When we think of ways to improve our self-esteem, most people suggest a change of diet, getting a gym membership, or joining a club. Mantras are often dismissed as a fad and are chalked up as just another weird scheme promoted by celebrities that they don’t even care about. In reality, mantras are a self-help tool promoted by the personal-enrichment community that promises to help practitioners to improve their attitude and mood towards their everyday lives. Celebrities dominant in the fields of television such Oprah Winfrey practice mantra usage themselves, and promote it as a way to squash negative thoughts and attitudes towards ourselves. The power of words has been observed for centuries, and modern-day practitioners are just the most recent people to have recognized mantra usage as a way to improve their everyday lives.
Wildmind, a site about Buddhist meditation, defines mantras as “words or phrases that are chanted out loud or internally as objects of meditation.” Many cultures throughout the ages have believed in the power of words whether it be for meditation or for spiritual reasons. The power of words expands beyond just Buddhism, however. Even in modern-day English the connections between magic and words can be found. For instance, the word “spell” can mean both how “to write a word” or “mystic words said to use magic.” Further back in time, the words glamour and grammar share an interesting origin, all based on how words reached and evolved in different parts of Europe. Wildmind states,
Gramma-techne was the Greek term for the science or art of letters. This came into English as the word grammar, but also came in Scots (as “glammer”) to mean “to cast a spell upon”… The word “glammer” was anglicized as “glamour,” and came to have its more contemporary romantic and aesthetic associations, where someone is able to influence us, not by the power of their words, but by the beauty of their appearance.
If we travel to India, words, specifically names, had powers of their own. It was believed that if someone knew the true name of a god, then that person would be able to call upon that god for help. All religions in one form or another see words as powerful. Prayer is found in many religions, and it both uses words to help us ease our minds of something we may want or hope for, and acknowledges the possible existence of a higher power.
Even as kids we acknowledged the existence of power in words. Many of us pretended to be magicians by saying “Abracadabra” while moving our magic wands over our hats, and pulling out an invisible rabbit to the amazement of our parents. Pop culture cultivates new words all the time that have strong meanings. Every few months, there are new, fad words created, and people use them to try and seem cool. Not saying them make us seem like outcasts, and saying old ones make us seem slow.
In the modern era, mantras are popular because of how easy they appear to be. Giovanni Dienstmann, a meditation teacher and coach, helps us to better understand the thought process behind repeating a word or phrase. He says, “Sound is vibration. And all the cells in our bodies are vibrating. Everything in the universe is vibrating, and each has its own rhythm. Our thoughts and feelings are, indeed, vibrations in your body and your consciousness.” He goes on further to claim that it even affects our hormones, thinking, behavior, and our psychological well-being. Dienstmann says,
Sound, rhythm and speech have profound effects on your body, thoughts, and emotions. Mantra meditation is the use of these three elements with the purpose of purifying, pacifying and transforming your mind and heart.
Dienstmann calls mantras “instruments of the mind” that can help us change our body and psyche. For mantras to be effective, we need to focus only on the word or words so that we are no disturbed by other thoughts. Mantras create a peaceful feeling that can be held for as long as we can focus on just the words of the mantra.
According to Dienstmann, the next step is for us to select from the two different types of mantras, secular and spiritual. The secular approach is for those who wish to keep their mantra usage separate from their religion, and is commonly used to try and help someone feel better, relax, or grow as a person. Secular users—following recommendations from TV personalities—often try out several mantras that correspond to attributes they want to instill in themselves. In minutes they can find one that feels right.
The other type, spiritual, is meant to have more meaning. There’s normally a specific religious goal, or something very specific that a person is looking to achieve. Dienstmann recommends picking, “a traditional mantra – a word or sound that has been used by spiritual seekers for centuries, with noble attitude and intention.” The usual origins for a lot of these words come from many middle eastern countries. That said, he insists that the replicating the exact pronunciation and intonation of the word or words is important since there is a specific sound vibration being looked for.
Spiritual mantras feature a more rigorous process to use than secular does. The first step, he says, is to “Find a teacher/master of that tradition – someone you respect – and ask him or her to suggest a mantra for you.” Given that mantras aren’t popular to the common person, this can be a difficult process. Once we’ve found it though, experimentation is key. Rather than trying each one for a few minutes, he insists that we experiment with it for a few days, until we find the one that works best for us. The key difference between secular and spiritual mantras is that we must keep the mantra a secret because “sacred is secret.”
