The ancient yogis tell us that, in essence, we are bliss consciousness and that we suffer as embodied souls because we lose touch with this eternal, unbounded state of awareness. Instead of looking to our true nature, we look outward toward the material world for happiness. This only leads us further down the path to misery. Our monkey mind tends toward past memories or future fantasies, leading us away from the present moment – where our bliss consciousness resides.
Luckily, these same yogis developed tools to help lead us back to our true nature. Meditation is key to helping us get in touch with our essence, our Buddha nature. But quieting the fluctuations of the mind's thoughts is no easy task. When our mind is scattered, it takes longer to reach the place where bliss consciousness resides. (Learn more in Your Mind Isn't Actually You: How to Quiet Your Monkey Chatter.)
When we first start meditating, we’re often instructed to place our awareness on our breath. The breath is the most accessible link to the present moment because our breath is always happening in the present moment. And as long as we’re alive, we always have our breath to turn to when we need to focus on something. So, the breath is often used as a tool – sometimes through breathing techniques (pranayama) and sometimes simply by placing our attention on it – for meditation. (Learn about The Practice of Pranayama.)
Mantras are another essential tool for meditation. They’re known to be powerful vehicles for quieting fluctuating thought waves in order to reach the still point we’re aiming for. Mantras are sounds of divinity, containing sacred energy, and can be thought of as a kind of condensed prayer. (Read more in What's a Mantra?)
One might say that the most universal mantra of all is the mantra So'ham, which is inextricably linked to the breath. The inhalation sounds like “so” and the exhalation like “ham.” Placing our attention on the breath – namely “so” as we inhale and “ham” as we exhale, brings us to a state of one-pointed awareness. We become relaxed and present. So'ham is the perfect mantra for beginners to practice because it's easy to align our breath to this subtle sound. So'ham was born from the teachings of the Upanishads. It’s derived from the Sanskrit sah, meaning "that" and aham, or "I am." When we translate So'ham into English, we get “I am that.” (Read more in So'ham. I am That.)
Other than the mantra So'ham, we don’t typically synchronize our breath with a mantra. As we prepare to practice mantra meditation, also known as japa, we first find a comfortable meditation seat and begin to draw the attention inward. We start by bringing our attention to our breath, seeing it enter like a cool breeze through the nostrils, making its way into our heart centers, and then watching it leave the same way it came in on the exhale. As we settle into stillness, we can practice several deep breaths in this manner.
Ideally, the breath is calm and relaxed, and if we’re practicing So'ham, the breath flows slowly – “so” on an inhale and “ham”on an exhale. This is a great practice for beginners as it helps us to stabilize our concentration and become focused.
But what if we’re chanting a mantra like the Gayatri mantra or the Buddhist mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum? These mantras contain more than just the two syllables of So'ham. It doesn’t necessarily make sense to link the breath to these mantras. Instead, we simply allow the breath to breathe itself. We let go of our focus on it and bring our attention solely to the mantra. The breath flows freely while the mantra becomes the focal point. This is a refining of the mantra practice, and as such, it’s also more advanced because we’re not relying upon an external point of focus – the breath.
Using Mala Beads
When practicing with more complex mantras, a set of mala beads becomes quite useful. We use mala beads to keep the mind focused on the repetitions of the particular mantra. Mantras pick up their pace as the practitioner becomes more advanced, and they can ultimately become almost inaudible – sounding more like pulses of energy than the weaving together of syllables. (Learn more in Meditating With Mala Beads.)
The beauty of this practice is that it’s both systematic and methodical. It gives us a solid and outlined approach to the inner practice of meditation. Without it, accessing that still point within would be very, very difficult. We need concrete tools to guide us into deeper states of awareness. And because we all breathe, we all have access to these transcendent states of consciousness. What a simple yet profound practice!