To get better at life, try this modern mantra

Dealing with a swirl of feelings.
Dealing with a swirl of feelings.
Image: Reuters/Clodagh Kilcoyne
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Life is trying. Every time you have something figured out, some other thing seems to fall apart. Even the best days are threatened with countless frustrations and irritations, while on bad ones we’re faced with disasters. And troubles have a clever way of coming in an array of new sizes and shapes, which means we can’t ever really master existence.

The best you can ever do is deal. And that is not always easy. Personally, I’d like to throw my hands up in despair and scream when things don’t go as hoped. But that’s not an effective response—I’m old enough to know now that my refusal to manage can only do more damage.

Instead, I have to trick myself into gaining perspective: A quick way to do this is by choosing a soothing mantra. Basically, I repeat a phrase until my feelings are less overwhelming and I can think straight without experiencing too much frustration.

I’ve got mantras for mornings when I don’t want to begin my morning and mantras for nights when my mind won’t let me sleep. But I recently found a particularly good phrase that works for pretty much any day and whatever comes my way: “Right now it’s like this.”

Repeat after me

In a May 3 article in the Buddhist publication Lion’s Roar, editor Sam Littlefair examines “modern mantras,” which he defines as “simple sayings that you can call upon at any time to foster equanimity, compassion, insight, or whatever the moment calls for.” He notes that, as Buddhism gains popularity in the West, practitioners are increasingly turning to sayings in their own languages to do the work of classic mantras, many of which originated in Sanskrit.

The word mantra comes from Sanskrit and literally means “mind tool” or instrument of thought. People have used these tools for thousands of years to quiet thinking, cultivate focus, and induce spiritual states. In truth, anyone can use them, and there is scientific proof they work, whether or not you are spiritually inclined.

In scientific terms, a mantra is a “prolonged repetitive verbal utterance.” Although these utterances are typically associated with spiritual practices, they work in other contexts.

For decades, neuroscientists have been studying the effects of mantra on the body and mind, and finding that belief isn’t the key to their efficacy. In a small 2015 study published in the journal of Brain Behavior, researchers studied the effects of these utterances on people without experience meditating. They found the repetition of a single word caused a significant shift in subjects’ brain activity, even more so than when they were in a resting state but uttered no mantra. Notably, the researchers found that the area of the brain most impacted by the activity of repeating a mantra is the Default Mode Network, which is associated with predicting and planning, internal evaluation, mind wandering, and rumination. Basically, repetitive utterances induce a state of psychological calm because they seem to chill out the part of your mind that’s especially self-involved.

In the study, which was conducted in Hebrew, the subjects repeated the word “one” or “echad.” No particular significance was attributed to the word, and yet it worked. That shows the utterance had a soothing effect regardless of the word’s meaning or meaninglessness.

Researchers studied the participants’ brain activity and breathing during the exercise, and compared the scans and respiration to participants’ physiological responses while in other states. They also asked the subjects how they felt afterward. Some people were bored but others said, “it was similar to the rest [period], just deeper, there were no thoughts”; and “it was more relaxed and easy compared to the rest period.”

Choosing to chill

Though a word’s meaning might not make a difference to its effect on the brain when used as a mantra, you can choose a phrase that is more tailored, like one of the modern mantras Littlefair recently highlighted.

For Buddhist teacher Vinny Ferraro, who has been training in insight meditation for more than two decades, the utterance of choice is, “Right now, it’s like this.” Ferraro teaches meditation to incarcerated youth. He believes the phrase resonates with his students because it acknowledges that life is hard, but it also allows the utterer to gain a bit of perspective.

Ferraro picked it up from one of his teachers, Luang Por Sumedho, a former US Navy medic who became the senior Western disciple of Thai forest meditation tradition of Theravada Buddhism. The mantra has become popular among English-speaking Buddhists. Ferraro explains its appeal in Lion’s Roar:

“Right now, it’s like this” is an invitation to explore what is present. At the same time, it clearly reassures us that impermanence is hard at work. So even though the mind threatens me with the idea that “it’s going to be like this forever,” this phrase helps me call bullshit on that. It helps me let go of the main message from the mind, “that something has to be done.”

Much of the time, our minds are in the past or in the future. We’re imagining how we think things should be or we’re thinking of what we could have done better to avoid a painful present.

What teachers like Ferraro try to convey to students (and to remember themselves) is that the present, while often frustrating, will change again, whether or not we do anything. In the interim, our efforts to plan and predict, our resistance to what is, are a source of pain in and of themselves. “I use it as a way into direct experience,” Ferraro says of the phrase. “Turning toward this simple truth, that ‘right now it’s like this.'”

Reality bites

We learn so many things in school, but the standard curriculum doesn’t cover simple tools for dealing with reality. This means that, as adults, we must develop ways to manage the fact that things won’t go as we planned or hoped. We must get comfortable with the idea that life is uncomfortable a lot of the time.

This truth doesn’t just apply to Buddhists. As Bridgewater hedge fund CEO Ray Dalio puts it, “[I’m] a hyperrealist, by which I mean someone who has discovered the great rewards of deeply understanding, accepting, and working with reality as it is, and not as I wish it would be.”

The first step to working with reality is accepting it, which is, admittedly, very difficult. “Right now it’s like this,” works as a mantra because it helps with that initial process. It doesn’t solve any practical problems. But it does get you into the right mental state to contemplate your situation calmly. It helps make you responsive, not reactive. This, in turn, makes it possible to deal, to find solutions later or to see that you may not need to do anything at all.

Try it and you just might find that you get a little better at life.