Friday, September 30, 2011
Year of the Mantra
I just recently finished another inspirational read: Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture. I still haven’t gotten around to actually watching the lecture, but I’d imagine it’s excellent. The premise of the book is that Carnegie-Mellon professors whose careers/contributions been have particularly noteworthy are asked to give a “last lecture,” a chance to answer the hypothetical question “if you were to give a last lecture, what would it be about?” Pausch—a computer science guy with terminal pancreatic cancer—certainly pulled no punches with his. The book is a detailed account of what went into making the speech, his family life, the lessons learned through his illness, and the values he holds dear among other topics. And while there were many memorable lines in the book, the one that has stuck out the most in my mind is both simple and profound:
Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.
As I’ve mentioned in previous letters, I believe that the battle for becoming the best of who we are—of maximizing our individual potential—is won in the mind. By taming the undisciplined mind, we become the architects of our dreams. We learn that we might not be able to control all of the external circumstances of our lives, but we do have much control over how we react to them. There are lots of ways to accomplish this acceptance, from meditation to cognitive behavioral therapy. But one way that most people often overlook is repetition.
Whether you’re talking about lifting weights, memorizing definitions, playing a musical instrument it takes practice, practice, practice. And what happens through practice, through repetition? We get better at whatever it is we are trying to improve. So why don’t we try to improve the way that we think? It’s easier than you’d suspect, NIP. All you need to do is create a mantra. In the traditional sense, a mantra is a short prayer that is repeated over and over until it becomes engrained in the fabric of one’s spirit. In a contemporary, slightly more secular sense, a mantra can be a short, affirmative statement that is repeated over and over until it becomes automatic in the mind. If you recall the letter “Gratitude for the Here and Now,” you may remember my gratitude mantra that I created around the time of my 35th birthday: I am grateful for this life, I am grateful for this day, I am grateful for this moment, I am grateful for this breath, I am grateful. Well, after repeating this to myself several times per day for more than a year, I can attest firsthand that it works. This mantra is usually the first thoughts to enter my mind when I wake in the morning. Then, when I get to my mat for yoga in the morning, I repeat it again during the first five dirgha breaths I take while standing in tadasana. And now that I’ve taught my students the dirgha breathing technique, I find myself repeating the mantra as each class starts. And the more I say it, the more I feel it inside and show it outside.
There’s lots of great research being done in the fields of cognitive science, neurology, and contemplative studies currently, and as our knowledge of the mind increases I think humanity will be able to unlock even further untapped potential. The mind is our most powerful ally in how we perceive ourselves and our world, but it can also be our greatest enemy if we let it run amok. By beginning with a mantra, we start small. But through the repetitive practice, we literally change our minds over time. Little by little, the thought makes itself manifest in our actions. These actions only reinforce the thought in a reciprocal process and before you know it becomes a part of you. So what will be your mantra, NIP? It doesn’t have to be 5 lines like mine, it can be just one if you’d like. What’s more important is that you choose something personal, perhaps a quality you want to cultivate or an affirmation of a goal you hope to accomplish. Whatever you choose you must then tell yourself with conviction, several times a day. If you are beginning or currently have a meditation practice, perhaps you could repeat your mantra as a focal point. It may take time before it becomes routine, but once it does it begins to take on a life of its own and before you know it you'll think and feel like a new person.
The benefits await, NIP!
P.S. – I would just like to make a blanket statement of “thank you” to all who read the previous letter and either emailed to express their condolences or wrote letters to family members. Life certainly has been crazy lately and I wish I could write more, but I needed to write this brief letter today to share my gratitude for all of you—my readers—for making this a worthy endeavor. As one of my students recently pointed out in an essay, “to help even one, single, solitary person” would be fulfilling—so I really appreciate the few who continue to find a source of strength in these letters. We are all ultimately in this life together—I’m just trying to do my part to pass on the little wisdom I have gained thus far in this incredible experience. Thanks again everyone…Namasté!