Sunday, 26 April 2015


Lately I've been thinking about mantra. It's on the long list of things on which I can't claim to be an expert... Honestly I've been in two minds about whether to write anything on this subject at all, because my first draft really was more like an essay (seriously, it even had references). But then I remembered this is a blog and not an academic exercise, and the whole point is that I write about things that actually mean something to me, and this does. So here goes.

My very basic understanding is that mantra is the use of words and phrases which are supposed to have sacred meaning or power; to aid concentration; to psychologically influence. Those who use it in a spiritual sense believe it can create an awareness which connects us to our inner self, although there seems to be some argument as to whether this is down to the specific words used or simply the thoughts behind them, but either way there is a very natural association with the practice of meditation.

I hadn't considered myself the meditating kind, but really anyone who has stopped to contemplate the beauty of life and nature and has found some peace through that contemplation - isn't that exactly what we were doing, in one way or another? It's just not that not everyone has a spiritual context for it.

I was recently in the Lake District and until I climbed some of those hills, until I looked out upon the vast rugged terrain and breathed in the fresh sea air, I had forgotten. I had forgotten how much I needed these moments of elation, this quiet but overwhelming glory. To find that actually, for someone so naturally verbose, I was out of words. For once I didn't actually want to describe, to quantify what was in front of me; I just wanted to take it in. I wanted to be part of it.

I think that mantra in the modern age for those of us without the cultural-historical references of its history has become equivalent to lifestyle wisdom, a proverb or a catchphrase. From 'lean in' to 'yes we can', a few well-intended words can easily become trite when too often used or without sufficient thought to their meaning - YOLO is a pretty classic example. You do only live once as far as science and most streams of philosophy go, but somewhere between being the modern-day 'carpe diem' and the life-endangering disasters that have filled up YouTube, clearly something was lost in translation. For this reason I have been trepidatious, bordering on cynical when it comes to the concept of mantra, because not only am I not sold on the spiritual element of it, but I feel like even if that does hold water, it's been hyped up and hijacked by diet programmes and politicians, and I just don't have time for words that have no meaning.

The thing is, I do believe that words have power. We've all heard 'the pen is mightier than the sword', and for those who would argue the toss think of how the philosophies which inspired the sword (i.e. all conflict) were disseminated: in writing, by word of mouth, through popular song and story. History, literature and religion are full of discussions of the influence words can have, for good or bad; it makes sense that humanity naturally accumulates these phrases, whatever we choose to call them, to help us make sense of our world and delineate our outlook on it. I suppose I've always been drawn to language because of the power of it, the way it can draw us from ourselves, can break apart or solidify our thoughts, feelings, decisions. In the same way those Lake District views stopped and centred me, the right words can bring to the surface the strength and resolve I need to tackle a challenge, while the wrong ones can reinforce negative patterns that make me self-destructive.

The important thing to remember is that we make the decision as to which words we allow to affect us; we choose what we accept as truth. Plenty of what we take in is subconscious and even instilled in childhood, so as an adult I am finding myself constantly in need of re-conditioning, as I become aware of what I've accepted that I shouldn't, or what I've misinterpreted. The key to this re-conditioning is awareness - I can't change something I don't recognise is wrong. And then of course there is the uncomfortable fact that actually, I probably can't change it by myself. Miss independent needs some help.

This is where my personal concept of mantra comes in, because I don't believe that I can simply be emptied of the negative. We fill ourselves up with whatever is around us; naturally like sponges we absorb from the people we know and the life we live and what we hear and watch and read. It's a deliberate and conscious effort therefore to pick and choose what to hold onto, but I know I need to if I'm going to become a better person, if I'm going to succeed at anything. So I look for what inspires and positively challenges me, and what I think is true, and I hold onto that - I repeat it, I have it on my phone or on my wall. I teach myself what I need to know, my mantra, and I try to live these. More posts to follow on what they are...