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Cognitive Ease and Mantra Recitation


Recently, I was sitting on a train coming back home from Sydney Central and couldn’t help but overhear a conversation between a teenaged girl and her friend. I couldn’t quite grasp the details of the conversation, except for the fact that she was referring to another person she disliked. Judging by the tone of her voice and her facial expressions, she appeared to be a very angry. The interesting aspect of the entire conversation was that every sentence ended with the same words emphasizing her struggle: “It just sucks!” It seemed like an enduring mantra.

When introducing the concept of mantras and Amitabha Buddha name recitation to meditation groups and retreats, I am often asked if I really believe that the repetitive recitation of mantras has any effect. I think the problem with this question is that it assumes mantras are only employed in a spiritual context. That is a false assumption. In my many years as mental health educator and psychotherapist, I would lose count of the number of clients who lived their life with repetitive negative mantras: “I’m a total failure,” “I’m no good,” “I am stupid,” “Life is so difficult,” “I’m too fat,” “He destroys my life.” And let’s add one more to this never-ending list: “It just sucks!” Do these mantras have any impact? Yes, absolutely, and a very negative impact at that. Destructive thoughts given attention often enough quickly become part of one’s life, and a part that one believes in. In psychology we call this process cognitive ease. Cognitive ease occurs when a thought, phrase, or behaviour is repeated often enough that the mind becomes comfortable with it and believes that this thought or behaviour has truth.

Some years ago a young woman suffering from anxiety and panic attacks was referred to me. She became particularly panicked on the crowded commuter train going to work in the morning. In addition to helping her observe her irrational thoughts, I taught the young woman a very simple mantra to recite while on the train: “I can and I am,” inferring that she could overcome her panic and that by reciting the words she was actually doing it. You know what? It worked. She told me that reciting the sentence had a greater effect for her than trying to rationalize her thinking. That’s cognitive ease!

So back to the Pure Land meditation practice of reciting Amitabha Buddha’s name. As part of the recitation we also visualize the Buddha surrounded by golden light. This visualization adds further impact to establishing cognitive ease. It is a visualization that one associates with peace, light, tranquillity, and so on. Reciting the Buddha’s name gradually brings about cognitive ease and a belief that a new sense of comfort and well-being is being established. As the body-mind relaxes, this further reinforces the idea of peace and relaxation.

Of course, in our meditation practice we don’t need to actually say the words aloud: “Namo Amituo Fo” or simply “Amituo Fo.” We may, for example, simply think the mantra with each inhalation and exhalation while holding the visualization of Amitabha Buddha in mind. The effect is similar. This is particularly useful if you are in a public space.

So do mantras “work?” Certainly, as much as the neurological process of cognitive ease does. Are they life changing? Certainly, for those who have experienced life changes due to their meditation and mantra practice.

What is your mantra going to be? Incessant negative thoughts taking effect unconsciously and leading to unpleasant struggle and dis-ease? Or a mantra that brings peace, compassion, and a deep sense of well-being? I know what my mantra will be.

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