The inner life-force behind any action is more important than the outer form which it takes. Japa and Mantra can become habitual and repetitive, and if that happens, the outer shell remains, but there is nothing alive within. Such japa sadhana has little value. The living energy needed is either the mental focus and engagement or the emotional/vital support for the activity so that it is something that goes beyond mere droning repetition. Given the nature of the human instrument, most will find it easier to harness the energy of the vital being, through devotional aspiration or dedicated work, while some will naturally gravitate to the focus on the mental process and the search for knowledge that can entice and capture the attention. Either way, as Sri Aurobindo so clearly describes, there must be a real focus and energy that underlies and supports the outer actions.
We see in the world today a movement away from mainstream religions and a shift towards spiritual fulfillment, as people describe the emptiness they feel in many of the rituals that religions tend to promulgate. When they started, these acts, which are now ritual efforts, likely spoke to a living truth and force that communicated an experience to those who were involved. When that force recedes, people experience only the dullness of an outer form devoid of force to provide significance and focus to their lives. For those who are engaged and receptive, simple acts, or ritual formulas may still awaken the deeper sense, but for most, there appears to be a dull “tuning out” of the essential relation that was at the core of what is now habit or ritual.
Sri Aurobindo notes: “Prayer and meditation count for so much in yoga. But the prayer must well up from the heart on a crest of emotion or aspiration, the Japa or meditation come in a live push carrying the joy or the light of the thing in it. If done mechanically and merely as a thing that ought to be done (stern grim duty!), it must tend towards want of interest and dryness and so be ineffective…. You were doing Japa too much as a means for bringing about a result, I meant too much as a device, a process laid down for getting the thing done. That was why I wanted the psychological conditions in you to develop, the psychic, the mental, for when the psychic is forward, there is no lack of life and joy in the prayer, the aspiration, the seeking, no difficulty in having the constant stream of bhakti and when the mind is quiet and inturned and upturned there is no difficulty or want of interest in meditation. Meditation, by the way, is a process leading towards knowledge and through knowledge, it is a thing of the head and not of the heart, so if you want dhyana, you can’t have an aversion to knowledge. Concentration in the heart is not meditation, it is a call on the Divine, on the Beloved. This yoga too is not a yoga of knowledge alone, knowledge is one of its means, but its base being self-offering, surrender, bhakti, it is based in the heart and nothing can be eventually done without this base. There are plenty of people here who do or have done Japa and base themselves on bhakti, very few comparatively who have done the ‘head’ meditation; love and bhakti and works are usually the base; how many can proceed by knowledge? Only the few.”
Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 6, Sadhana Through Love and Devotion, Mantra and Japa, pp. 165-167