Mantra: A Powerful Way to Improve Your Well-Being

Research shows an ancient practice can improve cognitive and emotional health.

Posted Jun 29, 2019

Istockphoto with permission
Source: Istockphoto with permission

Several years ago, I was working with a patient who was so chronically angry it was painful and a little terrifying to sit in a room with him for 45 minutes at a time. He was very focused on it being everyone else’s fault that he was miserable. He was also very smart and took pleasure in arguing the logic of any intervention I tried to make with him.

On a number of occasions, I recommended mindfulness exercises to help him with impulsive, angry outbursts that were damaging his relationships and career. At one point, he told me I was very annoying and that I needed to lay off the mindfulness because he wasn’t interested in that kind of weird stuff.

After about four months without much progress, I seriously questioned whether there was anything I could do to help him. Then one day, he showed up for our session looking calm and relaxed. It was such a striking difference that I immediately commented on it. He told me that after another angry outburst with a co-worker, he was desperate enough to try anything, and on the way home from work, he saw a flyer about a local, weekend-long Transcendental Meditation course. He recalled my suggestions on mindfulness and meditation and decided to sign up.

He stated that after a weekend of practicing the mantra-based meditation, he had experienced the greatest sense of calm and happiness that he had ever felt and that he hadn’t even known it was possible to feel that way. I didn’t have to ask any more questions; I knew exactly what he was talking about. 

Several years prior, I had started my own mantra meditation practice. At the time, I knew almost nothing about meditation and had never heard of mantra-based Kirtan music. I had accidentally stumbled across Kirtan musician Dave Stringer while I was doing a Google search for yoga music. The music was so beautiful I felt compelled to chant along.

After a few songs, I realized I was feeling an incredible sense of peace and happiness. It was a feeling so blissful, the only thing I could imagine it compared with might be a chemically-induced high. At the time, no one else I knew had ever heard of Kirtan, and it seemed a little strange, so I decided to keep it to myself, but I continued to do the chants every day. Ten years later, I can honestly say mantra meditation has been one of the most transformative influences in my life. 

As a psychologist and a researcher, I wanted to understand better how something so simple could generate so much positive emotion. I searched “meditation high” and found that others were reporting something similar, but back then almost nothing existed in the academic literature to explain this phenomenon. 

Over that past decade, however, the ancient practices of Kirtan music and mantra-based meditation have experienced a resurgence around the world, in large part due to the more mainstream acceptance of yoga and mindfulness in Western culture and the medical community. 

While the scientific study of such practices on well-being is still in nascent stages, in the last few years, a number of research studies have found that mantra-based meditation practices can have a positive effect on mood and cognitive function. A recent review by Lynch et al. at the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland looked at 37 studies that had examined the effects of mantra in the general population on outcomes of anxiety, stress, depressionburnout, anger and psychological distress. The findings indicate that mantra meditation interventions may have beneficial effects on mental health in the general population.

A team at the University of West Virginia interested in examining the effects of mantra on cognitive impairment found that engaging in a mantra known as Kriya Kirtan for 12 minutes a day for 12 weeks altered plasma blood levels involved in cellular aging, which were associated with improvements in cognitive function, sleep, mood, and quality of life.2 

Another team at the University of Pennsylvania, which studied the effects of mantra on patients with memory loss, found that after eight weeks the brain scans of participants showed significant increased cerebral blood flow in several areas. Most importantly, their performance on neuropsychological testing showed improved visuospatial memory, increased connectivity, and improved verbal memory.3 The Alzheimer’s Prevention Foundation recommends the Kriya Kirtan meditation on its website. 

So what exactly is mantra meditation? Mantra is essentially the rhythmic repetition of words, phrases, or syllables. Because it occupies your mind to chant or sing the sounds, it stops your normal train of thought and clears your mind. 

Some forms of mantra meditation will also include finger-tapping to engage more of your senses. In the case of Kirtan chants, music enhances the rhythmic pattern and creates a deeper meditative experience. It can be done alone or in a group using a call-and-response pattern. Traditional mantras are often based on Sanskrit; some Kirtan chants have roots in Hinduism.

How is mantra meditation affecting the brain? This is still under investigation by neuroscientists such as Andrew Newberg at Penn. A recent review article examining the research on this subject suggests that mantra meditation activates areas of the brain such as the thalamus, which is related to sensory perception, and the hippocampus, which is related to memory function, and that it can help synchronize networks in the prefrontal cortex which improves cognitive performance.4

My angry patient continued his mantra mediation for 20 minutes every morning. Within a few short weeks, he started to see significant changes. He became very open to the process of therapy and began engaging in all of the homework assignments with a good deal of enthusiasm.

Within another nine months, he was almost unrecognizable. If there was an award for the most transformed patient, he would win. His improvements were not solely attributable to the practice of mantra meditation, but it is clear that the practice opened his mind and gave him the jump-start he needed to engage in therapy work.

As a psychologist who has dedicated my life to help alleviate the emotional suffering of others, I hope more scientists will seriously investigate the benefits of non-invasive and non-toxic practices like mantra meditation. I also hope that posts like this one will encourage more people to try these practices. Yes, they are a little outside the box, but there is nothing to lose and only your well-being to gain. 

Facebook/LinkedIn Image: maxpetrov/Shutterstock

References

1. Julie Lynch, Lucia Prihodova, Pádraic J. Dunne, Áine Carroll, Cathal Walsh, Geraldine McMahon, BarryWhite. 2018. Mantra meditation for mental health in the general population: A systematic review.European Journal of Integrative Medicine, Volume 23, October 2018, Pages 101-108. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eujim.2018.09.010

2.   Innes, Kim E.; Selfe, Terry Kit; Brundage, Kathleen; Montgomery, Caitlin; Wen, Sijin; Kandati, Sahiti; Bowles, Hannah; Khalsa, Dharma Singh; & Huysmans, Zenzi. 2018. Effects of Meditation and Music-Listening on Blood Biomarkers of Cellular Aging and Alzheimer’s Disease in Adults with Subjective Cognitive Decline: An Exploratory Randomized Clinical Trial. Published November 2018 DOI: 10.3233/JAD-180164. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30320574

3.   Aleezé Sattar Moss; Nancy Wintering; Hannah Roggenkamp; Dharma Singh Khalsa; Mark R. Waldman; Daniel Monti; & Andrew B. Newberg. Effects of an 8-Week Meditation Program on Mood and Anxiety in Patients with Memory Loss. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine VOL. 18, NO. 1. Published Online: 23 Jan 2012. https://doi.org/10.1089/acm.2011.0051

4. Ricardo Ramírez-Barrantes, Marcelo Arancibia,Jana Stojanova,Mauricio Aspé-Sánchez,Claudio Córdova, and Rodrigo A. Henríquez-Ch. (2019).Default Mode Network, Meditation, and Age-Associated Brain Changes: What Can We Learn from the Impact of Mental Training on Well-Being as a Psychotherapeutic Approach?Neural Plasticity. Volume 2019, Article ID 7067592. https://doi.org/10.1155/2019/70675924.