infuse the intention into the words themselves, making the full-blown ritual unnecessary.
Once the mantra has been imbued with a particular power or association, the person using the mantra can draw upon that energy at will, simply by recitation. Think of it like a mnemonic device - a technique used for retaining information. Grade school students studying basic geography might learn the Great Lakes by associating the word HOMES (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior). Rather than memorizing by rote, these students have found an association that can come to mind quickly and easily, but represents a greater depth of knowledge. So, too, does the mantra contain an essence (usually spiritual) greater than its face value.
Practitioners of yoga and other forms of meditation are likely to be acquainted with one of the most common and simple of mantras: the syllable OM. Often expressed tonally and as a drawn out hum, OM has been used for thousands of years as an affirmation or acknowledgement of divinity. It is the "universal sound" and pops up in almost every sacred text from the Indian region. The OM mantra can be applied in almost any spiritual situation, but is most commonly used as an invocation, inviting divine presence into whatever practice is to follow. OM is chanted to begin meditations, yoga sessions, religious services, prayers, and even other mantras.
Another intensely popular mantra (and one that begins with the OM invocation) is the Buddhist Om Mani Padme Hum, which loosely translates as "Praise be to the Jewel in the Lotus." This mantra is a prayer to the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, the embodiment of universal compassion. Through the invocation, one is hoping to channel the virtues of the bodhisattva into one's own life. Scholars of Buddhist texts, however, emphasize that that true meaning of om mani padme hum stems from the individual meanings infused into each of the six syllables, making the mantra representative of an entire body of spiritual literature. As with almost any Buddhist study, the layers of meanings associated with each syllable are numerous, and each new layer of understanding is only revealed as a practitioner delves deeper into his or her studies. With so many possible interpretations, om mani padme hum is a perfect example of how focusing on an abbreviated mantra can convey massive amounts of meaning in a much more manageable vessel.
But religion doesn't have a monopoly on mantras! There are plenty of modern day, secular mantras that have generated followings and inspired movements. Anyone sporting the distinctive "LiveStrong" bracelets can understand that a single word or phrase can mean so much more than the sum of its parts. A personal favorite among modern mantras is the "Serenity Now" made popular by Seinfeld - though there's always the fear of "insanity later" with this one!
Popular historical and modern mantras aside, the adoption and recital of mantras should be an inherently personal practice. Choosing a mantra that is appropriate for your own intentions is vital to harnessing the mantra's true power. For some, a common mantra may be exactly what is needed as a reminder of a greater essence. For others, though, it is important to create your own mantra and to infuse your own meaning into it. My choice of "Fiercely Serene" at Soul Pose was steeped in very personal, very important purpose, and because of that intensely intimate connection, I have found Fiercely Serene to be two of the most empowering words I have ever uttered. Spending the entirety of the festival focusing on those words and what they mean to me and in the scope of my life truly consolidated an immense amount of energy and power into a simple phrase. Now, when I say my mantra, I can easily draw from that power and snap into the same mindset I had during Soul Pose.
Recitation of a mantra is simple enough when one needs to pull meaningful energy on short notice, but an expanded scope of practice has been associated with some mantras to increase the power of the words or to accrue more "prayer points". Some schools of Buddhism believe that spiritual merit can be generated by the number of times one recites a prayer or mantra, which has led to practitioners repeating the same words over and over. The number 108 has sacred significance in Buddhism and Hinduism, so 108 recitations is a popular prayer set; this is why mala strings contain 108 beads, to be used as a counting device. In some monasteries, however, monks take vows of silence, and are unable to recite their prayers. For these instances, prayer wheels or flags were created. Every turn of a prayer wheel, or every flutter of a prayer flag, repesents the utterance of the prayer inscribed upon it. Monasteries often have long halls of prayer wheels so monks can walk in contemplation as they spin wheel after wheel in place of spoken words. Prayer flags are abundant not only in monasteries but also in towns across the Hindu/Buddhist regions of the world, generating spiritual power every time the breeze stirs.
The power of mantras has been held sacred for thousands of years, and has been proven on personal levels countless times. Almost everyone has generated their own mantras in their lives, often without even realizing they have done so. But a mantra created with purpose and dedication can be one of the most powerful tools in a person's mental, emotional, or metaphysical arsenal. Associating a greater intention to a simple phrase can unlock useful powers in your life. The next time you are struggling with a situation that seems beyond your control, take some time to craft a mantra of your own. Focus on what it is you believe will help you wade through your situation towards a desired outcome, and boil that down to a few words you can recite any time you need strength or power. You can even take a page from ancient religions and tie your mantra to physical representations to deepen the association: paint your mantra on a small stone or etch it into a piece of jewelry, so every time you are wearing the jewelry or touching the stone, you are essentially actualizing your mantra. You'll be amazing how much difference a few simple words can make when they are imbued with a thorough sense of purpose!
Have you had experience with a mantra that has made a difference in your life? How did you come to your mantra, and do you continue to use it (if your situation has ended)? What types of physical representations have you used to aid your mantra practices?