The Benson-Henry Institute (BHI) at Massachusetts General Hospital is a leader in the clinical practice of mind-body medicine. It’s Director Emeritus is Dr. Herbert Benson, whose primary focus has been on stress reduction. In the 1970’s, he developed a technique based on Transcendental Meditation (TM) that he calls “The Relaxation Response.”
Transcendental Meditation and Mindfulness meditation are the two forms of meditation used most often in clinical settings. Both TM and contemporary Mindfulness are often criticized for being “meditation lite,” watered-down versions of traditional meditation. While it is important to note that 85% of all diseases is stress related, from a Buddhist perspective relaxation and stress reduction are only the short-range goals of meditation. The long-range goal is transcendence over suffering, moving from unwholesome states of mind to wholesome ones, and the development of penetrating wisdom. The Buddhist focus is on the complete transformation of the individual.
At the BHI, patients are encouraged to do “minis.” These are mini-meditations, short periods of meditation usually 5 minutes or less, a quick fix to reduce stress in a short amount of time.
“Minis” can also be reciting mantras. Ellen Slawsby, Ph.D., the director of pain services at BHI, says that mantras use “something inborn, an internal mechanisms to elicit your own endorphins or endogenous morphine.” Indeed, studies have shown that reciting a mantra does release endorphins. Mantras provide other benefits as well, all similar to those associated with mindfulness meditation: they relieve stress; move energy throughout the body, regulate heart rate and chemicals in our brains; enhance positive brainwaves; increase immune functions; and help lower blood pressure.
Slawsby claims that “As little as 30 seconds of using a mantra can dampen unpleasant sensations.” Sure, for maybe 30 seconds. The mantras used at places like BHI are often short phrases, maybe two to four words. Aggie Casey, director of BHI’s Cardiac Wellness Program, says “They may quietly to themselves repeat the words ‘I am’ as they breathe in and then ‘at peace’ as they breathe out.” Such phrases are hardly mantras, though. They are more like short affirmations.
It is difficult to come up with a precise definition for mantra, but traditionally, a mantra contains one or more ‘bija’ (seed) syllables that may or may not have some literal meaning. Roger Corless in The Vision of Buddhism explains that, “A mantra may contain words, or sounds that has a specific meaning; but meaning is not its essential feature.”
Originally, mantras were considered “sacred words” possessing magic power. However, Ryuichi Abe* says, “[It] is possible to understand mantra as a linguistic device for deepening one’s thought, and, more specifically, an instrument for enlightenment.” If approached in the right way, mantra is a meditative discipline.
There are certainly positive short-term benefits to the relaxation and stress reduction focus of contemporary meditation. Yet these methods are much more effective, and transformative, when practiced from a deeper level, with a real commitment of time and perseverance. Now there were always be those who will never be interested in committing to the full path. For them, short periods of “mindfulness” are enough. Yet, I can’t help but wonder if the contemporary approach to meditation and mantra doesn’t have the effect of detouring those who might decide to go further. As well, I question how repeating a short affirmation for a small period of time can cut through the delusions of self and fundamental ignorance, which Buddhism teaches is the root cause of all disease and all suffering.
Today on a number of ABC programs, Nightline commentator Dan Harris promoted his new book about meditation 10 Percent Happier. On World News Tonight, he said it only takes five minutes. “Everyone’s got five minutes.” Only 10 percent happier? “That’s pretty good.” Well, it’s better than nothing. But I am afraid that these sort of presentations mislead people into thinking that is it easy, and when they find out it isn’t then they will give up, as many do, or form a negative association with meditation. The other extreme are those who oversell the benefits of meditation, giving people the impression that it will solve all their problems. That is equally as dangerous and irresponsible.
Meditation is hard. When we engage in meditation or mantra practice, difficulties will come up. That is a good thing, for without difficulties there can be no real progress. When we talk about overcoming or transcending suffering, we don’t mean that sufferings ever go away. But rather, we view suffering differently, and that change of perspective facilitates our transformation. Thich Nhat Hanh writes in the Miracle of Mindfulness, “Feeling, whether of compassion or irritation, should be welcomed, recognized, and treated on an absolutely equal basis; because both are ourselves.” The same holds true for suffering, and so the transformation we speak of involves establishing a state of inner well-being that the suffering part of ourselves cannot overwhelm.
Just as meditation is hard, life is hard. People have always looked for quick and easy solutions to life’s problems, but the plain fact is that the solutions can be as complex as the problems themselves. Five-minute mini-mantras or even twenty minutes of mindfulness does not compare to the hours of practice these methods truly demand, and I feel, depreciates their full potential.
Suffering and illness are directly related to the unstable nature of the mind. Chaotic and stressful thought patterns disturb the flow of life force in the channels and nerves, resulting in physiological disequilibrium.”
David Crow, In Search of the Medicine Buddha
Steady periods of prolonged meditation or chanting, or both, are especially powerful tools for restoring balance and leading the mind back to a state of equilibrium. Rome was not built in a day. Inner transformation and durable wellness cannot be achieved in five minutes.
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* Ryuichi Abe, The Weaving of Mantra: Kukai and the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse, Columbia University Press, 2000