J.D. Salinger and the science of mantra meditation
I’ve never had a mantra, and don’t expect I ever will. I tried to pick up “Lord have mercy on me” but didn’t last two days before the skepticism became too consuming. On Twitter, the mantra hashtag has turned into a recycling bin for feel-good pop psychology trivia that's been almost wholly co-opted by corporate brand managers and aspiring social media influencers. In more enlightened circles, daily ritual phrases are adapted to solve a particular psychological problem — “I am beautiful” is the antidote for those who forget their value. Like and retweet.
Mantras have a long and diverse history; groups within most major religions have recommended the adoption of a word or phrase into our daily lives. In Christianity’s eastern orthodox tradition, some people take on “Lord Jesus Christ Have Mercy on Me”. Some eastern traditions adopt the Maha Mantra, which recommends 3 sessions of 128 repetitions per day. Independently, religious people seem to have come to an agreement; the repetition of certain phrases can be life-changingly powerful.
But, as much as we might hope that saying Namaste at the end of a yoga session qualifies us as spiritually enlightened, our half-hearted commitment just might not be enough. Religiously contextualized mantras are recommended to be done in combination with a lifetime of religious devotion. The Maha Mantra, for example, is paired with hours of daily meditation. The Lord’s prayer with the practice of generosity.
Though I don’t doubt the value of mantras, I am skeptical that a mantra — done in isolation and for a limited period of time — can have a transformative impact on our lives. It seems like a textbook quick-fix American delusion, a way to rationalize not facing our demons and making real change. To some, mantras mean that you don’t have to endure a lifetime of psychological labors and you don’t have to radically change your circumstances — spiritual transcendence is affordable.
J.D. Salinger, famous author of The Catcher in the Rye, is known for his reclusive lifestyle. According to a memoir written by his daughter, Salinger spent his life on a meandering spiritual journey, hitchhiking from one difficult-to-pronounce ideology to the next. At one point he adopted a mantra: ten minutes, twice a day. Because his life was so private, it can be difficult to know just how he felt about his various spiritual experiences, but his writing provides a window.
In a short story called Frannie, its titular character is described as an emotionally volatile, society-rejecting young college student who has become captivated by a novel in which a man learns how to pray non-stop. The answer to eternal prayer — you guessed it — is through the recitation of a mantra, "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me". Over time, Frannie tells us, mantras need not be spoken or even thought. Instead, with repeated practice, we embody it without the need for verbal recitation — a concept referred to as Ajapa japa.
Lane, Frannie’s loving yet self-indulgent boyfriend expresses skepticism; he even goes so far as to add in a Mumbo Jumbo or two. But despite his utter ambivalence towards Frannie’s spiritual awakening, Lane’s skepticism seems warranted, because the concept of ceaseless prayer is hard to grasp. What does it mean for a mantra to be internalized? Why should we trust someone who says they’ve learned to pray non-stop?
J.D. Salinger’s life was marked by the transition between spiritual orientations. Perhaps each approach suited him at the time, or perhaps, each new approach came with a rejection of the old and some amount of regret. To adopt a guess-and-check approach towards finding deep psychological truths comes with the risk of making the wrong choice, and a lifetime of spiritual instability. For anyone who recognizes the difficulty in exerting top-down control over our vulgar and delusional psyches, mantra-internalization is tantalizing. At the same time, the prospect of reciting a phrase 128 times, three times per day is… well, it’s kind of a big commitment is all. Which is why it would be great to have some assurances going into the whole thing.
And if we’re aiming for assurances, we’d need to start working out some of the details. Is asking the lord Jesus Christ to have mercy on us as effective as praising Buddha’s glory? Does our own religious background matter? Could we just listen to George Harrison sing My Sweet Lord a couple hundred thousand times?
If mantra-recitation really is an effective psychological tool, questions remain about why. Is it the meaning of the mantra, or the sound qualities of the words? Do intentions or expectations play a role? Fortunately, we may not always have to rely on a combination of guru wisdom and intuition. There is research on the scientific benefits of chanting. It’s really, really far from being solved, but we’re beginning to tease out just what’s important, and why. So, not enough religious chanting in your life? Let’s get into the science of mantras.
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Do Mantras Work at All?
Julie Lynch, a researcher at the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, led a massive effort to consolidate the research on mantras (Lynch, 2018). While the experiments varied, there was a common structure: Recruit healthy adults, ask them how they’re feeling, teach them a mantra, instruct them to practice that mantra, then ask them again how they’re feeling. Considering only randomized controlled trials on healthy adults, two of seven studies found that mantras have a positive impact on anxiety, four of six found a positive effect on depression. So there you go.... ambiguity.
The discrepancies could mean a few things. It may be that some of the positive studies are flukes, supporting the notion that daily mantra recitation isn’t enough without a more substantive life change. On the other hand, maybe it's more likely that the details of the studies were important. If some mantras actually are effective, then it begs the question: why?
Features of an Effective Mantra
As the story of Frannie develops, Salinger paints a picture of a woman struggling with sincere self-expression. Her Annie-Hall-style lighthearted ditziness and deep affection towards Lane is revealed to be a pretense, incongruent with her disturbed but also spiritually engaged interior. Eventually, when she can no longer take Lane’s pontification about a Balzac essay he wrote, she reveals her fascination with the story of a Russian peasant who adopted the Lord's prayer as his mantra - “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me”.
