Meditation, Mantra, and Minis

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.

Healing Buddha Mantra: “Thus: Om Healer, Healer, Great Master of Healing Supreme, Joyfully Going Beyond, So Be It!”
Healing Buddha Mantra: “Thus: Om Healer, Healer, Great Master of Healing Supreme, Joyfully Going Beyond, So Be It!”

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


Review of Deepak Chopra’s Timeless You

I recently participated in a review of Timeless You, a new online seminar by Deepak Chopra covering tools to stimulate the body, mind, and spirit in reversing the aging process.  The program guides participants through a series of practical steps combined with teachings in meditation, yoga, Ayurveda, and other mind-body solutions to “maximize your energy, eliminate stress, and become the best you.”

TimelessYou-imageTimeless You consists of 7 courses each running about 30-60 minutes, and the topics included are Changing Perceptions, A Youthful Mind, Healthy Relationships, The Mind-Body Connection, Mindful Eating, and Joyful Excercise.  Each course is broken down into a number of steps presented through text and text-based exercises, video, audio tracks, downloadable PDFs and printable affirmations, charts, and checklists, along with questionnaires and an interactive forum.  I found the format impressive, being someone who had never taken a online seminar of this nature before.

The first step, Changing Perceptions, is perhaps the most important one of all, and it forms the basis for the entire Eastern approach to body, mind and spirit.  Chopra says, “For generations, we have been conditioned to believe that aging means progressive decline.”  However, scientific studies show that this need not be the case.  Our mind is the key.  The Indian system of health and well-being, Ayurveda, teaches that “What you see, you become.”  In this way, if we think growing older will result in decline, that is exactly what will happen.  If we think differently, if we understand how to change our perceptions and use some simple methods to improve our health, we can reverse the aging process. And by at least 10 years, according to Chopra.  The idea is to achieve a “timeless mind”, an idea Chopra has long promoted.

The seminar includes some simple breathing meditations, yoga exercises, and tips on how to maintain a proper diet.  Much of the material I was already familiar with.  But I did get some good suggestions on how to fight insomnia (a problem that I occasionally struggle with), and I found the course on mindful eating informative.  Although I am somewhat acquainted with Ayurveda, I had not heard of the concept of the six taste groups (sweet, salty, sour, pungent, bitter and astringent).  The course recommends trying to combine all six with every meal.

Some of the information was common sense. Most people know it’s a good idea to drink lots of water each day.  Likewise, that activities such as reading, taking a class, learning a language, travel, and so on, will stimulate the mind.  While some concepts, like “synchrodestiny” (“coincidences that open us up to possibilities”) are unique to Chopra’s core teachings, a great deal of the material is available elsewhere on television and on the Internet – and at no charge.  Almost any day of the week, you can find the same information on such television programs as Dr. Oz, Katie, PBS, and various cable shows.

I’ve mentioned several times on this blog that I feel Deepak Chopra is criticized a bit unfairly.  Some people see him as little more than a huckster padding traditional teachings with New Age mumbo-jumbo.  Well, he is a commercial enterprise, and to be successful you must reach a broad audience, which may not be possible if you don’t water-down or simplify the material to some degree.  On the other hand, in his frequent role as a TV pundit, he offers a viewpoint, based on Eastern wisdom, that is an alternative to the prevailing Judeo-Christian perspective that is often polarizing and in recent years has become rather ugly.  In other words, he’s helping to raise awareness about Eastern philosophy and how its methods can transform lives, and that’s a good thing.  Plus, I think he is sincere in his desire to help people

Overall, I think the same can be said about the Timeless You seminar.  It seems designed for folks who have had little or no exposure to these concepts. In such cases, if the seminar helps raise their awareness about the Eastern approach to mind-body wellness and helps encourage them to explore the subject further, and since that can only benefit their life, I’d say the seminar is worth the cost of the $29.99 tuition.  At the same time, because the material is so general and simplistic, and readily available in other formats, I can’t wholeheartedly endorse it.  The one real benefit of the seminar seems to me that you can find this information organized in one place and presented in an engaging manner.

In the interest of full disclosure, I feel I should say that I am receiving a very small remuneration in the form of a Amazon gift certificate for the time I spent taking and reviewing the seminar.  I used to frequently participate in surveys and focus groups for which I would receive a fee.  It was a nice way to pick up some extra cash.  However, my motivation here was primarily to have a new experience and to expose myself to a more secular presentation of mind-body teachings, an approach I have thoughts about and will address in future posts.