Ever have racing or stress-inducing thoughts you just can’t get rid of? Or, find yourself ruminating over negative things again and again? I think it’s safe to say we all do sometimes. This tendency’s often referred to as monkey mind, and it can seriously disturb our ability to find inner peace and a sense of ease within our life. It can also squander our productivity, wasting precious time and energy. If you’re wanting to quiet your mind and find more inner peace, this mantra practice can work wonders for you.
Last week, I kicked off a 6-part series here on my blog called 6 Little Things. It focuses on six simple practices I’m currently cultivating in my own life to help me be happier and healthier. (Last week’s installment shared a mindful eating tip that can transform your relationship not only to food, but to your whole life. You can check it out here if you’re curious.) This week, I’m looking at how working with a mantra can tame and quiet our minds, bringing us more clarity and inner peace.
While many people associate the use of a mantra with meditation, that’s not the only way to do it. We’ll be talking about mantra meditation in this article, because it is indeed a very effective method. Over time, it can train your mind to come more easily under your conscious control, even when you’re not meditating.
However, we’re also going to explore how bringing your mantra practice into other parts of your day can help interrupt automatic negative thoughts and shift you out of problematic thinking patterns. Mantra repetition can greatly reduce stress, quiet your mind, and improve your overall sense of well-being.
So, let’s get started!
What is a Mantra?
A mantra is basically a word or a phrase you repeat, either inwardly to yourself or out loud, in order to change or regulate your internal state. The use of mantras can be traced back to at least 3,000 years ago, when they arose in the Vedic tradition. Traditionally, they’ve been comprised of words from the Sanskrit language and have been used in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism as spiritual practices. The term mantra actually derives from two Sanskrit words – manas (mind) and tra (tool) – which combined, denote the ultimate intention behind using a mantra. That is, as a tool to train your mind.
Just like yoga and meditation, mantra practice originated in a spiritual context, but it’s increasingly being recognized for its capacity to support the broader goal of mental well-being. Research is showing the silent repetition of a mantra can significantly reduce activity in the default mode network of the brain. That’s the part of your brain that functions when you’re overthinking, ruminating, and caught in automatic or racing thoughts. So, when we reduce this kind of brain activity, it’s much easier to find our sense of inner peace.
To be clear, there’s no requirement that you use a Sanskrit mantra. Or, that you connect your mantra practice in any way to the spiritual traditions mentioned above. What makes mantras so effective for quieting your mind is the fact you’re taking conscious control of your thoughts, and over time, training your mind to be calmer. There’s no magic connected to the specific words you choose to use.
We’ll talk more about how to choose your mantra in a bit. But for now, just know it can be something as simple as the word peace. Whatever works for you is fine.
How a Mantra Helps Quiet Your Mind
There’s a story in one of my favorite yoga books, Beyond Words by Satchidananda, that perfectly illustrates how a mantra works to quiet your mind. It goes like this:
Once, there was a man who wanted to accomplish great things, so he sought out a sorcerer in the forest. The sorcerer offered to give him a helper who could help him accomplish whatever he wanted. All he had to do was ask, and the helper would do it. But, the sorcerer warned, he must give this helper work to do. If he didn’t, the helper would devour him.
The man had many things he wanted to do, so he felt confident he’d have no problem finding work for his new helper. He took his helper home and put him to work. Whatever he asked for, the helper was able to produce easily and with great speed. So much so that it didn’t take long at all for the man to run out of tasks for his helper to do.
He grew distraught, remembering what the sorcerer had told him. If he ran out of work, his helper would turn on him and devour him. The man went looking for the sorcerer again, seeking guidance, but he was gone. In his place, there was a sage. Desperate, he asked the sage for advice.
After hearing the man’s dilemma, the sage plucked a piece of very curly hair from his head and handed it to the man, offering the following instruction. Whenever the man had nothing for his helper to do, he should give him the piece of hair and ask him to keep it straight.
The man returned to his helper and gave him the task. Quickly, the helper pulled the hair straight, but every time he let go of it, it curled up again. In order to keep it straight, he had to sit there, holding it straight. This gave him something to do at all times.
The man was greatly relieved. He no longer had to fear his helper might devour him. When he needed him, he could ask him to do something. And when didn’t, he could give him the piece of hair. In this way, the helper came under the man’s control.
