The Sanskrit word mantra consists of the root man- “to think” (also in manas “mind”) and the suffix -tra, designating tools or instruments, hence a literal translation would be “instrument of thought”
It would seem that the search for mantra begins early in life. Or, at least it did for me. The ubiquitous words to live by, maxims offered in children’s books, sayings… words of wisdom were always right there at the ready, waiting for me to try them out. I let the roll around my mouth, coming tumbling out in various ways and contexts. I thought about them and considered their gravitas. I endeavored to create my own.
People are people no matter how wierd they are. (Spelling, words, and attached art – not pictured – are mine, circa 1976)
I don’t remember when I started collecting quotations, song lyrics, expressions, lines from movies… and the collection has comprised all sorts of representations; collages, repetitive script, artwork, photos, memorization. I definitely was looking for instruments of thought.
It makes sense at a young age to rely on the words of others. People who have more experience in life, or art, or the world, or something, can serve as guides, or teachers. The words can provide validation or support whether or not you even know the person. And it’s nice to feel like someone has been there before – someone really *gets it*. I think that was my first motivation in the search for mantra.
A silly beginner, basic apprentice aggression
In the absence of a master, trying to make up my own lesson – Astronautalis, Oceanwalk
Eventually, my search for mantra had a different purpose. Rather than validation it was more a search for kindred spirits: one’s tribe. Again, this is not for a lack of a tribe of my own, but more of an effort to somehow identify the reach and significance of the tribe. Here came the words of the masters; great poets, singers, novelists….
- All who wander are not lost!
- Carpe diem!
- And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make!
- Do not go gentle into that good night!
- Rage rage against the dying of the light!
- Oh! The places you will go!
- The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return!
- Emancipate yourself from mental slavery!
- Live! Laugh! Love!
- Dance like no one is watching!
- Shoot for the moon, you might land in the stars!
ओं मणिपद्मे हूं
This led into my efforts to really study mantra – in the traditional sense. I began to think much more seriously about the power of words and the power of manifestation – like how words can so often become reality, for better or for worse, and how words can provide a path to deeper more effective thinking, concentration, or better yet, a truly quiet mind. Considering that mantra is also defined as “a word or sound repeated to aid concentration in meditation” this too makes sense in my continuing coexistence with, and search for, mantra.
Om mani padme hum has been a staple for me. This mantra has far too much depth to be covered here, but as the lotus mantra, and the lotus is that which can emerge with beauty and grace from the mud may indicate a bit of its direction. I love studying the yoga sutras and the mantras of the Bhagavad Gita because the relevance of these ancient texts underscores so much of the interconnectedness of life that my age has been beginning to show me.
And as I continued to embrace mantra I started to see how everyone else I saw around me was too – sometimes consciously, other times less so; looking for the perfect tattoo, identifying the perfect quotation for the college essay, or with which to begin each chapter of the new novel, or to get through the next overwhelmingly sad/challenging/devastating/heartbreaking circumstance that will surely come up.
Mantra is also believed to be a spell or weapon of supernatural power…
I think maybe the reminder of mantra can also be protective and maybe that is what drives a lot of people to search for mantra. It certainly drove me last year to a point where I felt compelled to put mantra on my body – out of my mind, my mouth, and on to my skin. This was new for me, and definitely reactive. At a time in my life when I was feeling overwhelmed by all that was happening around me, and needing a reminder that not only could, but that I would, stay the course.
In hindsight, I am not sure I would have actually gone through with this commitment to mantra had I not been reeling emotionally on so many levels… which is not to say I regret the decision, I do not. But I have found myself feeling shy about it in a way I never anticipated, which makes me wonder.
I chose to get two mantras tattooed on my back in the last year. One, the lotus mantra was less surprising, and somehow, people seem not to ask about it because: I do yoga. I guess that excuses the cultural co-optation. I also chose to represent the mantra in a form that is not generally scripted because I wanted to include a traditional ॐ. I suppose this could be construed as an error – but it is just intentionally archaic. Somehow, that feels apropos for me.
The second piece of mantra I chose to put on my body was a refrain from a song that I listened to on repeat for nearly three months after the sudden loss of three friends near the end of last year. Because the words are in English, people are much more likely to ask about them. And it feels really silly to explain that I have put a song lyric on my grown up body. This is a shyness I am not familiar with. But that bit of mantra – like everything – is so much more than the tattoo. I am not sure if I will add to the tattoo, or change it, or grow into it, but I am so glad for the reminder that in spite of terribly sad times, I do maintain my belief in the good things coming… that nothing is irreparable, or lost forever.
Mantra brings comfort, and is powerful. We have seen this always, prayers, chants, superstitions, cheers, spells. I think even for people who would say they don’t believe in mantra, they would find, upon closer examination, that they actually do. From positive self talk and affirmations, to songs of empowerment and resistance, to calls to action, mantra is there.
And we could do far worse than to seek out interments of thought.
I am no master, I know nothing…
I am a servant and I know something…
I am a witness….