Mantras may be used on their own or as part of a visualization practice. In a typical visualization practice there is a communication from the “deity” to the practitioner (in the form of blessings, or rays of light, or even speech), and there is a communication from the practitioner to the deity, in the form of mantra.
Mantras can also be used as “mind protectors” while walking, doing the dishes, or even in sitting meditation. I often chant a mantra (internally) while I’m in an airplane taking off or landing, and I find this to be helpful in combating anxiety.
Often, Buddhists will count the mantras they are chanting by telling beads on a “mala.” The physical action of counting round the mala helps to keep the mind focused. A mala usually has 108 beads, this number having a mystical significance in ancient India.
The mala can be worn round the neck so that it can be accessed when needed. Some malas have 21 beads and are worn round the wrist. But the use of a mala is not essential.
To use mantras in formal meditation, chanted out loud or internally, first of all make yourself comfortable and upright, and spend a few minutes following your breathing and letting your mind settle.
You may want to slow your breathing, directing it into the belly, and deepen it. This will help to still your mind, although you don’t need to have an absolutely quiet mind before you start the mantra.
If you’re saying the mantra out loud, then let the sound resonate in your chest.
It will help if you take a deep breath into your belly before each mantra. Generally, mantras sound better if you can do each mantra with a single exhalation. But if you can’t manage that, then that’s okay.
Let the last note of each mantra linger before starting the next mantra. You’ll find that the mantra naturally falls into rhythm with your breathing. Make sure that the mantra follows your breathing and not the other way round, otherwise you may become breathless.
Don’t actively think about the meaning of the mantra (if it even has one!). If you know what some of the words mean, then they will have associations for you. These associations will have an effect on your mind, and will deepen in significance over time as you explore them outside of meditation.
Let go of any concerns that may arise about whether you are doing the mantra properly. It doesn’t matter if your pronunciation is a little off — it’s the spirit that counts.
To bring the mantra to a close, gradually let your chanting decrease in volume until it fades away as an external sound and can only be heard internally. Then let the internal sound fade away into silence.
At the conclusion of the practice, sit in the resonant silence, letting the vibrant quietness have a refreshing effect on your mind and emotions.