Mantras, as we’ve just learned, are used to help us improve our self-esteem, and to help us improve a chosen quality based on the mantra. Self-esteem is measured on the same scale that was made more than 50 years ago called The Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale. It features ten questions, and a point scale out of forty, and a higher score means a higher self-esteem. Men and women don’t feel self-esteem in the same way, contrary to popular belief. Most people don’t realize there is another factor that affects how we feel, self-concept.
Self-concept is defined in a study done at Dartmouth University as “the totality of cognitive beliefs that people have about themselves; it is everything that is known about the self, and includes things such as name, race, likes, dislikes, beliefs, values, and appearance descriptions, such as height and weigh.” Self-esteem in itself is defined as “the evaluative aspect of the self-concept that corresponds to an overall view of the self as worthy or unworthy.” The article reasons that low self-esteem is brought on by people having key figures in their lives reject, demean, ignore, or devalue them. Men and women normally gain self-esteem boosts in different ways, too. Females tend to gain self-esteem through positive relationships while males tend to receive self-esteem through objective success.
Now that we know what a mantra is and what they affect, why should we support the use of them? Mantras by themselves can be used to only slight effectiveness, but can be combined with many other activities throughout our days like getting ready for the day, walking the dog, or, for the more active users, yoga or working out. Yoga is especially good for mantra usage because we’re already relaxed. We’re always told that actions speak louder than words, but what happens when you put them together? Richard Wiseman wrote a good article for The Guardian about how positive action can be helpful while mere positive thinking can hinder us.
The article references a study done at the University of California, and it found that students who envisioned themselves getting a good grade on an exam were less likely to get that good grade. They were less proactive in studying and less likely to seek help because they had a finishing point in mind already- a preconceived vision of what their success would be like. This is excellent evidence that we need to focus on the now, be in the moment, and take actions to help improve ourselves.
While a mantra alone would be moderately useful, Wiseman suggests taking it a step further and that physical action is necessary to improve our emotions and wellbeing. He cites a a study done by Iris Hung at the National University of Singapore as an example of how muscle movements can be effective.
Studies led by Iris Hung from the National University of Singapore had volunteers visit a local cafeteria and asked them to try to avoid temptation and not buy sugary snacks. Some of the volunteers were asked to make their hand into a fist or contract their biceps, and thus behave as if they were more motivated. Amazingly, this simple exercise made people far more likely to buy healthy food.
That’s just one tiny movement that made those people resist temptation. Yoga stretches your whole body, and mantras hit our minds making for a fully body vessel of focus and motivation.
Ellen Langer, a psychologist at Harvard, conducted an outlandish experiment in 1979 on a group men who were over in their 70s. She tested many of their physical attributes like strength, eyesight, memory, and posture, and then encouraged them to act as if they were 20 years younger for the rest of the week while at a retreat. They were treated as if they were 50 years younger as well, and had little to no help going throughout their days. Within the week, the men started to show improvement, and some even dropped the use of their walking sticks. Acting as if they were 20 years younger helped them to feel younger, physically.
Mantras work in a similar way. To most, the different words have no meaning, so knowing the meaning of the words is important to effective mantra use. An article by the popular site, Sunnyray, defines the meaning of the different popular mantras. The one everyone thinks about right away is “aum.” Aum stands for the three different different levels of consciousness. “A” stands for walking, “u” stands for dreaming, and “m” stands for deep-sleep.
Another popular mantra is “Aum Namah Shivaya.” Since we already know what Aum stands for, Namah stands for respect, and Shivaya stands for God. It’s meant to ask god to bring help bring peace to the user. One popular mantra that’s an absolute mouthful is “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama Hare Hare.” It’s sixteen words long, and all three words are different words for God. One mantra that has been recently made popular is “I love you, I’m sorry, please forgive me, thank you.” It is taken from Hawaiian tradition, and is considered the most popular among new members to the mantra using group.
There are many who oppose mantras altogether, and they bring up a good point. To many, the biggest issue with mantras is that they are ineffective and limited only to the chosen few who devote their lives to it. A study done by The University of Waterloo and The University of New Brunswick is in support of that idea as it says,
…present results suggest that for certain people, positive self-statements may be not only ineffective, but actually detrimental. When people with low self-esteem repeated the statement, ‘I’m a lovable person,’ or focused on ways in which this statement was true of them, neither their feelings about themselves nor their moods improved—they got worse. Positive self-statements seemed to provide a boost only to people with high self-esteem—those who ordinarily feel good about themselves already—and that boost was small.”
