Mantra is one of the simplest, yet a very powerful method to achieve meditation.
Mantra involves the rhythmic invocation of a sound. This provides a foundation for the aspirant so that his practice is just not "in the air". This anchor or foundation helps the mind to gradually disconnect with the external experiences provided through the 5 senses, which is the first step to successful meditation.
The Nature of Mantra
Although mantra has often been riled as a "religious thing" through invocation of the names of deities or Gods, it is not actually so. Mantra is a sound form. It is a Sanskrit word which etymologically means "by the repetition of which the mind becomes free of external experiences". That is how it is to be seen and experienced.
Sound has a form; sound has a color. Every sound creates patterns of forms and color in the mind. Vibrations of different frequency create different patterns. These patterns result in withdrawal from sensory experiences. As you proceed further successfully, they would result (transiently) in deeper experiences such as ESP, mystical experiences etc. Eventually, they will help the sincere practitioner to even surpass these inner experiences and distractions and move towards eternal bliss.
Now, sound of mantra is not to be seen in the context of the written word. In fact, the sound formed by following the written word could be severely limiting for higher experiences. The nature of mantra is that of a cosmic sound and should preferably be HEARD from a teacher. Mantra repetition could be done as 3 ways - audible, whisper or silent (in the thought). Each method of repetition has different frequencies, different forms and has different effects. The most powerful is the silent method, because it has the highest frequency. Louder the sound, greater is the velocity but lower is the frequency.
Preparations for Practice
Get yourself a mantra - Once a mantra is chosen, it should NEVER be changed, however much you may like to. Often people change their mantra because it is too common - they wish to get something unique as a kind of a rare elixir. Be warned that this is a mistake and will result in complications at higher levels in your spiritual journey. So be careful in selecting a mantra. Go find yourself a teacher and if you can't, mentally recite a selection of mantras, each for some stretch of time and see which 'feels' right for you - which one creates the right vibrations and then stick with it.
Have a symbol to focus upon - A symbol could be mental - the sun, a star, a candle flame, a crescent, a cross, symbol of Om, a lotus flower, your personal deity etc. Or you could have a physical point of focus such as the nose tip or the pulsation in any particular part of the body etc.
Place of practice - Have a designated area of your house - a room or a corner for your mantra practice. It is important that you use the same area for your regular practice. You will find that over time this area will be charged with the favorable energies of mantra and spur you onto spontaneous meditation.
Posture - The posture for your mantra practice should be a seated one with spine erect. Siddhasana and Padmasana are especially suited for the purpose as they provide the maximum stability to the body preventing it from drooping or falling. These postures, when perfected, enable the practitioner to sit for long spells without tiring, something very essential in meditation practice. Siddhasana also exerts the right pressure on the mooladhara chakra (energy center), the seat of kundalini and is recommended as a meditation pose.
Breath flow - Before proceeding with mantra meditation, it should be verified that the predominant flow of the breath is from the left nostril (as opposed to the right). Or then, the flow should be balanced between the nostrils. Mantra meditation is not advised with the right nostril more free flowing than the left. This is because the left nostril corresponds with the lunar (mental) forces and the right for the physical forces. It would be difficult to have successful meditation with the right flowing predominantly.
If necessary, breath flow between nostrils can be altered using a Yoga Danda.
Role of a Mala - Often, as you proceed in mantra repetition, you will find the mind drifting involuntarily from the physical point of focus - to a dreamy state or then swamped by thoughts. If you are practicing Mantra in coordination with the turning of mala beads, this drift is stopped whenever you reach the head bead (sumeru). The sumeru provides the disconnect and you are reminded to turn the Mala around for the next round of repetition. This brings back the awareness and prevents it from going out of hand for long periods of time. That is the first point.
The second point is that the Mala provides the "physical" anchor which is so necessary as you proceed to higher levels of the practice. At the higher levels, as you are disconnected from the external world, it may be quite an experience - sometimes even terrifying. The mala serves as your connection with this world to bring you back. This coupled with your symbol as the mental anchor, makes for a successful journey.
Once you are equipped and prepared as outlined above, be seated in the posture advised. Start turning the beads in synchronization with the mantra, with the mantra being repeated with every bead turned. To know more on how to turn the beads, read the "How to Use" section.
Rhythmic Repetition of the Mantra - the mantra should be repeated with a certain rhythm of your choice. The rhythm could be synchronized with the breath or with the pulsation in any part of the body or in any way you wish. The mantra should be repeated with every bead turned.
Method of Recitation - As mentioned earlier, the mantra may be repeated audibly, as a whisper or then silently. This depends upon your mental state. If the mind is disturbed or you are drowsy, it is best to repeat the mantra audibly and then progress towards whispering and then to the silent thought of mantra. Beginners may also proceed from audible repetition to the more powerful silent repetition.
Speed of Recitation - Repeat the mantra at a speed that feels right. The slower the recitation, the greater is the frequency and the power behind the mantra. Conversely, a faster repetition implies a lower frequency and reduced power behind the mantra. However, you may have to alter speeds depending upon the state of your mind. A dissipated and drowsy mind may require a faster repetition of the mantra - a slower repetition may put you off to sleep!
Eyeball movement - For successful mantra meditation practice, it is important that the eyeball movement is absent. Eyeball movement is always there (even when we are asleep in the form of REM), but for this practice it is essential that the movement is stalled for desirable results. This movement is gradually eliminated by constant focus on your symbol at an imagined place on the eyebrow centre.
Also, it often helps to imagine the vibrations of the mantra converging at the eyebrow center.
Mind focus - be aware of the Mantra at all times. The mind will waver; you will find it drifting to other thoughts. As you realize this, gently bring back your awareness to the Mantra. Don't feel frustrated by the oscillating mind - this is normal, and is part of the process itself!
Important: Don't make the mistake of correlating the mantra sound with its written form. As mentioned earlier, this could be limiting its potential greatly.
Practice in this manner for as many rounds of the mala as you feel the need or have the time for. You must start the practice at the head bead (sumeru) and also end it at the sumeru.
Regularity of Practice - It is essential that Mantra meditation is practiced everyday without a break. It may be just 5 minutes but regularity is a must. It is preferable to do it at a designated time - in the morning or then in the night, before going to bed at least an hour after meals.
Over time, you will find the effect of the mantra on the subconscious through its unique calming influence at any time of the day and in any situation. You are then truly on your journey to spiritual growth.