In any 21st century search for spiritual salvation, we’re stuck with what Barry Schwartz calls the paradox of choice. So many religions, so many mantras, so many choices, it’s easy to see how we can fall into paralysis. But with good theory, and supporting data, maybe we can start refining our understanding of just what types of phrases may work for what types of people. And Frannie’s description of the peasant’s approach provides us with a number of ideas.
For one, Frannie tells us that you don’t have to believe in the mantra when you start. All you need is to say the mantra; in the beginning, the words are good enough. Maybe the words really are so powerful that they overwrite other conflicting ideas. But are our attitudes so irrelevant? While we’re reciting the phrase, might it matter whether we believe in the words? In the mantra review described above, there’s no mention of any systematic attempts to control intention or belief.
Frannie also tells us that saying any name of god works. To her, religions around the world recite God's name and have all came to the same conclusion, it’s a spiritually-moving exercise. God’s clearly a flexible concept, it means different things to different religions and to different people. If a Jew and a Hindu both recite the name of a Hindu god, would it have the same effect? How important is the content of the mantra and how we interpret its meaning? The review described above doesn’t mention any attempts to control for meaning or content.
For most of Frannie’s arguments, there doesn’t seem to be a parallel in science. But there is one strange exception. A study conducted in the late ’90s suggested something kind of incredible. The results are completely unexpected to a western mind, and may have provided one of the first scientific clues on why certain mantras may be more effective than others.
An Unexpected Finding
“Om”, the sacred Hindu symbol is thought to have spiritually transformative powers. If it’s true, it’s kind of amazing that a deeply important part of our mind is so specifically tuned to a particular type of auditory input. But, of course, if it’s true - can syllables really be sacred? Can the auditory quality of a word or a phrase have transformative power independent of its meaning?
Well, look at music. Time and time again, pop-hit after hit deploys the same series of chords, and we just never get sick of it. Seriously, if you haven’t seen this video or something similar, have a look. We discovered long ago that there is a formula for making music that connects with people. If particular sequences of tones can be so deeply moving, might particular combinations of syllables be the same, independent of their meaning?
In the late ’90s, a study tried to address the issue by providing subjects with two mantras (Wolf, 2003). One group was told to recite the “Maha Mantra”. In fact, you probably know this mantra if you’ve ever heard George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord. As the story goes, this particular mantra, comprised solely of the names of three Hindu gods, has a power that lies in the sound of the words, rather than their meaning. In order to test this idea, researchers created a fake mantra using sorta similar-sounding syllables, but nonsense words, and without any significant order. And there’s one more critically important piece of information - none of the subjects in either group had any experience in eastern philosophy. Take a second and think about that. Hypothetically, the subjects in each group were reciting a mantra they didn’t understand. If there was a difference, that suggests something bordering on magical auditory properties of the words used in the real maha-mantra.
And well, amazingly, while both mantras effectively changed a range of emotional measures, the Maha-mantra was more effective than the fake mantra. Hypothetically, subjects in each condition were both reciting meaningless Vedic syllables, but nonetheless, subjects reciting the real mantra reported greater improvements in their emotional well being. Magic auditory properties? Maybe.
However, this study had two serious caveats; The first is George Harrison, and the second is the Internet. You’ve heard George Harrison's My Sweet Lord, cue the slide guitar and “I really want to know you, I really wanna see you lord, but it takes so long my lord... Hare Krishna, Hare Rama…”. The second half of the song features a chorus singing the Maha Mantra. This song has been covered by so many artists and features on Rolling Stones list of the top 500 songs of all time. All this means that maybe, in the back of some of these subjects minds, they were a little bit more familiar with the real mantra than with the fake one. So perhaps, people had some exposure to eastern philosophy after all. And, similarly, the internet. This study was conducted in the late ’90s. By the year 2000, over half of the U.S. population had internet access. Might some of the subjects have dialed up and asked Jeeves what their mantra meant? If we can’t be sure that subjects in the real mantra condition had no exposure to the Maha Mantra, we can’t be sure that the mantras auditory qualities, rather than its familiarity, was driving the effect.
Hare Krsna Hare Krsna
Krsna Krsna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare
J.D. Salinger’s Franny is considered by some to be his best work. The story is compelling because of so much more than the main characters interest in mantras. Her rejection of academic art and elite-institution-based-culture has real resonance in the age of Trump (no, this is not a Trump endorsement). But she’s also struggling with relatable personal issues, trying to find the confidence to be open with others and share her spiritual interests. But perhaps most compellingly, Frannie represents our desire to break loose of the shallow drudgery of everyday life in search of something deeper.
There is a piece of science that’s struggling in its own way find meaning. By conducting controlled experiments, science appears to be progressing towards a more thorough understanding of the causes of human emotional welfare. It might end up that many of the ancient systems people adhere to were right all along, meditation and prayer and daily devotion to something may be key components to the well-lived life.
But we can’t be sure quite yet. We can’t say with scientific confidence whether saying “Lord have mercy on me” would have a different effect than an Om chant or even attending Shabbat services or engaging in Islamic prayer five times per day.
Science will push on. If we’re wise, we’ll continue looking towards ancient traditions and taking advice from our modern literary sages, all the while applying a modern scientific lens. There’s so much value not just in understanding if mantras work, but why and how.
Review on Mantras
Lynch, Julie, et al. "Mantra meditation for mental health in the general population: A systematic review." European Journal of Integrative Medicine23 (2018): 101-108.
Randomized Controlled Trials on Mantras
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