In western culture, the word "mantra" is tossed around quite casually as a substitute for the word "affirmation," which is something we say to ourselves repeatedly to bolster our motivation or to ward off discouragement. While mantras certainly serve that function, their original intent goes much deeper.
Not only have mantras been a cornerstone of many spiritual practices for thousands of years, their physical and psychological benefits are increasingly born out by science. Understanding more about their origins and how they are believed to work can help you choose mantras for avoiding negativity and discouragement and encouraging positive thinking.
In Hinduism and Buddhism, mantras are direct appeals to deities requesting that they bestow blessings in the form of positive energy. They are said -- or chanted repetitively -- to help us ward off harm, to succeed in our endeavors or -- most importantly -- to make spiritual progress. The word "mantra" is derived from two Sanskrit words: manas, which means "mind," and trai, which means "to protect" or "free from." So it seems that mantras were originally designed as a method to cultivate positive thinking.
Brush Up On Your Sanskrit?
Sanskrit is regarded by mystics as the most powerful language for saying mantras because its syllables originate from primal sound that can bring us to higher levels of awareness. In Buddhism, while various prayers may be translated into local languages -- whether it's Chinese, Tibetan or even English -- mantras are still said in Sanskrit.
Sanskrit mantras are regarded as so powerful that you don't even have to know what they mean to obtain benefit, according to the book, "Mantra Yoga," by scholar David Frawley. Saying mantras is a transformative activity that harmonizes mind, body and spirit.
Read More: 8 Easy Mindful-Meditation Techniques
Sources for Mantras
There are many religious and not-so-religious sources for obtaining mantras and, as you might expect, a number of different philosophies behind them.
Kundalini Yoga is rooted in the Tantric Yoga Tradition, which originated in the eighth century and was brought to the west in 1969 by the late Yogi Bhajan. For some practioners, Kundalini is a full-on way of life and for others it's a spiritual boost that doesn't require you to join a religion. At any rate, Kundalini Yoga provides a wealth of mantras that would make the grumpy donkey Eeyore smile. Repeat Sat Nam ("My name is truth") to yourself when the going gets rough to help you break through any cloud cover.
One way to get a mantra is to enroll in a Transcendental Meditation class, at the end of which your instructor will bestow you with your own personal mantra. (While few dispute the effectiveness of TM, the idea that anyone needs a personal mantra is controversial). Interestingly, TM mantras literally have no meaning. The belief is that this is the best if not only way to free the mind from its usual conceptual traps.
Mantra the Easy Way
Numerous studies, including a 2015 report in the journal Brain and Behavior, have found that the simple act of silent repetitive speech such as that practiced in mantra recitation, even without a spiritual context, has a powerful calming and rejuvenating effect on the mind and body. In the study, 23 subjects who were asked to chant the word "one" for 8 minutes at a time exhibited profound calming of activity across several regions of the brain.
Read More: What is the Goal in Meditation?