Like Darren Naish, a dedicated biologist who infrequently publishes entries on cryptozoology, I like dabbling in the fringes of scientific knowledge. So when I heard that Barb Bancroft visited the local hospital to give a seminar to health care professionals, and she alluded to a study identifying the effects of mantra meditation on hippocampal growth, I wanted to learn more. Barb emphasized that it doesn't matter what one says, it is simply the act of saying it. Now I don't know if this was the study she was talking about, but I found online Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of Hippocampal Activation During Silent Mantra Meditation. It is interesting, but hardly seems conclusive. I know folks who have chanted the Daimoku. Barb joked that repeating “haagen dazs” provided her with the most inspiration. Being of a more philosophical bias myself, I have been predisposed to ignore mantras, and gave more weight to Chan Buddhist shinkantaza meditation (which Kabat-Zinn has adapted to his MBSR program). Years ago, recording my observations of its effects provided the inspiration for content on my first blog.
If one is to use a mantra, how does one choose? I decided that the simple “Om” would be a good choice to try. After I got off work yesterday I looked up a few videos to get a feel for how to perform this mantra and while driving home I tried it. Surprisingly, I felt much more relaxed and focused. I think this is because when I hold the "om" sound for as long as I can before taking in the next breath, and repeating this over and over, I am essentially taking long slow deep breaths, which helps a person relax. From listening and trying this mantra, I have made a few interesting observations and analogies. Om is not a word in the sense that it has a correct spelling or meaning, it is simply a sound, and among words it is essentially onomatopoeia. The low pitch of human vocal chords reverberates in one's body and has the side effect of loosening phlegm (I am sick right now actually). In some ways it reminds me of the groan of a person in pain. But moreover it reminds me of the sound of a dijeridoo, a singing bowl, an aeolian harp, liturgical chanting (one of my favorite parts of the traditional Lutheran service), Tuvan throat singing, or a purring cat.