Of all the various ways and means for attaining our spiritual goals, mantra practice is universally acknowledged as the safest and easiest way. Patanjali says, in the Yogasutras:
Janma ausadhi mantra tapah samadijah siddhaya.
“Miraculous powers may be obtained through birth, the use of herbs, mantras, austerities or meditation.”
Patanjali has listed here the methods in ascending order from “lowest” to “highest.”
“Through birth,” as I understand it, can mean one of two things: either from spiritual practices undertaken in past lives, or through being born to a mother or father who has developed such powers. A psychic mother, for example, is more likely to produce a child with the same gifts than an ordinary mother.
“The use of herbs” is a somewhat controversial passage: some insist that it means “drugs,” while others strongly oppose this interpretation. I have personally heard several gurus discuss how people in the 60's experienced valid psychic phenomena through drugs, and believe this is the correct understanding of the Sanskrit word ausadhi in this verse. Make no mistake: no one recommends this method. Yes, it can happen, but the danger of damaging the mind through drug use far outweighs any spiritual benefit.
The next entry in the chain of difficulty is mantra practice. It is followed by “austerities” – the voluntary endurance of pain under the close supervision of a guru. I have personally experienced this and can say that it produces amazing results but can be terrible to go through (especially for those of us in the West who are accustomed to ease and comfort). I know of very few gurus who are using this method with Western students – perhaps partly because of our low endurance of pain and partly because of our fondness for lawsuits.
The last – the most difficult and best – method is meditation. Everyone is encouraged to practice meditation, but there are only a very few, highly gifted meditators who ever achieve any measure of success in it. It is one thing to feel at peace or to feel “empty” and it is quite another to be able to bend time and space. I can't do it. Again, I encourage everyone to practice meditation, since it's only through many lifetimes of practice that one is eventually able to succeed in it. But in the meantime, mantra practice remains a good method that anyone can practice and achieve reliable, predictable results with relative ease.
To reiterate: the ease is relative. If it were truly easy, everyone would be flying in the sky on magic carpets and pulling winning lottery numbers out of divination mirrors. A mantra sadhana usually takes at least three months of working on it three or more hours a day – and sometimes a sadhana can take years of such effort. Practitioners often speed this up by engaging in retreats of one to three months (or longer) to accumulate mantra repetitions from the moment they wake up to the moment they fall asleep. It's enough work that by the time the miracle happens, it doesn't seem like such a miraculous event anymore but you see that there's cause-and-effect and, as always in this world, no free lunch.
In future posts we'll talk more about the details of mantra practice and some mantras you can use without formal initiation.