A word, a name of God, or a spiritual phrase that is repeated over and over again is known as a mantra.
The practice of mantra is an effective way to concentrate your mind. But as important as concentrating your mind is what you concentrate on. Although the mind can focus on anything, only certain words can qualify as a mantra. A mantra must connect you with the sacred. Most of them focus you on God through repetition of a divine name. A mantra provides a boat with which you can float through your thoughts unattached, entering subtler and subtler realms. It is a boat that steers itself – to the threshold of God.
The use of mantra sets up one thought, one wave, that repeats over and over again, dislodging your attachment to all other thoughts, until they are like birds gliding by… Offer all your thoughts as a sacrifice to the mantra. If you think, “This isn’t going to work,” take that thought and imagine yourself offering it to the mantra on a golden tray with a silk handkerchief, incense and a candle. Offer it as you continue to repeat the mantra undisturbed. Keep offering your thoughts, your doubts, discomforts, boredom, even your sore throat.
Later, when you have gotten up to go about the business of the day, keep remembering the mantra; invite it to stay with you. You can coordinate the mantra with your steps as you walk or with any rhythmic activity. No matter what else you do, keep doing the mantra. If you are typing, every time you hit the shift key, “Ram”, if you are talking, every time there is a pause, “Ram…”
How fast this takes place depends on how wide open and ready you are. But before too long, if practiced continually, a mantra becomes somewhat autonomous, like a top spinning inside which every now and then needs just a flick to keep it going. Eventually, it will go on with no need of encouragement, as in the case of the saint Kabir who said, “Ram practices my japa [repetition of God’s name] while I sit relaxed.”
It’s a blissful moment when you notice that happening: Instead of doing mantra, the mantra is doing you.
If your spirit is ripe for it, you might only have to hear a mantra or see it in a book to sense that it is the right vehicle for you. Or you might try a particular mantra and find, when you begin to use it, that nothing happens. It may feel foreign and irrelevant as you repeat it. Don’t worry about your pronunciation. In the course of time it will take care of itself. Give a mantra a chance. Then, if it still feels strange and uncomfortable, perhaps it is not the right mantra for you. No harm done. Just try another.
– Ram Dass, excerpt from Journey of Awakening: A Meditator’s Guidebook