A mantra is a sound, syllable or group of words which, when recited, are regarded as capable of producing spiritual transformation (or so says Wiki). Actually, mantra is a word common in the eastern world and is itself made up of two words: man meaning "mind," and tra meaning "instrument." So, a mantra is "an instrument of the mind."
In eastern religions, and to a lesser degree in the mystical traditions of Christianity, meditators use mantras to center themselves and so bring health and wholeness to the inner self (or, greater unity between the mind, body and spirit). Benedictine monks regularly use scripture in this fashion. For example, they might recite in meditation over and over again the words, "The Lord is my shepherd" (from the 23rd Psalm).
In my own experience, I have made it an every-morning practice to meditate and recite the following mantras. This is the first time, however, I've actually written them down. This was itself a wonderful discipline.
In many respects, a New Year's Resolution is a kind of mantra. But, like mantras, resolutions must be practiced daily if you're serious about them becoming your way of living. Which is why, my first mantra is...
1. I will practice meditation every day.
This is no longer difficult. But, in the early days of becoming a meditator, it was extremely difficult to shut down the mind with its propensity to chatter almost incessantly. With persistence, however, and with time, my mind began to slowly shut down whenever I entered a state of meditation. Today, I would no more consider starting the day without first meditating than I would to go through a day without eating. Meditation is to my innermost self what food and nourishment is to the outer self, the body. Pema Chodron, the Buddhist monk, said, "We don't sit in meditation to become good meditators; we sit in meditation to become more awake in our lives." It is in meditating on the following mantras that the miracle of inner transformation takes place. I become that which I imagine. Or, in the slightly altered words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The antecedent to every behavior is a mantra." You are what you think about. So practice meditating on the following and see what happens.
2. I will be one with all that is.
Why? Because I am, in spite of the fact that the ego in me wants to regard itself as separate or, more accurately, distinct and different. The way some spiritual teachers put it is, "I am that; you are that; all this is that; and, that's all there is." What is meant by this is, since we are all the same, it would be helpful to practice seeing yourself not as separate from everyone and everything else but as one and the same. It is amazing what this sort of mindset does to your relationship to yourself, to others and to the environment. You are much more awake, alert and attentive to all things, as well as people, plants and animals. I used to love to hunt but I could no more hunt today, even as a sport, if I wanted to. I'm not saying this is the way it must be for all. But, for me, everything, as well as everyone, is becoming more and more sacred to me. I cannot help but feel the practice of meditation is changing my view of all things.
3. I will practice forgiveness, starting with myself.
Recently, an obituary in the newspaper referred to the deceased as a person who "lived with no regrets." For me, however, I could not imagine such a life. I have many regrets. Today, I'm 55. I regret not having taken better care of my health. I wish I had quit smoking sooner. Exercising longer. Eating healthier. Spending more time, or better quality time, and attention with my children. I have other regrets that are too personal to share with you or anyone else. Sometimes, the regrets become overwhelming. So, I have to practice the art of forgiving myself. What you do to yourself, you do to others. What you do to others, you will also do to yourself. These two sentences alone are enough to meditate upon this entire day. If you cannot forgive others, let that be a clue there's something in you that you haven't forgiven. Mark Twain once said, "Forgiveness is the fragrance the violet shed on the heel that crushed it." Words have never been more beautiful.
4. I will be kind, even when the impulse is to be right.
In the past, I have found myself in frequent arguments with my spouse or someone at work. It's not the problem today that it used to be, fortunately. And I think it has something to do with the practice of kindness, as well as the practice of meditation. I now realize, for example, when I've been in an argument in the past, it was nothing more than the ego in me feeling under threat and so lashing out or defending its illusory position or point of view. None of this is necessary and none of this is helpful. So, as someone once framed it, "If you have a choice of being right or being kind, practice choosing kind."
5. I will judge or criticize no one, not even myself.
So much of my unhappiness in the past has been the constant self-judgment, second-guessing that went on and on in my mind, almost without ever stopping. Again, you only ever do to others what you frequently do to yourself. What this means is this: whenever I meet a person who is constantly judging others or situations or criticizing others and complaining about how things are, I know I am meeting a person who has very little regard for himself or herself. Knowing this helps me to be more understanding and less judgmental. For me, I've learned that to overcome the habit of judgment-making, I have to practice awareness-enhancing. That is, when I catch myself judging others or some situation, I simply acknowledge the judgment in me. That's enough. In the early days of my spiritual practice, however, I would catch myself judging others and then turn that judgment in upon myself. That never helped much. Then, it wasn't one person or situation I was judging, but two -- the person or situation creating the upset in me and the self-judgment for being judgmental. Pretty insane way to live, if you ask me. Don't catch yourself judging others and then judge yourself by saying, "You idiot, there you go again judging others." Instead, just observe the judgment in yourself. The observation alone is enough to cause it to diminish and, eventually, to disappear.
