The repetitive soothing sounds and rhythm of the lullaby have been used for millennia as a natural tranquilizer. Globally, children are gently rocked, lullabies are hummed, nursery rhymes are recited, affectionate sounds are spoken in a lilting fashion—all with the intended purpose of inducing relaxation. Without formal training or explanation, human caregivers are acting out of an intuitive awareness of the soothing effects of such rhythmic activities on the children’s psychophysical state. It works. But what makes it work? What is the basic science behind lullabies and can it be put to use in inducing relaxation in adults?
The rhythmic component of the lullaby may be the most important factor in inducing calm, as its rhythmicity is the single common factor among the vastly different types of lullabies sung or spoken in hundreds of languages and dialects around the world. It is not coincidental that rhythmicity is also the key component of mantra meditation.
What Is Mantra Meditation?
There are two basic types of meditation: concentrative or non-concentrative. Concentrative meditation is based on limiting stimulation by focusing on a single unchanging or repetitive stimulus, such as a word mantra or a candle flame. Non-concentrative meditation techniques, e.g. mindfulness or yoga meditation, seek to expand awareness to include as much mental activity as possible. Of the two approaches, mantra meditation is the easiest to learn and use, the most natural technique, and one of the most effective forms of stress relief capable of producing lasting results.
Mantra meditation, much like a lullaby and acting on the same principle, can rapidly induce a deeply restful state. During mantra meditation, body and mind are beneficially affected. During 20–30 minutes of meditation, oxygen consumption is lowered to a level equivalent to that of 6–7 hours of sleep, and both heart and respiration rates generally show a significant decrease. Psychologically, mantra meditation appears to induce a fluid state of consciousness, with shared characteristics of sleep and wakefulness, and comes closest to the sleep-inducing state than any other meditation technique.
Mantra meditation is strictly psychophysical in nature, and works equally well whether applied with or without metaphysical or spiritual overtones. It is is easily learned and practiced, because it does not require intense mental focusing. The mantra meditation technique works quite automatically once mastered, without forced concentration.
Mantra meditation is the easiest because it can be broken up into short meditation bursts of 2-3 minutes (and as little as 30 seconds) each, scattered throughout the day. These frequent meditation bursts can be more practical, and more acceptable than longer periods of traditional meditation, to impatient, driven or busy people. They also have the advantage of being easily applied to reduce transient elevations in stress levels as these occur. Additionally, mantra meditation can be successfully combined with solitary, repetitive physical activities such as jogging, walking, bicycling, or swimming.
How Is It Done?
A quiet, uncluttered room is the ideal setting, but not necessary for good results. A comfortable straight-backed chair and some visually pleasant object, such as a plant or vase, on which the eye can be trained can also facilitate the process.
First select a mantra. Choose one that sounds most pleasant and soothing or make up a mantra of your own. The best mantras have sounds ending in m or n that have no meaning in English. Examples are ahnam, shi-rim, and ra-mah.
Second, repeat mentally, whisper, or speak the mantra in a moderate voice (depending on location), with your eyes closed. Repeat for at least 30 seconds and up to 2-3 minutes for each meditation burst.
What Does It Do?
The deep relaxation induced by mantra meditation is vastly different from the effect of tranquilizing drugs. Drugs slow down the entire body and cause mental grogginess, whereas the relaxation induced by meditation maintains full alertness. Research on mantra meditators has shown faster reaction times, better refined auditory perception, increased vigor, more rapid performance and accuracy on perceptual–motor tasks. Several studies have shown psychophysiological indicators of stress to be sharply reduced in persons who practice mantra meditation.
Many stress-related illnesses appear to be responsive to mantra meditation: breathing patterns of asthma patients; blood pressure in treated and untreated hypertensive patients; reduced premature ventricular contractions in patients with ischemic heart disease; angina pectoris; cardiovascular and all-cause mortality; cholesterol levels; sleep-onset insomnia; stuttering; blood sugar levels of diabetic patients; psoriasis; pain and bloating of irritable bowel syndrome; and the symptoms of psychiatric illness.
Several studies have shown improved cognitive functioning after regular mantra meditation. A 2001 study showed the beneficial effects of meditation on memory in elderly persons. A 2000 study found that students who meditate tend to achieve higher grade-point averages, and a 2001 study of secondary school teachers found that meditators scored significantly lower on the Confusion–Bewilderment scale of the Profile of Mood States (POMs).
The Bottom Line on Mantra Meditation
Mantra meditation requires far less self-discipline than do most other stress management methods. The technique can be learned very rapidly and mastered in a couple of sessions. Unlike other approaches, no memorizing or learning of sequential procedures is required. Mantra meditation requires no mental effort in visualizing muscle groups and their relaxation (as in progressive muscle relaxation) or in constructing “calm scenes” or other images. Mantra meditation is a simple one-step operation that can soon become completely automatic.
For some of us who are too stressed and busy to use complicated relaxation techniques, mantra meditation is just the right technique at the right time.