One of my Buddhist teachers once shared a story about the Buddha.
Before becoming enlightened, the Buddha was known as Prince Siddhartha Gautama. His father was the king of territory that is today part of modern-day Nepal as well as parts of India. After his enlightenment, the King asked the Buddha to return and assume his position as heir to the kingdom.
The Buddha declined his father’s offer.
‘What need do I have to rule a kingdom when I am now the ruler of my mind?’
Going within: Finding our true power
The Buddha’s words point us towards the authentic source of our power- which does not lie outside us – in any relationship or any possession or in any ‘thing’ – but must be sought and claimed within. To become a ruler or master of the mind is no small feat; but the rewards are not insignificant either. In becoming masters of our minds, we can more fully face the challenges of life with greater ease, steady purpose and inner peace and joy.
The mind is however often so distracted that an experience of steady inner peace and joy may seem impossible at times. One way we can learn to quiet the mind, so we can reach inner stillness is by using the mantra – repeating a word or phrase repetitively. This practice is ancient and universal. It is part of Buddhism, and is known as japa (or chanting) in the Hindu tradition. It is practiced in the Catholic tradition using rosary beads and is referred to as zikr by Sufi practitioners.
Why is the mantra helpful?
In ancient India, trainers needed to lead elephants from one place to another. They often came across bazaars filled with many different sights, tastes, sounds and aromas that would attract the elephants. Naturally, the elephants touched the foods and other items with their trunks. The trainers placed a wooden stick in the elephants’ trunks – which was a clever way to keep the trunk occupied so the elephant was unable to ‘hold’ anything else. Then the trainers led the elephants safely through the bazaars.
Using a mantra is like giving our mind a ‘stick’ which we hold onto when the mind seems to be moving from here to there and everywhere except in the present moment. When we repetitively repeat a word, we develop greater focus, concentration and clarity. The mantra slows down the thinking mind- so it can be present and join with what is before us.
Medical and scientific research
From a medical and scientific perspective, mantra meditation is a way to elicit the relaxation response- a term first described in the 1970s by Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiologist who is currently the Director Emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. The relaxation response is a physiological state which is the opposite of the stress response (which is also known as the fight-or-flight response). We are all keenly aware today of the ubiquitous role that stress plays in so many mental as well as physical illnesses. Benson and his team of researchers showed that the relaxation response is effective therapy for many different stress-related disorders, including anxiety, mild and moderate depression, chronic anger and hostility, insomnia, high blood pressure, premenstrual tension, menstrual cramps, rheumatoid arthritis, and irritable bowel syndrome.1
Choose a favorite phrase or word that inspires and soothes you. You can choose from a sacred text or a prayer or other inspirational book. A single word or a few words are best – so that it is easy to remember. It does not have to be in Sanskrit or any special language- just something that feels comfortable for you. You can start by repeating it a few times in the morning and evening. You may consider buying a japa mala if that feels inspiring.
Some examples could be:
- I am peace
- Love is here
- All is well
- Trust in Love today
- Love leads the way
- Love first
Here is a YouTube video of a popular Sanskrit mantra that resonates for many.
Sharing with our children
Children as young as three to four years of age can repeat mantras as well. It is not about how long they can do this at this age. The key is just introducing them to repeating a phrase to express gratitude or remember God ( if that is a part of your family’s tradition) or just focusing on Love or Peace as a wonderful way to start or end the day. Older children can be encouraged to use the mantra to calm the mind if they experience anxiety or feel stress about an upcoming academic or athletic event. This is a powerful way to teach them at a young age that they indeed can be masters of their mind; they can witness for themselves how this simple practice can shift their minds from an upset, anxiety or stress toward the direction of relief.
Medicine for the mind (and body)
The mantra is a powerful medicine that you and your children can take with you wherever you go. No one need know you are practicing this, yet the benefits of the practice will yield powerful gifts of love, peace and energy that will extend from you outwards like fragrance from a lovely flower.
May this practice nurture you and your loved ones, and please write back with any feedback!