6. I will resist nothing.
Practice the art of acceptance. The Buddha reminded us, "All suffering is resistance." In other words, whenever you feel discontent within -- or unhappiness or just an underlying feeling of unease -- meditate and go within. There is something in you, most likely, resisting something outside of you -- some circumstance, situation, person and so forth. See if you can identify what it is. Then, ask yourself, "Is there anything I can do to change this situation or make it better?" If there isn't, then practice acceptance. It takes practice but, if you can do nothing to change the situation, or remove yourself from whatever it is that is causing the inner upset, then acceptance is the only way to move beyond the suffering.
7. I will practice presence.
This is the secret to worry-free living. Learning to be present -- truly present -- in this moment is the greatest gift you could ever give yourself. I saw a woman interview recently on television. She has a rare form of cancer and her prognosis is not good (but, of course, this is a judgment I am making. How do I know what is a good or bad prognosis?). She has elected not to undergo additional treatment because the medical people are telling her that the cancer will eventually take her life in spite of their efforts to the contrary. In response, she said, "If I have learned anything from this illness, it is to treasure each moment of life. In other words, life for me is more like brief snapshots of the present moment and I take great pleasure in each snapshot, studying it carefully and living it fully." I was amazed as I listened to her. And then, it occurred to me: "Does it take going through a life-threatening illness to wake up to this present moment?" It need not. When you learn to live in the present, there is no worry or anxiety. It disappears. Worry is a thought with emotional and physical consequences. It's the price your emotions and body pay for thinking thoughts about the past you cannot change and the future that does not exist. The past is over. The future, whenever it does materialize, will materialize only as this present moment. So, live in this breath.
8. I will think about death every day.
This may seem the strangest of mantras. But really, it isn't. Death is not the opposite of life; it is the opposite of birth. Which means, just as you were born, you will die. All the great spiritual masters throughout history and in every tradition have taught us to contemplate death. It is only morbid to those who deny it is their REAL destiny. You were born to die. Death is not the consequence of the first couple's screw-up in the Garden of Eden. It wasn't God's punishment for their, or your, wrongdoing. God no more intended for you to live forever on this plane of existence than she did any of the other things or persons in creation. Life is preparation for death and whatever may be beyond it. So, think about death. It'll do two things: For one, it'll make how you live your life more meaningful; and, two, it'll make the way you face death less fearful. Leonardo de Vinci said, "All my life I've thought I was learning how to live; now I see I've really been learning how to die."
9. I will look for the synchronous events of life.
The late E. Kubler-Ross, who gave us the wonderful psychological insights into the "stages of grief," said just before her death, "There are no mistakes. All of life is a blessing given to us to learn from." Carl Jung coined the word "synchronicity," to refer to those "acausal connecting realities." In other words, Saint Paul said, "All things work together for good to those who chose God" (Rom. 8:28). Imagine the difference it would make to your daily life and happiness if you viewed everything that happens not as a conspiracy out to steal your joy but as "planned by One who has your best interest at heart" (A Course in Miracles). Look for the Divine in everything and everyone. When you do, then you can do the following...
10. I will be thankful for everything.
Gratitude, as I've written about extensively in The Giving Myths: Giving then Getting the Life You've Always Wanted, makes you generous, and generosity is not something God wants from you -- it's something God wants for you. Make it your practice to give every person you meet a gift. Could be as simple as a smile, a kind word, a handshake or greeting that is warm and personable. I try to live my life in such a way so as to view every person and situation that crosses the path of my daily journey as no accident.
So, whenever someone asks me for a dollar, I try to give them one, or two, or whatever I have available. I remember one day my daughter objecting, "But, Dad, how do you know that man won't go buy drugs with it?" I responded, "I don't. He might. That's the risk I'm willing to take to live from a place of thankfulness and generosity. If I am going to err, I wish to err on the side of grace."
Make these your mantras, or come up with your own. Then, meditate. In fact, if you have only one resolution this New Year's, make a resolution to meditate every day. Your mantras will manifest on their own and in their own good time. Blessed journey.