Thoughts from Annie
What Are Your Mantras?
When I was about seven years old, I spontaneously developed a mantra that allowed me to make it through any emotionally painful conversation with my parents. I would repeat to myself, “She’s not going to kill me” whenever I was being reprimanded by her. This mantra allowed me to stuff my feelings and avoid collapsing in tears or running to my room – either of which simply made her madder.
When I started studying yoga and mindfulness, I learned about the power of mantra. Repeating words – whether in Sanskrit or English – could have an effect on my thoughts, speech, and actions. Legend has it that Mathatma Ghandi was repeating the name of God when he died (though there is quite a bit of controversy over that today). Regardless, the idea of repeating the name of God as a mantra, is quite well established as a spiritual practice – from the Catholic practice of saying the rosary to the Vedic tradition of chanting mantra, called Kirtan.
Taming the mind is the first step in waking up. If we want to be able to see ourselves and the world, we have to first be able to bring our mind back to a safe harbor. Like our breath, or our steps, or our mantra. Once our mind is stabilized this way, we can more easily guide it to healing thoughts and feelings. When we aren’t in control of our minds, we can’t take even this first step.
In an article on mantra in Yoga Journal, one practitioner says this: “It’s almost as if these mantras start to feel like your friends—even lovers.” Hopefully we choose our friends and our lovers carefully, so shouldn’t we get to know the mantras that are unconsciously being repeated in our heads?
WHEN WE PRODUCE A THOUGHT, THAT THOUGHT CAN CHANGE US AND CAN CHANGE THE WORLD IN A GOOD WAY OR IN A BAD WAY. IF IT IS RIGHT THOUGHT, IF THAT THOUGHT IS PRODUCED IN LINE WITH RIGHT THINKING, THEN IT WILL HAVE A HEALING, NOURISHING EFFECT ON OUR BODY AND ON THE WORLD. JUST BY PRODUCING RIGHT THINKING YOU CAN CHANGE THE WORLD. YOU CAN MAKE THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE TO LIVE, OR YOU CAN TRANSFORM THE WORLD INTO HELL. — THICH NHAT HANH, DHARMA TALK, 2009
Most of our spontaneous mantras were created to keep us feeling physically and emotionally safe. Sometimes I hear my mind saying, “That’s s so annoying!” when someone cuts me off in traffic or someone hurts my feelings. Initially, that may have helped prevent me from punching someone in the face. But over time, mantras like these and the one I used when I was seven, cut us off from the present moment and keep us stuck in a cycle of negative thinking. Our mantras, even if we aren’t aware of them, affect our actions. Thoughts lead to speech and to actions, especially those thoughts that are repetitive.
So part of my practice is to do regular mantra inventories. What stories and mantras are being repeated in my mind over and over again? Sometimes I discover that I am repeating something about a particular person and my judgment of them — “I can’t trust them”, “They always say rude things”, etc. Many of my mantras are about me — “I’m too tired to do that”, “I did it wrong”, etc.
One way to work with our mantras is to replace the negative, imprisoning mantras with mantras that liberate us. The Buddha suggested the practice of “changing the peg”. Thich Nhat Hanh describes this practice in his book, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching:
“When a peg of wood is not the right size or is rotting or in disrepair, a carpenter will replace it by putting another peg on exactly the same spot and driving the new peg into the old one. If you have a mental formation arising that you consider to be unwholesome, one way to practice is to invite another mental formation to replace it. Many seeds in your store consciousness are wholesome and beautiful. Just breathe in and out and invite one of them to come up, and the other seed will go down. This is called “changing the peg.”
Instead of mentally repeating, “Get away!” when I feel nervous, I can replace these with the mantra, Breathing in, I know I am breathing in; Breathing out, I know I am breathing out. The new mantra allows me to stay present to the moment and learn what I can about the other person and myself. This mantra: Breathing in, I know I am breathing in; Breathing out, I know I am breathing out, is universally applicable. I find it to be a beneficial replacement to any of my usual thoughts.
If I’m in a hurry and I hit a red light, sometimes the mantra, “Shit! shit! shit!” arises. An alternate mantra might help me remember that nothing is really worth giving up my serenity, and frankly, there isn’t really anywhere to get to: Nowhere to go, Nothing to do. Or, I accept the things I cannot change. I know that rushing creates tightness and separation and that’s not how I want to live, but I can’t access a spacious world when the mantra takes over my brain. If we don’t consciously choose our mantras, they will choose us.
What are your mantras? Next time you notice you are feeling tense, tight, or reactive, check in to see what exactly you are telling yourself. Is that a mantra that you’ve developed to manage your fears? Is it really relevant and necessary for this moment? Try replacing it with a mantra that can help you stay grounded and let your mind settle. Connect it with your breath for greater impact. Breathing in, I am OK just as I am; Breathing out I smile to myself. Breathing in, I can accept all my feelings in this moment; Breathing out, I smile to my feelings in this moment.
Like our childhood clothing, we may have outgrown some of our mantras. Once we swap out the mantras that are too small for us, we gain the mental space needed to see ourselves and the world more clearly. Unburdened by those old repetitive thoughts, we are more often able make conscious choices about what we say and do. And that is freedom — freedom to live the life you have always wanted to live.