A mantra is a phrase, or it could be a sound or a phrase. It is a phrase that you repeat over and over and over again. Take for example the phrase Om Mani Padme Hum. This phrase is perhaps one of the most widely used mantras in the world today. In fact in Nepal you’ll see rocks 20 feet long and 10 feet high with Om Mani Padme Hum written in tiny letters all over the whole rock, so you can just read it like a letter. And there are prayer wheels at the temples where written in them ten million times is the phrase Om Mani Padme Hum, and you see lamas going around stupas saying Om Mani Padme Hum. 

Now, when you first start to say a mantra, the first involvement is in hearing it outside, through your ears, saying it aloud and hearing it and thinking about it’s meaning. That’s the first game you play with mantra. So, if I give you that mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum, you think about it and you think, “Well, what does it mean?” Now, there are many meanings – there’s a whole book written about its meaning by Govinda. One of the ways of understanding its meaning is that Om means, like Brahma, that which is behind it all, the unmanifest. Mani means jewel or crystal. Padme means lotus, and Hum means heart. So, on one level what it means is the entire universe is just like a pure jewel or crystal right in the heart or center of the lotus flower, which is me, and it is manifest, it comes forth in light, in manifest light, in my own heart. That’s one way of interpreting it. You start to say Om Mani Padme Hum and you’re thinking, “God in unmanifest form is like a jewel in the middle of a lotus, manifest in my heart.” You go through that and feel it in your heart – that’s one trip.

Ok, that’s the first, and lowest level of operation of mantra. It’s putting one set of thoughts into your head in place of another set of thoughts. Instead of thinking, “Gee, it’s hot out. Shall I have a milkshake at the next stop? Gee, this engine sounds a little strange. Those new Chevy’s don’t look very good at all. Boy, I’ve been on this trip!” Instead of that, all of that stuff, which is terribly profound and important, but isn’t really that relevant, you go into the mantra. Once the mantra has been going on that way for a while, it starts to change in its nature. You stop thinking about what it means; you just sort of get hooked or addicted on the Tibetan sound of it. And then it starts to move into your head, and then from your head down into your chest, until pretty soon it’s going around like a little wheel, going around inside your chest, just Om Mani Padme Hum, right?

Now, at that point it has stopped meaning anything to you. Any time you want to bring it back into consciousness, you can rerun its meaning, which will do that thing for you again, but you can keep it down in the place where it’s just running off. Now it’s got another quality to it. That is, when a mantra is done sufficiently it gets into a certain kind of vibration or harmony with the universe in a certain way which is its own thing. The conscious beings who evolve certain languages such as Sanskrit specifically evolve the sounds of these languages to be connected with various states of consciousness – unlike the English language- so that a Sanskrit mantra, if you do it over and over again, will take you to a certain state of consciousness.

The idea of a mantra is that it just sits there, and all that stuff goes by. It’s like a bridge on which you stand, looking down into the water in which you see your own life going by. It’s a training device to break you out of your attachments. When I’m driving and doing mantra I’m not attached to my driving. I’m doing mantra, and driving is just happening. So in other words, the mantra is a technique for bringing me into a place in myself which would be called the eternal present; that is, a place where nothing is literally happening at all. It’s a device for calming my mind.

Mantra gets so far out, that after I did it for two days and two nights solid in Nepal once, I stopped to go to sleep and of course it continued going. But instead of it continuing going just in my voice it continued going, what it sounded like was a cross between the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the O Heavenly Day Chorus. It’s that huge of a thing except it was made up of all old voices and they stretched back in time and space in infinite direction, you know, distance. All I heard was Om Mani Padme Hum and the wind was Om Mani Padme Hum and the air conditioner was Om Mani Padme Hum, the whole thing. I had tuned in on that place where that was all I could hear. But it was no longer my voice. I went rushing to a yogi and I said, “What’s happening, I’m going crazy!” He said, “You’ve tuned in on the Om, that’s that place. You’ve tuned in on that place. There it is. That’s where they’re all hanging out.”

– Ram Dass, excerpt from the book Doing Your Own Being, 1973