Mantram: What Is It, And Should You Try It?

Mantram is a Sanskrit word that means, roughly, “instrument of thought.” As a discipline, it refers to the practice of silently repeating certain syllables or phrases. It is a way to keep the mind occupied by putting attention on sounds or words that are believed to have spiritual meaning and positive effects, and thus free from the usual endless succession of varied, distracting thoughts.

Mantram is most often associated with Hinduism, Buddhism, and other Eastern religions, but a similar practice is also part of Western religious tradition, as exemplified by the Roman Catholic Rosary and the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”) of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Some contemporary psychologists, however, recommend mantram as a purely secular method of diverting attention from troublesome thoughts in order to reduce anxiety, anger, and stress.

Several researchers have documented the efficacy of this method to improve emotional well-being. One study, published in the Journal of Continuing Education in Nursing in 2006, measured outcomes of a five-week program of mantram practice in a population of healthcare workers (nurses and social workers, primarily female), who were experiencing high stress.  Participants were asked to choose a mantram from recommended sayings from the major spiritual traditions and were given wrist-worn counters to tally the daily frequency of repetition. The investigators found that the program reduced stress and improved the emotional and spiritual well-being of the participants. They concluded that, “Mantram repetition is an innovative stress-reduction strategy that is portable, convenient, easy to implement, and inexpensive.”

As Dr. Weil says, “This accords with my experience. After reading about mantram in my early thirties, I began repeating om mani padme hum to myself when I was falling asleep, driving long distances, or just sitting quietly. After a time, I found I could use it to break cycles of worrying that made me anxious or kept me awake. It has also helped me get through dental procedures and remain calm in the midst of turmoil.

“I do not repeat the words on any fixed schedule or keep count of the number of times I do it, but I’ve done it so often that I can now slip into it almost without conscious effort. Because mantram repetition is, indeed, portable, convenient, easy to implement, and inexpensive, I recommend it to you as a method worth trying to take your attention away from thoughts that make you anxious or sad.”

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