Occasionally, I came down with mantra envy. My friend Carol relies on There is a Plan—capital P—and I'm being led. I don't have the muscles yet to take the leaps of faith she does. I wish I did. "I believe our lives get richer when we give up control," she said. "Two years ago, the work I'd done dried up, and I decided what I really wanted was to build houses," though she'd never built a thing. "I was clueless, but I went out and bought property, then hired an architect. My goal was to sell two homes. Before we got the roofs on, we'd sold them and had two more buyers interested. Every time I'd get scared, I'd tell myself, There is a Plan and I'm being led."

I test-drove hers and—embarrassing to admit—lost my nerve when I was supposed to leap. But I ended up finding meaning in two mantras, one my friend Delphine's: There is a solution, a miraculous revelation for someone who's moaned "Maaaan!" for years. Computer won't print? There's a solution if you open the brochure that came with the thing. My other mantra came from a linguist, Alton Becker, a former Fulbright scholar who speaks five Asian languages. "A Vedantist uncle," he wrote, "heard me grumping about something and said, Remember, everyone's doing their best all the time." If it had come from anyone but Becker, I'd have dismissed it as a little too simple, but he's an extraordinary thinker. I tried it and found my life shifting into a much sweeter realm. People in this new place were softer, better intentioned. And even when they weren't, I was—which ultimately produced the same effect.

When the flame-haired older woman in my building, the one who always has a bitter word for everyone, got in the elevator and made a crack about our good-natured super, I remembered the mantra, smiled instead of glared. When a friend didn't mail me the article I really needed and that she'd said three times she'd send, I reminded myself she was doing her best—and saw, instantly, she was; she had two kids, a draining job, two facts I was forgetting. I tried doing his best when a cab driver with sparse English sped off down a route that wasn't the one I'd asked for—fortunately, because his way was faster.

I tried a bigger challenge. A friendship had inexplicably ended. I'd caught the friend, several times, making cutting remarks about me and e-mailed to ask what gives. He'd fired back an angry retort. That did it. I stewed. But I'd only ever been nice to that guy became my indignant mantra. Then I substituted the new one: "Guy did the best he could," I muttered—and was instantly freed from the tangle of emotion—though maybe not in the gentle, evolved way Becker's uncle intended. Hell, I immediately thought, if that's his best, who needs it? His best was more like the worst! And I was out of there. Delphine was right. There was a solution.

Katherine Russell Rich the author of Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language, her book about the year she spent in India learning Hindi.

Read an excerpt from Dreaming in Hindi

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