The latter is unusual for its length. Mantras are generally short and therefore easy to remember, often as short as one word. Besides Breathe, I heard Courage (from a musician who has to get up onstage a lot) and Om. "That's a powerful mantra," a therapist named Francis Clifton says, "because it vibrates through your body and brings you back to the present. The mind can't distinguish between the thought of a catastrophe and the fact of a catastrophe. It reacts to both with stress. You'll think, What if I can't pay the rent? and even if you're just imagining the scenario, your body produces stress hormones." A mantra situates you in the moment. Clifton's own is complex, nearly as nuanced as a koan: Life is a mystery to be lived, not a puzzle to be solved.
It was fascinating to discover what people were telling themselves in the dark hours. A friend's husband, a big burly guy, repeated a line from Dune, the science fiction novel: Fear is the mind killer. "In the book," he says, "this kid has to put his hand in a box that creates the sensation of being burned, and if he pulls it out, he'll be killed," he said. "So he repeats, I shall not fear, fear is the mind killer till the imaginary pain passes." When I tried saying it, it made me laugh. Which did the trick.
A writer friend reminds herself to try to be the still point of the turning world, a phrase from T.S. Eliot. Another correspondent reports that she's gotten through, time and again, thanks to Eddie Murphy in Bowfinger: "Keep it together, keep it together, repeated very fast." One friend said she stole hers from "a guy who paddled the length of the river Niger and became, like, the seventh white guy in the history of history to do that: Onward ever, backward never." I loved that one, but as it kept repeating itself with a British accent, it didn't take.
One mantra came up far more than any other: This too shall pass. It felt too passive when I tried it, but for many women this idea gave strength and patience. Another friend tells herself, No matter how awful it all is, it's going to change. "It's still my mantra," she says and laughs. "But I wish I had Nothing ventured, nothing gained."
In fact, she could have both. Many people had a repertoire, a whole tool kit: What doesn't kill me makes me stronger.... It's always darkest before the dawn....When God shuts a door, he opens a window.... God grant me strength.... It's never really as bad as it seems.... When the fishermen can't get to sea, they fix their nets, etc. And the all-purpose, if you've lucked out parentally: What would my mother do?
The more mental coping skills you have, the more resilient you'll be—as I was reminded when I met a woman who exuded serenity. "My background is Catholic, so I use the Hail Mary a lot," she said. "But recently, when I had to have a hard conversation with my ex-husband and his wife, I tried the Serenity Prayer—God give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. They were trying to provoke me into battle so much, I forgot the words and ended up just squeaking, God...God...God. Didn't matter. It worked. I also like Be still, and know that I am God, from the Psalms, though it feels Buddhist to me since it's about being centered. And If we are facing in the right direction, all we have to do is keep walking." I loved that one, put it in my kit.
"Every time I'd get scared, I'd tell myself, 'There is a Plan and I'm being led.'"
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