Mantra meditation is known by various names in the West, like Transcendental meditation (TM), Vedic meditation, Deep meditation or Himalayan meditation for instance.
Mindfulness can also be known by other names, such as Vipassana or insight meditation.
Mantra meditation is a classic style of practice from India, usually taught by a teacher who guides practitioners to use the mantra in a very specific way during classes spread over a few days.
Mindfulness is more widespread and is often found in yoga studios and on the majority of meditation apps.
Typically in mantra meditation you sit comfortably in a normal chair with the back supported. You hold a mantra (given to you by a teacher) delicately in your mind in such a way that mental activity decreases and the body relaxes.
Mindfulness practice usually involves sitting upright with no back support observing things like breath, body sensations, sounds, thoughts or emotions (and so on).
On a basic level it feels like mantra practice takes you OUT of your sense of mind and body whereas mindfulness takes you IN to to a sense of mind and body.
Both practices build concentration.
The mantra replaces mental noise with a soothing sound and this leads to mental quietness which leads to more stable attention over time even though the practice itself is effortless.
In mindfulness you train focus in a more direct way by observing what you see, hear or feel without judgement or becoming lost in the stories the mind creates about them.
The mantra is a soothing sound with a vibrational quality. It isn’t an affirmation like “I am enough.” The mantra creates periodic waves or vibrations in consciousness and you ride those waves into states of peace and relaxation.
In mindfulness you focus on mental objects and when you get good at that you begin to penetrate those mental objects with a high degree of awareness. Eventually this process causes the object of meditation to break up into patterns of energy, wave-like and vibrational. Buddhists call this insight into impermanence.
The mindfulness meditator can ride these vibrations into deeper states of peace and tranquillity, just like the mantra meditator does with ripples created by the mantra.
The major benefits of mantra practice are ease and simplicity. Many people who consider themselves failed mindfulness meditators find success with mantra practice. They suddenly have access to deep relaxation on-demand and that brings a host of mental and physical health benefits in a relatively short time.
The Indian monk who popularised mantra practice in the West taught mantra as a way to unify the busy thinking mind with its deepest most silent level, which he considered to be the unified field of consciousness that is shared by all Beings. Once you’ve experienced this state it’s easy to see why he thought this, even if you don’t believe in the concept of shared consciousness.
Mindfulness practice tends to be harder in the beginning. However, strong mindfulness can turn any ordinary experience into profound contact with a much deeper aspect of reality. It reveals hidden truths about the nature of consciousness and what you are “underneath” thoughts, feelings and emotions.
Which one is right for you? Mindfulness or mantra? It’s hard to say as each style has its on benefits and drawbacks and each person has their own proclivities.
I love both styles of practice but mantra lead to my first big breakthrough. It helped me uncover the silent depths of mind that were previously hidden from me. From there I rediscovered mindfulness (which I’d struggled with initially), and I’ve grown to love that too.
Hope it helps,