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Mind Body and Soul: Mantra Mystique – Calming the Monkey Mind

By Lisha Ross

You don’t need to be a Buddhist monk or master of Zen meditations to understand the Eastern philosophy of the “monkey mind”. Just take a minute to notice the way your brain jumps from one thought to another like a monkey leaping from tree to tree. Our minds are in constant motion, playing and re-playing a laundry list of to-dos, memories, “what if” scenarios and often negative associations that make it nearly impossible to slow down and enjoy the present. “What if I don’t finish my report on time?” “My husband does not appreciate me.” “What if I get fired?” “Where will I find the time to make dinner?” These are the kind of distracting thoughts that play in a perpetual loop in our overactive, multi-tasking minds. After a while, they not only begin to affect our mood, behavior and social interactions, the particularly anxious ones cue up the body’s psychosomatic responses to stress: muscle tension, sweaty palms, high blood pressure, adrenaline release and so on.


The question of the ages is, if throughout our lives we can learn how to control our bodies and, to some extent, our emotions, why can’t we keep our thoughts from bounding around like a hyperactive primate? What if there was one simple thing you could do each day to slow down that racing mind of yours? A simple word or phrase that could produce a sensation of tranquility you could carry with you everywhere. Well, Eastern philosophers and many Western neuroscientists believe there is such a thing. It’s called a mantram, or mantra, and if given a fighting chance to take root deep in your subconscious, it just might sedate the monkey in your own mind.

Mind Games

In its simplest sense, a mantra is a word or phrase that is repeated again and again to clear the mind of extraneous thoughts. Historically, they’ve been used for thousands of years to help propel travelers along the spiritual path to enlightenment. Yogis, Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus and other students of Eastern philosophical schools all ascribe to some version of the practice, but it’s not entirely foreign to Western culture. Though they aren’t called “mantras”, repetition of the name “Jesus” and the prayer “Hail Mary” have been used in Catholicism to a similar end. And yet, despite this common link between mantra and religious devotion, it is not a necessary connection. The benefits for the psyche are considered by many practitioners to be just as solid as those for the soul.

Physician and neuroscientist Daniel H. Lowenstein, M.D., in his foreword for Eknath Easwaran’s The Mantram Handbook, explains how repeating a mantra has subtle effects on brain function. He contends that by utilizing MRI, studies have shown that concentrating on a mantra activates areas of the brain that make it possible to maintain a single focus while tuning out distracting stimuli. “The mental repetition of a simple phrase,” he suggests, “can provide a guidewire to move your attention away from a troubling stream of thoughts.” It is in these moments of rest that your mind can stop dwelling on inconsequential, perceived problems and outcomes and put your immediate needs into perspective. Among the many purported long term domino effects of this mind break are decreased incidences of day to day depression (although deep depression should always be discussed with a qualified professional), increased focus and concentration, and the transformation of negative emotions such as anger, fear and nervousness into their positive counterparts.

Making it Your Own

Though there is some scientific evidence to support the many claims of mantra practitioners, it’s largely experiential; something you just have to try for yourself and discover the ways it can potentially brighten your world. When you’re ready to give it a shot, there are a few preliminary things to consider.

A Mantra for You

Selecting a mantra is not complicated, but it does require some inner reflection. The one you choose is yours and yours alone. In fact, in many Eastern traditions, practitioners are warned against telling theirs to others, lest it will lose its power of transformation. That being said, Easwaran, in The Mantram Handbook, advises those who are new to the practice to choose a mantra that comes from an established tradition. However, as most of these are steeped in spiritual allegory, one will have to identify their own purpose before making a selection. 

If you are a person of faith who seeks to glean strength from a higher power, a holy name alone is said to be a simple, yet effective mantra. Those without religious roots who wish to cultivate a deeper sense of spirituality might want to select a very traditional mantra that has somewhat neutral connotations. Easwaran recommends use of the name “Rama”, one of the simplest, most powerful and popular mantras in India. Though there is an epic tale behind the name, Rama represents joy in a world of trial, something most of us could use more of. Still, those who are just looking for the basic mental health benefits can choose any word or phrase that appeals to them; a line of poetry, a quote from an admirable person, “peace” or “love to all” may be just the ticket.

Once you’ve decided on a mantra, it’s important to stick to that mantra and not change it. It takes time for a mantra to take effect. Changing it before it’s had time to settle in is like repeatedly re-potting a plant before it’s had time to take root; the plant will never grow to its full potential. Granted, you may want to play around with a few options before deciding on the one that feels right. That’s okay, but once you’ve practiced with one for several weeks, make it your own forever.

Repetition is Key

Using your mantra is easy. It does not require seated meditation, blocks of free time or any real effort. You don’t even need to say it out loud! Repeating it quietly in your mind is the preferred method, as it does not force you to wonder at the sound of your voice or your tone. Plus, you can do it whenever, wherever you like. Use it liberally and often. Repeat it when you’re standing in line at the grocery store, pumping gas or just before a meal. Saying it at night before bed, like a lullaby, is even more beneficial, as it is believed to continue working even as you sleep. Writing your mantra repeatedly in a notebook is another cathartic option, particularly if you’re agitated and having difficulty focusing. After a while, most practitioners say they don’t even have to think about repeating the mantra anymore; it just manifests when they need it, like a trusty and loyal friend. 

As you foray into the wonderful world of mantra, keep in mind that it is not a miracle drug, and will not provide immediate relief to what ails you. Much like yoga, exercise, dieting and meditation, it’ll take time and practice before you begin to feel real results. With consistency, however, comes a greater sense of self awareness, inner peace and better control over thoughts that normally control you. But don’t take my word for it. Learn from the masters. Read Easwaran’s handbook and others, such as Mantras: Words of Power, by Swami Sivananda Radha and Healing Mantras, by Thomas Ashley-Farrand. And when you’re ready, as Easwaran suggests, “Try using the mantram in your daily life, and see what happens!”

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