“Love, love, love.” “ God is love, God is love, God is love.” “I am love, I am love, I am love.” Three mantras that could be repeated in meditation. Which is better?
This question was addressed in research reported in the September 3, 2005 issue of NewScientist. The conclusion was that “If meditation is good, God makes it better.”
After randomly assigning students to three groups, researchers found that the spiritual meditation group (which concentrated on a phrase such as “God is love” or “God is peace”) showed greater reductions in anxiety and a higher pain tolerance than a secular meditation group which used a phrase such as “I am happy” or “I am joyful.”
I’ve practiced mantra meditation daily for about thirty-six years, so naturally I was interested in the results of this study. Almost all of that time I repeated non-English words that referred to spiritual concepts far removed from everyday experience—as contrasted with familiar words such as “love” and “peace.”
Most recently, I’ve become a believer in keeping my mantra as short and simple as possible. And even more meaningless, since my goal is the cessation of thinking instead of positive thinking, as was the case in this research.
That’s a subject for another post: whether a meaningless or meaningful word is more suitable for mantra meditation. The question of the day is whether introducing the idea of “God” into one’s meditation makes the practice more beneficial.
When I first read the NewScientist article I was skeptical of the researchers’ conclusions. Not only because I have come to favor a godless mantra, but also because the experiment seemed a bit awry. It seemed funny that the spiritual meditation group repeated “God is love” while the secular meditation group repeated “I am happy.”
Why didn’t the researchers have the secular group say “I am love?” Or just “love”? I had no idea why this would make a difference in the outcome. It just seemed that making the two mantras identical except for “God” would have made more sense.
In the September 24 issue there was a letter about the article from a reader in Australia. Barbara Robson crystallized some cogent points that I could perceive only fuzzily. She said:
“God is love” will be considered true by almost all who believe in God and meaningless by most of those who don’t. “I am happy” and “I am joyful,” by contrast, are specific statements that may or may not be true, and invite evaluation, which will distract from the meditation, especially if not true.
Robson went on to say that other studies have found that meditation switches off parts of the brain associated with a sense of identity, resulting in a sense of “oneness with the universe.” Thus, she concluded,
Having subjects focus on “I” or “me” phrases may switch these parts back on, and decrease the effectiveness of the meditation. A more telling test might have been to compare “God is peace” with the simple mantra, “Peace.”
Good points, which were echoed in some of the comments about the NewScientist article on a Buddhist discussion group. If meditation makes us more aware of our ego-encapsulated self, the “I” who experiences both positivity (“I am happy”) and negativity (“I am sad”), it isn’t going to be of much help in breaking free of our usual restricted states of being.
I’ve spent a lot of time pondering the questions, “What words, if any, should I repeat in my mind during meditation and the rest of the day? Does it matter what particular mantra fills my head, or are all mantras equally efficacious?”
Perhaps I’d be better off repeating a mantra, any mantra, instead of pondering, but I’m a ponderous sort of guy. So I’ll probably be sharing what my ponders have produced in some other Church of the Churchless posts.