A Mantra Gives Your Mind Something to Do
In this story, the man is you and me. The helper is our monkey mind. And the piece of curly hair is a mantra.
When you think about how our minds work, it’s very much like the helper in this story. We can accomplish amazing things with our minds. And most of the time, when presented with a problem to solve, our minds find a solution fairly quickly. But then they don’t seem to want to stop!
Our minds can devour us with worry, stress, insecurity, doubt, and never-ending replays of conversations and events. We can mull over problems and potential solutions so many times it becomes unclear which is which. Not to mention all sorts of other mental noise that offers little or no value.
A mantra functions just like the curly piece of hair in the story. When you repeat a word or phrase silently, you’re giving your mind something to do. You’re in effect lassoing it, so it can’t run wild, and especially not in counter-productive directions. The mental chatter that runs on auto-pilot in our minds can be exhausting. And when it latches on to negative thought loops, it becomes self-defeating. Using a mantra prevents all this.
Over time, working with a mantra can train your mind to be calmer, quieter, and more consciously controlled. This translates into more clarity and more productive use of your time and mental energy.
How to Use a Mantra to Quiet Your Mind
Mantra repetition can help quiet your mind in a variety of contexts. We’re going to talk about mantra meditation first, because it brings the most dedicated attention to your goal. When you meditate, you’re setting aside time specifically to practice, with little or no external distractions. This intensive focus works at a deep level to retrain your brain and produce incremental, lasting results.
Note: For those of you who already meditate, mantra repetition can deepen and/or supplement your practice. Adding a mantra to your meditation toolbox can be incredibly useful on those days when your mind’s overactive or uncooperative.
Mantra Meditation to Quiet Your Mind
In general, meditation is the practice of sitting quietly with an inward focus, paying attention to your present moment experience. Depending on the type of meditation you’re practicing, you might be focusing on the sensations of your breath or in your body, with acceptance for whatever arises. You might also be working toward deeper and deeper layers of concentration or developing loving-kindness. With mantra meditation, you’re focusing on repeating your word or phrase inwardly to yourself. That’s it. Pretty simple.
To do this, you just need to find a comfortable place and position in which you can sit and take an upright posture. (You can also lie down or recline if you need to, but upright posture supports a more alert mind.) Take a few moments to notice your breath, relaxing into a steady, gentle pattern. Then, begin repeating your mantra. You can connect the mantra to your breath, repeating it on each inhale and exhale. Or, just find a rhythm for your repetition that feels right for you.
Your mind will likely resist at first. It may cooperate for a few rounds, then suddenly jump to a memory from earlier in the day or flash you a reminder about some task you still need to do. It’s just like the curly piece of hair in the story. When your mind lets go of the mantra even for an instant, it springs back to its old state. But that’s okay. You simply bring your mind back to the mantra, again and again. Eventually, it takes hold.
Remember, It Takes Time to Cultivate a New Skill
It can be helpful to set a meditation timer for yourself, to make sure your monkey mind doesn’t give up too soon. Starting out with 10-20 minutes suits most beginners. The key to remember here is you’re training your brain. The goal is to gradually tame your mind by increasing its capacity for concentration on your mantra. In this way, you’re bringing it more and more under your control.
This is no different than training a muscle in your body. When you’re doing mantra meditation, you’re teaching your mind a new skill, a new way of interacting with your internal and external environments. You’re building your mental muscle to take conscious control of your thinking. It takes repetition and practice over time to become the master of your mind. But you’ll feel your mind becoming quieter and more cooperative with each session.
Quieting Your Mind With Mantra Throughout the Day
Mantra meditation works like a power training session for your mind. It develops your capacity to control your thoughts intensively during your meditation session. And that spills over into all other areas of your life. But, when you bring your mantra into your everyday activities of living, you see the results of your efforts in action.
To compare it again to physical training, it’s like building up your strength in a gym. Then, going out into the world and realizing you can lift that heavy box or move that piece of furniture with relative ease and without injury. You see clearly the real-life benefits of what you’ve been working at.
So, what exactly do I mean by bringing your mantra into your daily activities? I’m talking about noticing when your mind’s getting antsy, anxious, overly negative, stressed, or any other troublesome state, and taking conscious control of it by repeating your mantra.
