Have you ever been in a stressful situation (you know, like fighting cancer?!) and begun repeating a word or phrase to help you calm down or stay focused? You may have already tried a form of meditation called “mantram” repetition – and if it sounds fascinating, you may be eligible to participate in a study about it!
Why meditation? Because… STRESS!
“Being diagnosed with ovarian cancer is a life-changing event and for most women induces a high level of psychological stress,” explained Dr. Anne Reb at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. But that stress doesn’t disappear once treatment ends, and it’s common for stress to cause anxiety, sleep disturbances and somatic symptoms. “Going through this experience can be traumatic and may lead to decreased quality of life and fear of recurrence,” Dr. Reb added.
And being under a lot of stress is not healthy! “The chronic stress state is known to induce the sympathetic nervous system, lead to dysregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, alter the inflammatory state, as well as decrease cellular immunity,” Dr. Reb said.
That’s a jumble of medical terminology that distills down to a big, important message: We need to learn to manage our stress!
What is mantram?
Associate investigator Dr. Jill Bormann developed mantram meditation based on work by Eknath Easwaran, who founded the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation in Tomales, Calif. Dr. Bormann is overseeing the facilitators and intervention fidelity for the study.
Dr. Bormann said a mantram is a word of power, a deeper inner level of speech containing divine syllables or sounds that have been handed down for generations.
Now to take you back to your eighth grade social studies class: “Mantram” is a Sanskrit word meaning “to cross the mind,” and mantrams have spiritual associations (more on that, below).
Dr. Bormann explained when repeated silently, continually, throughout the day or night, mantram repetition may help a person:
- Focus attention
- Slow thinking for mental clarity, increased awareness
- Interrupt the stress response
- Produce a mental change in him- or herself
- Tap inner spiritual resources
- Transform consciousness
What is a Mantram Repetition Program (MRP)?
The MRP consists of three skills that can be practiced daily: (1) mantram repetition; (2) slowing down, and (3) one-pointed attention. “Mantram repetition” is the practice of repeating a short, self-selected sacred word or phrase representing the highest power we can conceive, whether we call it God, the ultimate reality, or the Self within.
As a mantram is repeated silently in the mind at any time or any place, over and over throughout the day or night, it serves to train attention for slowing down thoughts and improving concentration. Slowing down and one-pointed attention support the practice of mantram repetition and together, all three tools assist in raising one’s awareness of being in a hurry and multi-tasking. All three tools work together synergistically to help interrupt negative thoughts and bring us into the present moment.
Wait – is this religious?
Dr. Bormann explained the distinction between “religion” and “spirituality” regarding mantram repetition. “Some religious connotations/words/phrases [do] come from various faith traditions,” she explained, “however, there are also words and phrases that do not. For example, ‘Rama’ = meaning joy; ‘Shalom’ in Hebrew that means peace; ‘Om Shanti’ in Sanskrit also means peace. ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ is from Buddhism, which is not really a religion, but a philosophy.
“We do not promote any particular religion or belief system. We ask that people ‘come as you are,’ and bring whatever faith background they have or not.”
What if someone is agnostic or atheist?
“Then we recommend choosing a mantram that is not contradictory to their beliefs,” Dr. Bormann said. “In the earlier research done by Dr. Herbert Benson, he asked participants to simply repeat the number ‘one,’ so that is an option.
“However, throughout all cultures and all faith traditions, the concept or practice of ‘word repetition’ has shown benefits. We recommend from the list because of the historical traditions behind these words.” Dr. Bormann emphasized practicing mantram repetition isn’t about focusing on the meaning of the certain words but rather focusing on the sound of the words, to allow a calming effect.
About the study
Dr. Reb is looking for participants for a research study of women who have been diagnosed with Stage 3 or 4 ovarian cancer, have completed their primary treatment and have no clinical evidence of disease or disease recurrence.
“The study will teach you a spiritually based meditation practice with strategies to help interrupt negative thoughts and promote a tranquil state,” Dr. Reb said. “We’re hopeful that this and similar research will help women with ovarian cancer and provide some options to help them with their symptoms as they go through this experience.”
The study is internet-based. Participants must be willing to travel to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., three times over the course of the study.