The Spiritual Message of a Little Table, and Some Mantra Research

By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | June 8, 2024

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a silhouette of a woman meditating

When I was a working as a yoga therapist at an independent living facility in Pennsylvania, I learned some essential lessons about healing. Probably the most important was that healing is as much about the spiritual as it is about the mental and physical. The facility was run by Quakers (which is probably why I was hired in the first place). They believed in a direct connection to the ineffable rather than hierarchies and intermediaries. They also believed in the importance of ethics in relationships, including treating others with equality, compassion, and respect.  

The staff (who were not all Quakers) were trained to respect each individual’s healing process and life’s end journey, including its spiritual aspects. And many of the Quaker residents helped to co-create a kind, nurturing environment.

One day, one of my clients, a 93-year-old named Frances, showed me a table outside her bedroom door.

“I realize that they are always rearranging the furniture around here,” she said, “but it’s no accident this little table turned up when it did. See, it’s a little inverted triangle with three shelves. It just showed up outside my door one day. So, I sat down on this chair next to it,” she said as she sat down, “so I could contemplate its meaning.”

“After a while, I began to understand. The bottom shelf is small, the middle shelf is a little bigger, but they’re both made of wood. They represent the body and the mind. The wood represents the idea that the capacity of the body and mind for healing are limited. But the third shelf on top is the biggest, and it’s made of glass. It represents the spirit, and this means that the capacity for the spirit to heal is limitless. That’s what this little table was trying to tell me,” she smiled.

I asked Frances how she came to this understanding, and she said, “Well, I sat here and I repeated a common Quaker saying, “Wait upon the Lord.” I sat here and I reminded myself to wait and wait, again and again. And then I began to see it and understand.”

I had heard Frances use that phrase many times and for me it seemed like a mantra to her. It summed up her direction connection to her Higher Self from which she gleaned the insight, wisdom, and sweetness that she shared with me over the years I knew her there.

concentric circles in the sand with 3 stacked rocks in the middle.

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Beginning in the 1960s, the idea of mantra has seeped into American consciousness and morphed into something different than its original definition. Now it means something like your passion, your goal, or even your joking way of referencing your idiosyncrasies.

I’ve been following the research on spirituality and health for about 15 years and it continues to grow. And yet the powers that be have mostly ignored spirituality as a major contributing factor to health and wellbeing – even though there is extensive empirical evidence linking spirituality to both individual and population health – research that has been undertaken and compiled by people like Harold Koenig at Duke University and Lisa Miller at Columbia, and many others.

Last month a researcher from UC Berkeley named Daniel Oman, published an article in The American Psychologist journal called, “What is Mantra? Guidance for Practitioners, Researchers, and Editors.”

A couple of things stood out for me.

First, this article is largely about defining terms and when researchers publish articles like this, it’s a good sign – it means that they are trying to establish clarity and consistency about the topic, lay the groundwork for further research, and encourage replication and comparison.

It means that the topic has some traction.

In this study, Oman argues that mantras have been used for centuries to support health and wellbeing in many cultures and have become increasingly popular in the modern world. However, one of the risks of this popularization is that the definition of mantra has dissipated. He writes that traditionally, “A mantra is a phrase or sound that has been repeated and sanctified over time within a spiritual tradition.”

And then he uses that definition to explain a theoretical and clinical foundation for how mantra repetition supports health and well-being more profoundly than the repetition of other, neutral sounds or phrases. (I think this may have implications for further research about using ancient, liturgical languages like Sanskrit or Latin for mantra and comparing their effectiveness to common languages).

a silhouette of a woman meditating

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Like mantra, other aspects of yoga practice, like āsana and prāṇāyāma, have been decontextualized in the west. They were originally intended to be components of a system. And, as with any system, if you yank one of its components out, not only do you diminish the potency of the component, you also collapse the system.

I love that a gold standard journal like The American Psychologist has published an article about mantra, but what I would love to see happen eventually is researchers and health care strategists starting to situate the practice of mantra repetition within the context of a broader, system-based yoga practice, and even within the context of a yogic approach to lifestyle – and then look at how it can actually be implemented as part of a public health strategy.

I realize that it’s difficult to translate systemic yoga practice from east to west, nevertheless, I think there is so much to be gained, individually and in terms of whole populations, from attempting that process.

I also realize that’s a big ask so in the meantime, I’m thrilled that anyone is talking about mantra as part of a public health strategy.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments!

 

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