I’ve worked with mantra meditation off and on for years and have always found it to be the easiest way to tame my mind when it’s too active for meditation. But, recently I’ve been focusing more on using it all throughout my day. It’s been amazing to see how swiftly it works to quiet my mind in a variety of contexts.
Interrupting Thought Loops
Whether it be replays of something that happened hours or days before, worrying about some scenario I have little or no control over, or uncertainty around a decision I’ve made, I can definitely find myself stuck in thought loops. The funny thing about thought loops is we get so lost in them. Ideally, thinking is supposed to lead us somewhere useful. It’s supposed to give us insight or clarity. But so often, our minds just go in pointless circles.
A labyrinth, perhaps, provides a more fitting metaphor. Thought loops can wind us into deeper and deeper layers that leave us feeling more confused and distressed the further into them we go. They rarely, if ever, lead us into peace.
When we notice we’re in a thought loop, we can disrupt the pattern by interjecting repetition of a mantra. This is a powerful practice that can lift us out of the maze and bring our mind’s wandering back under control. Next time you notice your mind looping, give it a try. Repeat your mantra for however long it takes to quiet your mental chatter. You’ll feel a return to clarity and a calmness that settles into your whole being.
Present Moment Awareness Quiets Your Mind
The moment you interrupt your thought loop with the decision to use your mantra, you’ve brought yourself back to present-moment awareness. And as you repeat your mantra, you sustain that present-moment attention. You can’t repeat a mantra while also ruminating, worrying, or thinking negative thoughts. Your mind just can’t multi-task that way. The repetition of your mantra anchors your mind in that present-moment task.
Present-moment awareness tends to be less stressful than thinking about the past or the future. There’s a spaciousness that opens up when we connect our attention to the present moment. It feels like a big sigh in our body and our mind. It’s a letting-go that signals your whole self with the message everything’s okay. Everything’s going to be okay.
Finding Calm & Patience in Frustrating Situations
Do your stress levels ever spike over life’s little frustrations? Mine do. Yesterday, an entire section of the highway was shut down for construction. Because of this, I had to take a long detour down one side of the frontage road, and then back up the other, just to get back to my starting point. So did a lot of other people, which meant the traffic had piled up. What was supposed to be a quick run to the grocery store turned into a long ordeal of stop-and-go chaos, with impatient drivers abruptly darting in and out of my lane. I could feel my irritation rising. But, there was really nothing I could do to change the situation.
My old pattern of irritated (and in reality, entitled) thinking started to emerge, making me feel put-out by the very construction that would make my roads safer for me to travel. But, because I’ve been working with my mantra, I remembered I could use it to quiet my mind. I started repeating it inwardly, and within moments my cortisol levels dropped. I relaxed into the whole situation with ease. When people jumped in front of me, I didn’t get upset. I just tapped my brakes and kept going with my mantra.
It took an extra twenty minutes to get to my destination, and yet the drive felt perfectly timed. Because I was no longer resisting it, I wasn’t bent-out-of-shape about the extra time it took. I wasn’t stressing about how other people were driving. I was simply doing what I needed to be doing in the moment.
Sometimes It’s the Little Things That Steal Our Peace
As I share this story, I realize it’s ultimately about a pretty minor inconvenience. But I chose it for that reason. The truth is, when I’m not mindful of it, I know I can let little things balloon into big frustrations. And I don’t think I’m alone in that regard.
Sometimes, it’s the small, unexpected problems that can throw us off the most. That’s because they tend to happen more frequently. And when they do, we tend to pay less attention to how we react than when a big problem comes up. The little annoyances can snowball into some of our biggest hindrances to inner peace.
Life gives us all kinds and all degrees of obstacles. What we do on a consistent basis to manage our reactions to problems sets the tone for how we relate to stress. Using a mantra can be a powerful way to calm ourselves and keep our minds from either blowing things out of proportion or dragging us into even more negative mindsets.
Next time something goes wrong, and you notice your blood pressure start to rise, try repeating a mantra. Breathe slowly and calmly as you do. Keep repeating it as long as you need to or want to. It’s a pleasant practice that can significantly shift and steady your internal state.
