I don’t formally practice mantra, but I have found that it sometimes arises spontaneously and has a powerful, crystalline “truthiness” to it. A word or a few can infuse my perspective with insight, humor or tenderness that helps shift my awareness and, ultimately, my actions.
My first spontaneous mantra came in the form of an inquiry in 1977. I was eight years old, lying on my bed an early summer day. I had pink curtains in my room and white bedroom furniture – a full matching set – and all my stuffed animals and favorite dolls around me on my bed. (We’d had a couple years of material plenty when my mom dated her then boyfriend, Oscar, and these things surrounding me were the remainders of that relationships.) I held a new toy and felt such longing for it, such love and enjoyment. And then my mind wandered to the future, and I suddenly realized that some day I would not have that toy anymore, and in fact I would probably forget that toy altogether (as I actually have). I felt sadness in that moment, and I wondered, “What lasts?”
“What lasts?” has continued to reverberate through my life. I discovered M. Scott Peck’s writing in The Road Less Traveled, and through that reading felt like “love” was a worthy line of my ongoing inquiry. If I were going to invest my life energy in something, it seemed that “love” might just be that thing that lasts. Thirty years later, I have no regrets regarding what has become a deepening and healing inquiry.
In recent years, as I’ve pursued healing for compulsive, addictive behaviors and for patterns in my life that are generally destructive to myself and others, I’ve found that another mantra has bubbled up, and I continue to find applications for it. “Just don’t make it worse,” arises over and over again.
It comes up around emotions and food a lot. I have uncomfortable emotions arise, emotions I never got skillful at holding or expressing in childhood, like fear, anger, longing, disappointment, resentment, even joy and hope. Generally speaking, all emotions! And I’ve worked for a long time (decades) to uncover what the feelings are and to know what to do with them. A beginning, after identifying that they exist, is to say to myself, “Just don’t make it worse, Lora.”
Am I angry? Don’t make it worse by burying it, denying it, being aggressive toward self or others. Just let it be what it is.
Is my body uncomfortable? Don’t make it worse by adding judgment (Is it cancer??? Am I hopelessly flawed?), or by tightening around it. Mind-body exercise is a great place to explore this phenomenon and the mantra. I find this arising in pigeon pose in yoga quite a bit: I and my students tighten our jaws and shoulders in response to the deep stretch in the hip. I’ve gotten laughs from my students when I mention this mantra because we all get such a deep and body-felt awareness of how ridiculous that added tension in the jaw, face and shoulders is to the discomfort we’re communally exploring in the hip.
Is there tension in a relationship or work? Don’t make it worse by avoiding the problem, adding projection or shame to it.
Am I happy about something? Don’t make it worse by rejecting the happiness; yes, the happiness will fade or shift, but it’s okay to feel it an enjoy it while it’s here.
The most recent mantra that arose from me is one that I hear in Tara Brach’s voice. Tara Brach is a meditation teacher who wrote Radical Acceptance, and she has audio recordings of meditations based on that material.
I was at the final retreat for my Engaged Mindfulness teacher training. I’d had a few days’ worth of meditation at one point, and I realized I had a lot of aggression arising. The story doesn’t matter, but the waves of aggression arose, and I decided to contemplate those waves and to meet them with Tara’s voice in my head that simply said, “Darling,” in response.
The inquiry went something like this:
I feel a desire to cause harm to another. Oh, Darling. Softening around that very human impulse.
I have felt that desire all my life, but directed it inward into self-harm. Darling. A loving mother’s stroking of my brow for all the suffering I experienced at my own hand and from the hand of those who did not have the skills to refrain from violence.
Shame, arising from these impulses. Darling. Shame is very painful, feeling it but not hardening against it.
Feeling the tender heart beneath the desire to lash out or suppress my longings for love and connection, longings that were met with rejection or even violence by others and myself. Darling. Your tender heart lies beneath it all.
Feeling deeply the trust that beneath the aggressive impulse in others lies the tender heart that has been wounded. Yes, Darling. Feeling the interconnection with others and our shared humanity.
I wept, and I found that in that simple word lay the balm for my wounds, the framework for how to hold my own experience, and even a healing for the relationship with my mother and my understanding of the generations of the deeply wounded women who went before me. None of us had mothers who could hold us in the way we needed to be held, either literally (violence being the norm in the family) or on a spiritual/emotional level.
When I find these words or questions or brief statements that speak so deeply to the nature of what ails me, inspires me, comforts me (sometimes I don’t even know what it is, but only that the statement has a resonance to it), I work with it: put it on paper to see in the course of the day; take it to the meditation cushion for the contemplation portion of my practice time; take it to the matt in yoga or stomp it out in hikes in the woods; share it with friends or students and enjoy the laugh of recognition. Like pebbles dropped in the water, the impact of these words fans out.