Osho, in “The Heart Sutra: Becoming a Buddha through Meditation” described the core workings of mantra:
A mantra is a very, very special thing to be understood. It is a spell, a magic formula. It implies the phenomenon that whatsoever you have is not really there, and whatsoever you think you do not have, is there! A magic formula is needed. Your problem is not real – that’s why a magic formula is needed. […] A mantra is a spell to take away things which are not really there. For example, a mantra will help you to drop the ego. The ego is a ghost, just an idea. That’s why I say to you that I am here to take away things which are not really with you, and to give you things which are really there. I am here to give you that which you already have, and I have to take away that which you never had but which you think that you have. Your miseries, your hurts, your ambitions, your jealousies, your fears, greeds, hatreds, attachments – those are all ghosts.
A mantra is just a trick, a strategy to help you drop your ghosts. Once you have dropped those ghosts then the mantra has to be dropped too. […]
All your problems are your creations. A mantra is a strategy to take away your illusions, and when the illusions are taken away, that which remains behind is the truth. The mantra only takes away the false. It cannot give you the real, it can only take the false. But that’s enough. Once the false is taken, once the false is understood as false, the truth arises. And truth liberates. Truth is liberation.
Mantras (unlike affirmations) are normally said in the Sanskrit language. There is a benefit to this, which is that the mind does not intellectualize the translation, and can tap into experiential learning instead.
And sometimes there is not even a direct translation of the words in the mantra, instead these core syllables have a specific effect on the meditator when vocalized. These syllables are known as “seed syllables”. An example of a seed syllable is “OM”.
Mantras, said in daily life or sitting in formal meditation practice, are normally not practiced just in and of themselves.
First of all the purpose of the mantra you are saying is usually known. This is your aspiration, your intention, your prayer by the mantra. Most mantras in Tantric Buddhism are associated with a particular deity who represents the epitome of a certain state such as “compassion” or “purity”, has a certain visual appearance, hand gestures, colours, power, symbols, setting, etc.
All of these aspects to the deity, together with the mantra, help to uncover an experience in your being. Together, by busying your verbal mind, your visual mind, and your physical mind with the meditation, you step out of the experience of “you” and into the experience of something else.
Rather than being “Rachel” or “Josh” all day long, you are learning to become “Chenrezig” the deity of compassion. You are dropping all of the parts of yourself that are not Chenrezig, in order to allow that experience of total compassion to come through.
If you are wondering why you would want to drop yourself, and maybe feel a little nervous at the prospect, remember the Four Noble Truths. True wisdom, freedom, and total compassion come from the realization that we are impermanent, yet try to create fixed concepts of ourselves and the way our lives should be, thereby creating never ending struggle and suffering when we don’t get what we want (or get what we don’t want).
But words are just words. Try the below practices to get a taste (or sound) for mantra yourself!
Try a 5 minute sit with one syllable to start: “OM”.
Use the 5 minutes to explore the syllable “OM”. Stretch out the sound, and feel the changes in vibration from the very beginning to the very end.
It is probably preferable to say the mantra without music, however if chanting alongside a recording helps, you might try this one: https://youtu.be/SBiwLibZqfw
Also experiment with saying the mantra quickly.
Take note during the meditation of anything you notice in your body/thoughts/mental state during the meditation, and recall what you noticed in your review at the end.
On another day, do a 10 minute sit, this time with three syllables: Om, Ah, Hum.
Like the first meditation, use this time to explore the syllables, experiencing the interesting subtleties of each syllable.
In addition, however, also do the following with each syllable:
Ah – visualize red, and touch your throat with a finger tip
Hum – visualize blue, and touch your chest/heart with a finger tip
Take note of any experiences in your body/thoughts/mental state. Did any pleasantness/ unpleasantness arise? Recall what you noticed at the end.
A very common mantra in Tibetan buddhism is the mantra for compassion. It goes as thus:
Om Mani Padme Hum.
You can listen to this audio for an idea of how it sounds: https://youtu.be/bbgHZWwyhcQ
This mantra is associated with the deity Chenrezig. For more information on deity meditation you can click here.
Before going into deity meditation, however, what you can do is recall an experience, a memory, an object, a colour, a person or a place that bring up the feeling of compassion in you. Take some time to make the experience real for you, remember all of the details of this visual so it is rich in your mind.
Then, have a meditation sit for the length that you are comfortable with.
While recalling the visual cue, say the mantra for compassion aloud. Say the syllables slowly and loudly to get a feel for them.
Once you have tried a sit with this mantra, feel free to carry it and your visual cue with you into your daily life. In whatever you do, you can be saying the mantra, and be sending compassion to others.
An excellent book about bringing mantra into your day to day life is the Russian book “The Way of a Pilgrim” (author disputable).