Updated: Apr 9, 2021
A mantra is a word, sound or phrase we repeat to ourselves during the course of a meditation. It could be a meaningless syllable (Transcendental Meditation, Somatic Experiencing, etc), a word like "calm" or "relax," a phrase ("May all beings be free from suffering), a prayer, a verse.
When I was 24, I came across a book in the family library. I thumbed through the book. Dr. Peale invited readers to use mantras to condition the mind. Dr. Peale was a minister. My father and grandfather were ministers, so the content was not unfamiliar to me.
"With God, all things are possible." I knew the verse, but never considered using it as a mantra. If, according to his claims, repeating the verse had helped others overcome their obstacles and obtain their goals, why deny myself this gift? Why not experiment and verify the claim for myself?
I repeated it to myself over and over throughout the day, every day, as Dr. Peale had suggested. “With God, all things are possible.” It would become my mantra on my bike ride to Mexico. The idea to cycle to Mexico was planted by a dreadlocked cyclist I met at a stoplight. As we rode together, he told me he had raced from Los Angeles to Mexico. It was the kind of feat that fell outside the circle of what I thought was possible. I could cycle 7 miles to work, but 175 miles to Mexico? I wanted to do something like that. This stranger, whose name I never knew and whom I never thanked, gave me a gift and inspired thousands of miles of adventure which followed from that first trip.
This was my introduction to the power of mantra meditation, the repetition of a word, sound, or phrase to condition the mind. This practice transformed my mindset. I found it eminently practical.
When I took up kayaking, I would repeat my mantras on long paddles across the sea. With another mantra technique, recommended by Peale, I could empty the mind of fear, impatience, stress, or whatever was troubling it. I would repeat to myself over and over: “With God’s help, I am ridding my mind of anxiety…” until I felt my mind being emptied of fear. Then I would repeat: “My mind is empty of fear” until I believed this. Finally I would think: “With God’s help, I am filling my mind with confidence.” I repeated this until the mind was convinced. This was all I needed to correct my course.
The sea could be a hard and unforgiving taskmaster. A heavy sea could swallow me up, toss me, crush me, pummel me. The sea would undo the man who lacked a disciplined mind. With discipline, a man could check his anxieties or any other negative thoughts which siphoned off his energies. When you’re 8 miles out to sea, there aren’t many options. Paddle forward or paddle back, but, whatever you do, keep paddling. Tired? Can’t quit. Pain in your wrist? Better keep moving.
Whether paddling to the Channel Islands off the California coast, the smaller islands off of the Japanese archipelago, or the Elizabethan Islands in New England where I now live, I never left shore without my safety gear or my mantras. I found a disciplined mind to be indispensable.
Mantras are one tool to keep the mind anchored.
Hannes Lindermann, who had spent 200 days and nights alone at sea, wrote: “I had learned a great deal that could help castaways. I know that the mind succumbs before the body, that although lack of sleep, thirst and hunger weaken the body, it is the undisciplined mind that drives the castaway to panic and heedless action. He must learn command of himself and, of course, of his boat, which is his strongest and most resilient ally. Morale is the single most important factor in survival.”
Repetitive prayer is a variation of the mantra. Reaffirming our beliefs, repeating a verse over and over is a powerful technique. We "pray without ceasing." Hannes Lindermann called prayer “the invisible weapon of man, which brings him healing power and relaxation and renewed energy. Prayer, which brings hope and with hope, optimism and relaxation, is a powerful aid to self-mastery.” It’s enough for me that I believe it works. I pray and paddle, paddle and pray, repeating my mantras over and over- sometimes in the form of a word, sometimes in the form of a sentence, sometimes in the form of a prayer.
One weekend, I decided to paddle to Santa Cruz Island, 30 miles off the Santa Barbara coast. Halfway out, the winds began to stir and churn up the sea. Soon I was surrounded by whitecaps. Waves were breaking over my kayak. I worried and began paddling in desperation, but tired quickly. My muscles were tense, my breathing was shallow. Anxiety corrupted and siphoned off energy. I began to chant a mantra and timed it to the breath and paddle stroke. I breathed in “calm” on the inhalation and “strong” on the exhalation. Soon, I was in rhythm. My mind settled. My limbs relaxed. The muscles in my face softened. I assessed my situation with a calm mind. Although the wind had slowed me to 2 knots, I was still making progress and decided to continue paddling into the wind. Every thought, every stroke, every muscle was trained on getting me to shore. I paddled with my attention on my breath and strokes. My confidence invigorated me. I sang a haka to the winds. I would switch mantras in response to conditions. When the muscles would tire, for example, I might use words like "power" or "endurance." 8 hours later, I beached at Scorpion Anchorage.
As you continue on your life journey, you may encounter rough seas and contrary winds. To paraphrase Jim Rohn, don't wish it were easier, cultivate strength, courage, endurance, calm. Don't wish for fewer problems, develop the skill sets to meet your challenges.