The term “brainwashing” has negative connotations, although our thinking, like physical things, can use an occasional rinse, too. Many of us have bad mental habits that could be improved.
We may ruminate excessively, dwelling unhealthily on the past or planning ahead. Or we might struggle in the face a new day, and then suffer again when we’ve made a mistake or encountered an obstacle along the way. Then, when we’re finally in bed again, we have problems sleeping because thinking about the things that happened or what still must be done makes it hard for the mind, and therefore the body, to rest. I am no exception, which is why I have taken it upon myself to wash my brain on regular occasions with mantras borrowed and invented.
The word “mantra” comes from Sanskrit and means “mind tool” or “thought instrument.” Scientists define a mantra as a “prolonged repetitive verbal utterance,” and they study them in spiritual and secular contexts to understand how these tools affect the brain. They’ve found that the repetition of just a single word can significantly shift brain activity even among individuals who profess no spirituality, most notably impacting the Default Mode Network, which is associated with predicting and planning, internal evaluation, mind wandering, and rumination.
Mantras then are a kind of healthy, self-imposed brainwashing that puts the brain in a calm state. They can be used whenever you need them, and—in my experience—you don’t even need to repeat them aloud for them to work.
Nor do they have to be especially meaningful or deep. You could even try a funny one. I recently adopted a phrase, which I repeat to myself whenever I’m feeling angst, that liberates me to power through the day and is taken—of all places–from the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, a 1971 psychological study that involved “jailing” student volunteers and keeping them under guard to measure the effect of perceived power on people.
Subjects of the Stanford study could escape voluntary incarceration simply by saying “I quit the experiment.” Now, I use that formulation whenever I need to escape the prison of my thinking. So, say I make a mistake in a story—which causes me great dismay and can prompt me to wince for weeks, months, even years after the error has been corrected. Now I force myself to move on by using this phrase.
It was not my invention but was suggested to me by fellow Quartz reporter Lila MacLellan, who wrote an email newsletter about the Stanford Prison Experiment and often endures my complaints and literary anguish. Because I thought her suggestion was so perceptive and amusing, when I use this mantra it not only soothes me but also makes me laugh. It helps me step out of the tunnel of struggle, observe that I am just torturing myself, and continue relatively unobstructed.
A timeless source of wisdom, and therefore possible mantras, is the Tao Te Ching, the Chinese philosophical text. It’s a terse and mysterious work that can be perplexing. But it’s replete with gems, and one of them is this bit, which is my truncated version of a stanza shortened to serve my purposes:
Cease to desire and be still and peace shall come to the empire of its own accord.
This is my morning mantra. Now you might think that ceasing to desire before the day even begins is no way to get going or to win. But I like it because it liberates me from expectations. It reminds me to focus on the things that need doing, my own responsibilities, instead of wasting time wishing for particular outcomes.
That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped wanting things or attained peace. Not at all. But repeating the formulation in the morning does mute the pernicious aspects of my ambition so that longing doesn’t get in the way of doing. It prevents me from being too hung up about what I imagine should happen rather than what’s actually going on.
The mantra I have been using longest is the one I repeat before going to sleep. This one is based on an explanation of the writings of the Taoist sage Chuang Tzu on presence, given by the British philosopher Alan Watts, who demystified Eastern philosophy for Westerners in the 20th century.
Watts gave lots of talks and wrote many books. I’ve been reading him since I was a teenager. But it wasn’t until I was in my thirties and starting to accumulate sorrows and trepidations that I turned his words into a personal, secular prayer, an abbreviation of his distillation of Chuang Tzu’s notion that illumination is available with every fresh breath and that enlightenment is as simple as presence. I hoped it would make me brave enough to keep trying to aim high despite knowing how failure and disappointment were inevitable.
Given the lofty goals of this mantra, it’s a little longer than the others. But I’m quite certain that it works, at least insofar as it soothes me enough to ensure I always fall asleep and wake up facing another day without getting mired in what was or will be. It goes like this:
No regrets for the past. No fear for the future. Letting life take its course without attempting to interfere with its changes and movements, neither prolonging pleasure nor hastening the departure of difficulties.
Just as some people repeat affirmations to boost their confidence, I use mantras to retrieve my calm, keep on what I believe is the right philosophical track, and maintain my perspective when I feel embarrassed, overwhelmed or frustrated. At this point, it’s second nature to me to repeat these utterances to myself whenever I’m getting distracted by a bad mental habit.
It’s my personal brainwashing technique—efficient, effective, and free. But you don’t need me to provide a mind tool that will work for you. Make up your own thought instruments and utter them whenever necessary. You’ll likely find life is a lot more pleasant and productive when you aren’t living in a dingy prison of cognition.