Quieting Your Mind After Work
This one’s a biggie for me. I can get so hyper-focused on my work that even once I’ve called it a day, my mind can’t let go of it. Thoughts keep coming up about what I still need to do. I go over the work I did that day, brainstorm new ideas, and think about what my next day should look like. In some of my previous jobs, these types of thoughts compiled on top of major work-related stresses. It made it really hard to truly enjoy my life outside of work. I’ve realized thinking about work interferes with quality time spent with my husband and my son, not to mention my own me-time, which is also important.
Using a mantra at the end of the day can be a quick and easy way to shift gears. It creates a little break in my mind-space between work-life and home-life. In that break, as I focus on my mantra, I release my attachment to work-related thinking. And, I take active control of my mind, which means it’s easier to notice when my mind starts straying back to work.
If you can relate to needing this kind of transition too, try using a mantra. It can take the form of a dedicated meditation practice, if you have the time. But you can also simply add it to whatever you’re already doing in that time just after work. On the drive home, as you’re cooking dinner, while you’re changing clothes, etc. Use that time to take charge of your mental activity with the repetition of your mantra. That little mental break can clear the way for more presence and enjoyment of your life outside of work.
Quieting Your Mind for Sleep
Lastly, if you have trouble getting to sleep at night, a mantra can help. Often times, when we’re lying in bed trying to go to sleep, that’s when our mind gets the most active. It’s when our little helper doesn’t have anything to do, so it starts looking for something to preoccupy itself with. Like worrying about tomorrow or revisiting scenes from the day. Maybe drudging up old baggage we’re still holding onto, so it can pick it over a few more times. This mental chatter makes it difficult, if not impossible, to sleep.
You can practice with your mantra in meditation just before bedtime, or repeat it as you’re lying in bed. It can detach your mind from all those thoughts and give you something to chew on that has no hook. Meaning, your mantra won’t bait your mind into a long, troublesome string of thoughts. Instead, it will calm both your body and your mind. Combined with slow and steady breath, it can relax you into sleep.
How to Choose Your Mantra
We’ve covered several ways a mantra can help quiet your mind. But, how do you choose what word or phrase to use?
As I mentioned before, your mantra doesn’t have to be a Sanksrit word. It can be anything that resonates with you. You can use basic concepts, like peace, love, hope, or joy. You can connect it to your breath with something like I breathe in, I breathe out. Or, try something that feels more like a blessing or a prayer. Some examples include May I be peaceful, May I be present in this moment, Glory to God, Trust in the Lord, The Lord is my light, etc. Affirmations also work. I am peaceful, I am thankful for this moment, I accept this moment, or any I-am statement of your choosing.
Of course, the traditional Sanskrit mantras are also an option. Personally, I use Om mani padme hum (pronounced: ohm, mah-nee, pahd-may, hoom). It means purifying the body, speech and mind to connect with your innate loving & compassionate nature. For me, using a Sanksrit mantra keeps my mind from latching onto any thoughts or meanings that might arise from using English words. And, connecting to my loving and compassionate self is something that resonates with me. I feel good about repeating this intention.
Whatever word or phrase you choose, just try to keep it short. There are long mantras that are used in traditional practices, but I’ve found the longer it is, the harder it is to remember it. That can get in the way of establishing a rhythm to your repetition and easing into the present moment with a quiet mind.
Our minds are truly extraordinary. From contemplating deep insights, to tackling complex problems, to enjoying the simplest of delights, they allow us to process seemingly infinite bits of information into the cohesive experience we call consciousness. But just like any intricate, high-powered tool, they require skill to be used effectively and optimally.
Working with a mantra helps develop and refine your skillfulness. When you learn how to quiet your mind with a mantra, you can channel your mind’s energy where it’s most useful, helpful, and supportive of your health and happiness.
May you be the skillful master of your own mind.
Please let me know what you think in the comments section below. Have you ever worked with a mantra? Tell me about your experience. Are you thinking about giving it a try? I’d love to hear from you!
Be sure to check back next week for the third installment of my 6 Little Things Series. I’ll be sharing how I’m taking yoga off my mat and out into every day moments with a unique walking practice that helps build self-confidence and self-love. You can sign-up for my weekly newsletter to get it delivered to your inbox.
Have a beautiful weekend! Namaste.