Some colleagues were recently discussing mantras, those special words or phrases whose repetition is supposed to produce spiritual effects of one sort or another. Traditional lore about them varies widely. For example some of the lore says you have to pronounce mantras exactly right, because then they resonate with some sort of psychic realm and so form a connection. As a former radio engineer and ham radio operator, I found this idea intellectually appealing, but I eventually realized that the isolation of many local monasteries where the same mantra could be pronounced in quite significant variations, given local dialects, really undercut the idea that mantras had to be pronounced exactly right. Yet practically all of these monasteries believed they had the absolutely correct pronunciation. Maybe belief in the correctness of your pronunciation was as or more important than exact pronunciation?
One of the most interesting ideas I heard about mantras was from Sogyal Rinpoche, a well-known Tibetan lama and one of my important teachers. He said the basic idea of mantras is that they protect the mind. Protect it from what? From those disempowering, repeating thoughts that we repeatedly get locked into all the time.
I remember being at a teaching from Sogyal Rinpoche many years ago when he introduced the idea of reciting mantras as a form of meditation. One of the students objected that this sounded like a weird thing to do. Sogyal Rinpoche, with instant humor, responded that no, it was not all strange, but actually all of us Westerners there in the audience were devoted practitioners of mantra and quite expert at it! This was not at all what we expected.
He went on to explain that all the time we were habitually repeating “mantric” phrases to ourselves, such as “I just did it all wrong, I’ll never get it right,” “I just did it all wrong, I’ll never get it right”….”I just did it all wrong, I’ll never get it right.”
Repeating things like this to yourself affects your mood and the way your mind functions, and so we destroy a lot of our potential for constructive action and our happiness by constantly repeating negative thought phrases to ourselves. At the simplest level, a strange, foreign mantra would be much better to repeat, even if it didn’t mean anything to us, since it would keep us from strengthening our negative mantra practice! “Om mani padme hum” may not mean anything to us, but it’s a lot better for us than “I just did it all wrong, I’ll never get it right.”
I think we Westerners know very little about mantras, and have a lot to learn. From my psychological perspective, what happens from repeating any mantra probably depends not only on its explicit content and meaning, but on the implicit and explicit assumptions and feelings you have about it. The background assumption that you are carrying out a sacred spiritual practice, e.g., is likely to have different overall effects on you than “I just did it all wrong, I’ll never get it right.” Further, the degree to which you can really concentrate your mind and repeat nothing but the mantra probably has a strong effect on how effective it is. If your mind wanders all the time, it’s not going to have as powerful an effect as if we can really concentrate on just the mantra.
Starting from the working assumption that we would like to have insights into more spiritual truths, but that our ordinary consciousness is stubbornly busy with the work of the ordinary world, it’s pretty noisy and so hard to hear any “still, small voice within,” insights into one’s spiritual nature. It’s a different story if Spirit wants to “shout” at you, of course, but most of us are pretty busy in our minds and it’s not easy to quiet them.
Meanwhile, I remembered an interesting psychological effect that has some bearing on what mantras may be able to do.
When I was about 8 years old, I personally discovered what I later learned in graduate school was called “cognitive satiation.”
My mother sent me to the store to buy a couple of items, a quart of milk and a loaf of rye bread. She admonished me not to forget what I was supposed to get, as I had bought the wrong things at the store in the past. So all the way to the store I kept saying to myself (I think it was aloud, but in a soft voice), “Quart of milk, loaf of rye bread, quart of milk, loaf of rye bread………quart of milk, loaf of rye bread…..” over and over and over.
I got to the store and asked for those things, but was amazed as I realized that I no longer had the slightest idea what a quart of milk or a loaf of rye bread was!
Cognitive satiation. Lots and lots of fast repetition of words or phrases and after a while your mind is scrambled as to what the words or phrases mean. The meaning comes back after a while, luckily.
I read years later that one person seeking mystical experience (it may have been P. D. Ouspensky) did this with repeating his own name, over and over, until he no longer understood who or what he was….. A quick way to “ego loss?” 😉
Now I understand cognitive satiation as a way of destabilizing your ordinary state of consciousness. My systems approach (see my States of Consciousness book for those interested in altered state induction) describes the induction of altered states, beginning with destabilizing your baseline state. In general you do things that destabilize your ordinary state and, after it has broken down, other practices shape the kind of altered state that will likely result.
So where are you likely to end up if you try satiating some word or phrase, your own name, e.g., by rapid and prolonged repetition of it? I would predict that mostly depends on your intentions and previous experiences. If you conceive of this as prayer or meditation, I think the chances are good you may experience some contact with Spirit. It probably helps if you believe the word or phrase you are repeating has special spiritual power or connotations, and is a classical mantra or Western prayer word or phrase. If you think of this as just a psychological curiosity though, you’ll probably get some interesting moments of confusion, nothing spiritual about it at all…..Or just an interesting take on how your mind can temporarily blank out…..
As to how quickly to repeat, how short the interval between repetitions should be for inducing cognitive satiation, that probably differs a lot for different people. I don’t know if there was ever any research on this.
So do classical mantras involve cognitive satiation? Good question. If the word used is repeated rapidly over and over again, probably. If the mantra is a long, complex phrase, and/or has gaps in its repetition, probably not. Is it “fair” to use a psychological “trick” to help your meditation? I’ll leave that as a good question too!