What Is a Mantra and How Do You Choose One?
Deepak Chopra, MD, and other leading experts share the definition of the word mantra, and its meaning and role in a meditation practice.
Meditation is helping millions of people cope with the stress of day-to-day life, especially as they navigate the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. And for many meditation devotees, a mantra is the key to unlocking the mental and physical benefits of meditation.
It sounds mysterious, but here’s the definition: A mantra is just a syllable, word, or phrase you repeat during meditation. You can speak, chant, whisper the mantra. Or you can think it in your mind. There are many forms of meditation, and not all involve a mantra. Some focus on your breath, a sound, or a calming visualization. The overarching goal of all meditation practices is to shift your attention out of your head and into the moment.
As with most, if not all, meditation practices, you don’t need much in the way of tools or equipment. To practice mantra meditation, all you’ll need is a quiet place to sit, a comfortable position, and of course, your mantra.
(Related: Think You Can’t Meditate? Try This)
The origins of mantras
“Mantras have been used in spiritual traditions in the east and west throughout the ages and are also the basis of the centering prayer in Benedictine Christian traditions,” explains meditation expert Deepak Chopra, MD, founder of The Chopra Foundation and Chopra Global. Mantras are most commonly used in Asian meditative traditions. Still, you’ll find them in some Western religions, such as the Jesus prayer in the Eastern Orthodox Church, adds Cortland Dahl, chief contemplative officer at Healthy Minds Innovations and a research scientist at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
What is the meaning of mantra?
The word ‘mantra’ has two roots: man and tra, explains Dr. Chopra, who is also a clinical professor of family medicine and public health at the University of California-San Diego and author of many books, including Total Meditation. “‘Man’ is etymologically related to man, human, woman, and mind,” he says. “‘Tra’ is an instrument of the mind that takes you beyond the mind to the source of mind, which is consciousness.”
Like breath work, “the mantra takes you away from thought processes [your internal dialogue],” he says. “There are moments where there is no mantra and no thought. These moments are referred to as transcendence.” It’s also important to distinguish a mantra from any word or phrase that you may repeat as part of a meditation, Dahl says. “A mantra typically has roots in spiritual or religious texts and cannot be changed or altered, so creating an inspiring phrase and repeating it in one’s mind, or taking a single word, like ‘love, and repeating it over and over, can be a very helpful way to meditate, but it would not be considered a mantra,” he says.
How to choose your mantra
You can choose your own mantra, and there are generic mantras to pick from. Dr. Chopra’s book has 52 of them. “However, in Eastern wisdom traditions, mantras can also be selected based on Vedic astrology,” he says. “Buddhist traditions have their own methodologies of selecting mantras.”
Traditionally, a teacher or religious leader might give a student a mantra to use for a period of time, Dahl says. If you’re just starting out, you might ask your teacher for a mantra you can try. “This may be based on a variety of factors, which might be that the student has an affinity for a particular kind of mantra or that they are at a point in their meditative journey when they might benefit from a specific mantra or form of meditation,” he says. There is no right or wrong mantra, Dahl stresses.
Neda Gould, director of the mindfulness program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, agrees. “It’s just finding one that is right for you that aligns with your broader intentions in some way,” she says. Ask yourself why you’re meditating—to reduce stress and get calm? To gain confidence? The answer may guide your choice of mantra. Journaling your thoughts and what you want in life can also help you pick a mantra.
(Related: 5 Ways to Make Meditation a Daily Habit)
Your mantra may be a word or phrase. Or you might repeat a syllable—like the “om” you might associate with meditation. Some examples of mantras you may use in meditation are:
- I am calm.
- I am present in this moment.
- I am at peace.
- I am conquering my fears.
- I am happy in my body.
How to use a mantra
All right. You know the definition of the word mantra, you’ve chosen one, and you’re ready to meditate. First, get comfortable. Pick a quiet place where you’ll be able to focus. Breathe deeply, focusing on the breath. As you continue to breathe, begin to repeat your mantra. Your thoughts may wander—don’t stress about it. When you notice it happening, come back to your mantra. You can go for as long as you’d like, or you can set a timer before starting.
The benefits of mantra meditation
All meditation practices offer a host of physical and mental benefits, but the goal of meditation is not to anticipate a response, Dr. Chopra says. “Everyone experiences a state of relaxation and deep rest,” he says. “As we progress, we have further insights that lead to revelation and inspiration.” Like other types of meditation, mantra meditation promotes better self-awareness and self-compassion, less stress, more calmness, and a more-positive attitude.
In fact, a review study published in the European Journal of Integrative Medicine found that mantra meditation, including transcendental meditation, can have positive effects on mental health. It doesn’t require a lot of your time—you can do it in 10 minutes. And as an added bonus, it’s relatively inexpensive. You can find many free meditation classes, including Dr. Chopra’s 21-Day Meditation with Alicia Keys.
What if mantra meditation isn’t for you?
Let’s get one thing straight: you don’t need a mantra to meditate. If repeating a mantra doesn’t sound like your thing, that’s fine. “The best way to meditate is the one you will actually do, so it can help to experiment with different methods until you find one that resonates,” Dahl says. “Mantras can be helpful, but for some people, other forms of meditation might be more helpful.”