Why Do We Repeat a Specific Number of Mantras?
When we are told to repeat mantras a specific number of times, it often makes people ask why.
When we ask Tiwariji why 21, he will say, “Because it is not 22.” This makes me think, be precise. It is important to know how many times you have repeated a mantra, as this is part of the awareness factor. If the whole practice is cultivating mindfulness, then we should know what we are doing at all times, with a relaxed presence of mind. We are developing a heightened awareness, rather than zoning out like a space cadet as we repeat a mantra or other concentration techniques.
Just do it
And there is also a sense of, “It is what it is.” When starting a practice, it is good to ask questions, but it is also important not to overanalyze what has been prescribed. Practice regularly for a while first, gain some firsthand experience and understanding. Then we can begin to draw our own conclusions, based on this experience. At a later stage in practice is a better time to ask more questions, from a trustworthy teacher who has a well-established practice.
There are numbers that are said to be more “auspicious” than others. For example, multiples of 3 or 9, 11, 21, 51, 108, etc. Many people have written on the significance of these numbers, and among various cultures around the world some numbers are considered more sacred than others. But the reasons for why some numbers were/are more revered than others is debatable.
Whether we believe this to be true or not, there is no reason to become superstitious. If we decide to repeat a mantra 51 times, then we do it. But if we only have time one morning for 11 repetitions (or 10), we won’t be less of a practitioner, and nothing bad is going to happen to us; our day should run as smoothly as it would if we had done 51 repetitions.
Altered state of awareness
Whenever repeating anything, there is a point at which something in our state of awareness shifts. Distance athletes are familiar with this. At a certain point whenever we repeat any physical activity – running, cycling, swimming, etc. – the activity becomes meditative, the effort shifts, our legs seem to drop off, and we are completely immersed in the act of doing and breathing. Much of the mental chatter stills as we get absorbed in the process. Even time, at this point, seems to function differently than normal.
If we were only to run for 5 or 10 minutes, we would not get this effect. We need to run longer for this meditative state to kick in. In the same way, if we only repeat a mantra a few times, it would not be enough for us to fall into an altered state of consciousness. We may be saying a mantra for a specific effect – to start/end a class, etc. – and then it may be enough to repeat it once or twice. But if the mantra is being done as a concentration technique, then it needs to be repeated more.
What is enough?
How many repetitions are enough? That depends on how quickly we can get absorbed in the sound, how long we have for practice, etc. And the practice has an effect over time. If we repeat 11 or 21 every day, there will be a channeling effect over time. If we are consistent with practice, we find that eventually it takes us less time to get absorbed. Better that we do something routinely every day than force ourselves to sit for 108 repetitions one day and then not at all for the rest of the week.
Decide on how many repetitions you have the time and capability for before you start; commit to that. If something has been prescribed by a teacher for you, then do that. It is good to have a plan and then stick to it.
Once again, always keep track of how many repetitions you have done. Be in the practice with full awareness.
And do not become dependent. Eventually we need to let go of any technique. Mantra, like any concentration/meditation technique, is merely a tool to help us eventually fall into a state of concentration and then meditation. At that later stage there is a dissolution; we begin to merge with the process and the sound itself. It is, therefore, good to take time during practice each morning to just sit, without actively using any technique, as training. Once we get completely absorbed we must be able to let the tool go.
Hold onto nothing.