Mantras

by Jeff Oaks

“Begin again” is my favorite mantras. It’s related to Beginner’s Mind from zen, that state of mind in which you attend to the world as if it were your first time seeing it. I like the “again” because for me it’s a signal that I’ve started over before (and so can do it again) and it’s humbling without being self-deprecating. It’s a way of saying to myself, usually at a moment of crisis or exhaustion, that here’s an opportunity to reconfigure my thinking.

A colleague I used to work with used to write “onward!” at the end of any email she sent that had bad or difficult news in it. It used to cheer me up. Her lesser version of it was “and so it goes,” which was less inspiring but captured in it a sense that even this difficulty was part of the usual course of things–that we don’t always get exactly what we want and yet that doesn’t mean we can’t get any of what we want. She usually did but that was because she thought in long stretches and was content in many ways to keep asking for a thing if she believed it was important.

“One thing at a time” was my mother’s mantra. She believed in the slow accrual of merit. She distrusted anything that came too quickly; things needed to be worked for, earned. Whenever I called her, feeling overwhelmed by life, she’d always help me prioritize the problems, dismissing some as things that didn’t need to be worried about, advising me which ones deserved attention. “What’s the most important thing you need to do? Do that first.”

If I were sick, she’d always tell me to rest first, but not too long. “Work helps” she’d say. My mother was enormously kind but not blind to the fact that, as a child, I often used feeling sick as a way to avoid doing what I should do. I lived in my head a little bit too much for her.

One of the useful things I gained from my years of therapy in the 90s and more recently the work of Eric Maisel, the creativity coach, is the need to examine the little mantras that one repeats over and over to one’s self. For years mine were cripplingly negative: “Well, of course, that didn’t work.” “Who did you think you were?” “There’s no point in sending that out; it will just be rejected like the others were.” Maisel was especially useful in helping me to reimagine those negative mantras into positive ones, and after a number of years, I’ve managed to replace most of the negative ones with ones that are not merely selfishly positive (“I’m the best person who ever lived!” or “The world can’t exist until I write about it!”) but convey a sense closer to “just do it!” although maybe not so plagued by corporate branding.

I’m also very attached to the saying from the Pirkei Avot,the Jewish Book of Principles: “It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” It’s not exactly a mantra but it’s in the same ballpark; it lowers the threshold of anxiety.

I’m at the beginning of a new term again, with a couple of stacks of papers already waiting for my perusal, a couple of book-length manuscripts of my own, and just recovering from some kind of infection that has turned my voice into a gravelly growl. I can feel the work of the term pulling me forward whether I want to go or not. I’m sitting in the seat, the safety bar has come down, I’m committed to the ride again, which I know will not be exactly the same as it’s ever been.

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