Scientific proof of this common claim is enough for most people to shut out mantras completely, but this concern is flawed as it was never argued that mantras would work for just anyone. Also, mantras are more than just saying a basic statement of “I’m a lovable person,” as most would seem to believe it is.
Mantras are made to work for people who have high self-clarity. Self-clarity is defined by Melissa Dahl as, “how well we know our own strengths and weaknesses, as well as our ability to accept them.” This is where most people run into trouble. They think that self-esteem is the key. For the most part, self-esteem is overrated. Melissa Dahl, a writer for the New York Times, states that,
…high self-esteem inflates your ego, which can make the reality of how others see you harder to bear. With high self-clarity, though, you can see and accept yourself much more easily–even your flaws. But this form of self-acceptance doesn’t leave you there, gaping at your imperfections.
Boosting our self-clarity is important to using mantras because we need to be in-tune with ourselves. We have to have a good understanding of who we are on the inside before we can look introspectively for positive energy and power. Self-clarity can be learned through embracing mistakes we have made, and realizing that everyone makes mistakes. Changing ones’s philosophy from that of a pessimist to that of a optimist isn’t necessary, but looking at things from a neutral standpoint rather than a negative one is key.
Mantras harness the power of sound, and Gabriel Axel wrote a great article on how sound affects the body on October 2, 2013, in the US News Website. Different sounds have different meanings, such as a car screeching to a halt followed by a crashing sound is connected with an accident and all that entails. Axel states that the word mantra is Sanskrit for “sound tool,” and that many languages evolved to include onomatopoeia to make use of the movement of energy through those words.
This evocation is qualitative and subjective and is linked with interoception (inner body sensations) and emotional sense of self, both predominantly represented in the right hemisphere of the brain. Conversely, the narrative strand of sounds in which we give them meaning is done predominantly through the left hemisphere.
Sound itself, from a physics standpoint, will resonate in different parts of the body and mind before it is assigned a meaning. The different areas where the sound resonates can make us feel different emotions, or remember old memories. Feelings and effects will vary from person to person, but the best effects are found in people who know themselves. The better the condition of the body and mind, the better the outcome. People who become well versed in mantra usage can eventually not even have to use their voices because the feelings produced by their voice can be replicated through their thoughts alone.
If my arguments still haven’t convinced you, then at least let me convince you of the power of sound. Buddha Weekly wrote a good article about the science of mantras, how they work with and without faith, and how they effect the environment. In the medicinal field, mantra usage has been found to be beneficial to people with PTSD. The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology and Behavioral Science states that patients experienced,
lowered levels of tension; slower heart rate, decreased blood pressure, lower oxygen consumption, and increased alpha wave production. The benefits experienced in 20 minutes of meditation exceed those of deep sleep, thus indicating the regenerative power of meditation and saving of wear and tear on the body.
Chanting and other self-created noises have been found to help oxygenate and synchronize the right and left sides of the brain, reduce our heart rate and blood pressure, and calm brainwave activity.
Researchers attribute a large portion of the benefit of mantras and chanting to sound’s effect on water. Maseru Emoto, a researcher, published his findings in the peer reviewed journal, Journal of Scientific Exploration. He photographically demonstrated the effects that mantras had on water. Negative sounds and thoughts created common and negative ice formations, while positive sounds and thoughts created rare and positive formations. His work is commonly debated, but most researchers agree that sound can positively and negatively impact humans (who are made up mostly of water).
Many people have their own tales of how mantras have helped them. Lori Majewski, a contributing writer to the website Sonima, states that Oprah herself turned her onto the idea of using mantras. She finds that we hear mantras all around us, and don’t even know it. Happy little notes posted on our fridges and songs like “Let it go” are filled with mantras that we use each day, and nobody ever realizes it.
At first, she found that her use of mantras was clunky, and she didn’t really get it at first. Persistence is key though, and slowly but surely she was able to start finding the usefulness in them. She as well cites their usage in yoga being a staple with a lot of instructors. “You’re doing a mini-meditation when you’re saying a mantra,” says Psychologist Vanessa Pawlowski, Psy.D.. “When we are feeling flooded by obtrusive thoughts, it gives us something we can hold on to.” Mantras are everywhere, and we all use them whether we realize it or not, and it’s there that their true effectiveness shows. The unconscious, not the conscious.
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