The following may seem paradoxical: mantra is a sacred sound that leads us to silence. This is not simply the absence of noise, but rather the silence of perfection. Mantra reconnects us to our source and reintroduces us to our essential nature in a way that nothing else can. Before we delve into an exploration of sacred sound, let’s make sure we are clear on what is meant by mantra.
In today’s culture, mantra has become a buzzword for a resolution or positive affirmation. This “note to self” helps steer us through life’s tough days (“Never give up!”) or reminds us to be more compassionate toward ourselves and others (“I am worthy; I am love.”) or motivates us to meet a goal (“Big journeys begin with small steps.”). But in the Vedic and tantric traditions, mantra is a specialized term whose very name reveals what it is and does. Its ancient etymology, mananat trayate iti mantrah, tells us that the term is derived from the Sanskrit words manas (the mind; cognitive thought; perception) and trayate (to protect; to free). At its essence, mantra is a compact formula that protects the mind and leads it to freedom. It does so by virtue of its nature as sacred sound, a point we’ll revisit soon.
A Noisy World
When we think about it, we are constantly bombarded by sounds. Noise is an ever-present part of existence as the blaring of car horns and dinging of phones, the whispers of loved ones, and the white noise of appliances. Sound gives us information about our world. The sounds we utter allow us to communicate with each other and express ourselves, and through language and music we create and interpret our world.
The flip side of sound is silence.
As a former resident of an urban metropolis—and currently the parent of a small child—I can say that silence is a rare gift. Even if we are alone on a mountain peak (the proverbial silence-seeker’s dream), we cannot so easily escape the incessant chatter of our own mind. This is an experience many of us know well if we’ve ever been part of a silence retreat, or when we were first learning how to meditate. Our mind resists staying quiet for long. It whirs away as we “hear” snatches of our favorite song or the earworm of a commercial jingle, or yesterday’s conversations replayed—but above all, the monologue of our own internal voice.
The fleeting moments we do have without sound are precious. A few minutes’ silence helps us think clearly and creatively, destress, and recenter. And when we are in meditation, silence provides a space for us not to think at all, but simply to be with our essential self. Mantra fills the space that might otherwise be filled with mental noise with sacred sound that leads us back to pure consciousness, because this is its origin.
Waking Up to Mantra
According to mantra shastra (the ancient science of mantra), every phoneme, or sound, is both meaningful and distinct from every other phoneme. The vibration of each sound encodes a specific aspect of pure consciousness—in other words, a phoneme is a slice of absolute reality. Mantras are not written or composed, and they’re generally not what we would think of as discursive (logical, sentence-based) language. In fact, many mantras, especially bija (seed) mantras, are only one or two syllables and have no apparent meaning. How can a few sounds promise to release us from all forms of pain and lead us to enlightenment?
The answer lies in mantra’s origin. Mantras were originally heard (or “seen”) by rishis in a state of deep samadhi. What these sages experienced in their meditation became embedded in, and translated as, sacred sound—sound that connects us with something that is otherwise beyond the capacity of our senses. It is said that japa (silent repetition) of an awakened mantra will lead us back to the mantra’s source—a state of freedom and supernal bliss pervaded by anahata nada, the silent (“unstruck”) sound that is the subtlest of four levels of sacred sound. This happens because, over time, mantra meditation works on increasingly subtle levels to transform and attenuate our negative thought patterns and habits—even unconscious ones that have become part of our karmic baggage—thus allowing us to experience our pristine essential nature.
As the sound body of divinity, mantra is more refined than either our body or mind. A teacher who represents an authentic tradition gives a mantra as a prescription that is specific to an individual student’s needs at a given time. The mantra cuts through the noise to address any ailment or obstacle (big or small) that holds us back, thus helping us grow and transform. And when mantra practice is undertaken on a larger scale by a group of seekers who are collectively trying to heal the world, its impact can be exponentially profound.
The Gift of Mantra
To return to where we started, mantra gets us through life’s difficult moments, reminds us to be more compassionate, and certainly helps us reach our ultimate goal—but not because it intellectually convinces us to think a certain way. Through the spanda (vibration) of sacred sound, mantra works on much deeper levels, and it does so without our having to understand the sounds we are hearing or silently repeating (which may be in a foreign language, or no recognizable language at all!).
Mantra’s gift to us is multifold: mantra helps us master our emotions and calm our mind. It gives us a focal point for concentration so we can meditate, accelerating our spiritual journey. It cuts through mental chatter, frees us from worry and other negative emotions, and ultimately leads our mind back to its essential nature.
Swami Rama used to say that humans are accustomed to following the river of mind downstream. There we live our lives amid the turbulence of everyday life with its crashing waves of strife and tides of emotion. We find ourselves submerged in the ocean of noise. But if we follow the river upstream to its source, we find it is completely silent and still. Mantra meditation leads us upstream to the ultimate source. This is the abode of soundless sound—anahata nada. Here we find tranquility, joy, and silence in all its perfection.
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