By chance – almost twenty years ago – I met Eknath Easwaran.
He was interested in the world of medicine and the workings of the mind. In
exchange for my medical consultation he gave me a copy of his book Meditation,
which I carefully placed on my nightstand and forgot. Fortunately, my wife
picked it up and gradually helped me and our children to appreciate the wisdom
of this remarkable man. Over the years, I had numerous conversations with
Easwaran, attended retreats at the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation, and
began to recognize the brilliance of his ability to distill and convey the
essence of the world’s great spiritual traditions. His “eightfold body of
spiritual disciplines” is an elegant, logical, and practical approach for
ﬁnding fulﬁllment and peace in everyday living.
As Easwaran emphasizes, it is important to consider all
eight of these disciplines together, rather than as separate practices from
which to pick and choose. However, of the eight practices, I have found the
mantram to be powerfully transformative yet simplest to use. In this book,
Eknath Easwaran explains how to use the mantram by silently repeating a few
words from one of the great spiritual traditions, words like “Om mani padme
hum” or “Ave Maria.”
The mantram works speciﬁcally as an antidote to the daily
conﬂicts and intrusions ﬁlling our unquiet minds. At the most superﬁcial level,
repetition of the mantram causes the brain to swing from barely connected
thoughts to a simple phrase that holds the attention and thus slows down the
mind. The science of neurobiology gives another way to understand how the
mantram could be working. From studies using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI),
we know that concentrating on a short phrase will activate speciﬁc areas in the
front and side of the brain. These areas, the frontal and parietal lobes, are
involved in selective attention – the capacity to maintain a single focus
despite the presence of distracting stimuli. In this way, the mental repetition
of a simple phrase like a mantram can provide a guidewire to move your
attention away from a troubling stream of thoughts. It is as though the mantram
provides access to a peaceful, grounded center that puts our cravings, drives,
and other immediate needs in perspective.
Does the mantram also work on deeper levels of consciousness?
In my own experience, I have seen that it does. After I had repeated the
mantram consciously over a period of time, I found the words arising naturally
when I faced a situation of fear or distress. In fact, now I sometimes become
aware of the mantram repeating itself before I actually realize that I am in a
predicament. This type of brain learning, where an act frequently repeated
becomes an unconscious activity, is related to the recruitment of more and more
neurons in brain regions that are activated by unconscious as well as conscious
activity. Thus a skilled soccer player sees an opening and kicks a perfect goal
without thinking consciously about the force required or the correct angle.
Thus you and I – having learned to ride a bicycle – use our body to steer, move
forward, and brake properly without conscious thought.
Yet other questions remain. Why does there seem to be a need
for a mantram that has spiritual roots? Are there even deeper levels of
consciousness that the mantram can reach? Are there any negatives to relying on
a mantram? Neuroscience currently lacks answers for these questions, and I suspect
this will be the case for a very long time, if not forever. However,
historically there’s no doubt that the mantram has been a powerful and positive
tool – great spiritual teachers like the Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi have used
mantrams extensively on their spiritual journeys.
Ultimately, one must rely on experience to measure the
success of any activity. I can attest to the value of the mantram in everyday
life. It instantly creates a grounding that helps clear away the extraneous
activities of mind – conscious and, I believe, unconscious. It enables me to be
slower, more focused, more aware, and more connected. I say the mantram before
every patient visit in my clinic. I say it before every teaching experience. I
say it when I feel myself becoming impatient, or angry, or dismayed. And though
I am probably lifetimes away from realizing its full potential, there is no
question that the mantram has altered the everyday function of my brain and
mind in a way that has made life even more enriching and fulﬁlling.
Now it is your turn to take up the lens of the skeptical
scientist. Do your own experiments. As Eknath Easwaran says, try using the
mantram in your daily life, and see what happens!