Mantras and I are becoming buds.
We’re not intimate like BFFL, best friends for life. But let’s just say I have a growing admiration for my newfound acquaintances. Like other early friendships, I’m just learning of their humble but potentially transformational qualities.
A mantra is an element of mental work consisting of repetitive sounds, syllables, words or phases. The real stuff is highly evolved and too complicated for me to understand fully, let alone explain. There are whole theses that have grown over the millennia that can give you the inside story. Joseph Campbell, the late anthropologist, has a whole PBS interview about "om" and the power of primitive mantras.
Like I said, mantras and I are not close. To demonstrate my “rookieness,” I go around saying, “There is a place for everything and everything in its place.” It is not earth-forming or star-shattering. It just helps me keep track of my wallet and keys and pager and phone, ear buds and pen and watch and ring and ID badge.
My machine-gun repetition is not a prayer but a defense against one. When I lose things I am invariably supplicating on my knees begging for help to find my wallet. There are certainly more profound repeated words of wisdom than the positive variation of “don’t lose your stuff.” Indubitably there are more worthwhile heavenly petitions. I’m starting out simple before moving on to the sublime and spiritual ecstasies.
Beyond mantras we talk to ourselves all the time. Mostly it is just chatter, but other moments it is sadly critical. If one hears self-belittlement enough, it becomes self-fulfilling. Instead of self-doubt or self-flogging, I suggest as a substitute “a place for everything and everything in its place.” First, you won’t feel so bad about yourself because the slogan replaces negativity. Besides, you will be less likely to think you are going senile because you won’t lose your keys as often.
However, it is not perfect. There was a study that shows that depressed folks who use proscribed self-motivating sayings often discount them. They don’t believe their own self-cheering. They think like the depressed donkey in Winnie the Pooh, Eeyore. “Everything is awful.” “It’s going to rain.” “You might as well not try.” However, if that animal took my advice about places for everything and everything in its place, he wouldn’t lose his tail so often that it needed to be pinned on him.
Repeating encouraging words could work a couple of ways. First, they are brief reminders. They help a person focus. Words are powerful. They promote attention. Words can overcome feelings. Maybe that was the problem with the disbelief of the depressed. The sayings are too grandiose.
Start simple. That is why many therapists and others of letters suggest writing in a journal. It can have historical value, but more importantly, it has personal worth.
Another way repetition helps us is that it is practice. If we say something positive enough times it may actually sink in. Putting words in the negative doesn’t work. Telling yourself, don’t be stupid, just encourages those brain cells that are.
When the body is breathing out it also sends a message to the brain that there is no immediate danger. If there were, we would be sucking in oxygen like mad to fuel our body’s escape. Slowly blowing out "om" is a simple sound of safety.
Many spiritual traditions have repetitive prayers aided by rosaries or prayer beads. There are shows on cable that permit the viewer to join in. The flow of constant thoughts blocks our anxieties.
Someday I hope to move beyond, “A place for everything and everything in its place.” I am considering adding to my repertoire “Ooh” or “Wow,” “Thank you” and “Love.” Others' "om" would be graduate level.
Create an affirming script for your mantra. In the meantime, could you help me find my wallet?
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for 30 years, and a hospitalist at Primary Children's Hospital and the University of Utah. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.